Though famed for his synthesis of the birth control pill and his lifetime of scientific accomplishment, Stanford University chemistry professor Carl Djerassi spoke in McCosh 50 last night not of his research but of his new work as a novelist.
"Now I'm a novelist and a playwright who still is a professor of chemistry at Stanford," Djerassi said of his wide-ranging career .
During the lecture — titled "Noble Science and Nobel Lust: Disclosing Tribal Secrets" — Djerassi discussed themes in several of his novels, and in particular explored his portrayal of the passionate drive of research scientists for peer approval and name recognition.
Djerassi said the "Nobel lust" of the "egocentric scientist" was not merely a desire for the Nobel Prize, but more generally for acknowledgment from peers. "I do not necessarily mean lust for the Nobel Prize," he said. "It is lust for recognition."
Djerassi contrasted this scientific culture of competitiveness with that found in other fields such as writing. He said writers tend not to exhibit the same need for recognition, citing their use of assumed names and referring in particular to Eric Blair — better known as novelist George Orwell. "[Writers] have no problem being famous in another name because it is their work that counts," he said. "Why is that not so with scientists?"
In an interview after the lecture, Djerassi emphasized that he criticizes the scientific field in his writing from an insider's perspective. "Everything I describe that may be mistakes or falls [in the field], I commit too," he said.
Djerassi said the issues he writes about are real ones in the scientific world. Several times he noted that his work is "science in fiction, not science fiction."
"Black and white problems are of no interest," Djerassi added. "We're talking about the many, much more complex problems, the gray ones."
Djerassi's lecture also examined the role of female scientists' need for recognition — a topic he said was a recurring theme in his novels. Citing the low numbers of women serving as chemistry and physics department heads at leading research universities, Djerassi spoke of the struggles female research scientists face to find success in their field while also dealing with the time commitments of motherhood.
The lecture also included a discussion of reproductive biology, a topic that Djerassi said he has always found interesting. Addressing the students in the audience, he described changes that would take place in their lifetimes, especially the separation of sex and fertilization.
In addition to his five novels, Djerassi is also the author of several poems and short stories, a collection of essays, a scientific autobiography titled "Steroids Made it Possible" and his collected memoirs titled "The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse." He also is writing a trilogy of "science-in-theater" plays.
A graduate of Kenyon College with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, Djerassi has held his position at Stanford since 1959.