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Public lecture by Carl Djerassi, emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University



by Carl Djerassi, emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University

Most lectures at the Royal Society are presented by scientists and most of them describe what they do. I was no exception until about 20 years ago, when I started to focus on the culture and behavior of scientist, in other words on how we do it. Some aspects of that behavior are so tribal in nature that an insider of that tribe is probably the best source to illuminate such idiosyncrasy.
The drive to publish first, even the order of the authors and the choice of the journal; the collegiality and the brutal competition; grantsmanship; the still existing glass ceiling for women; Schadenfreude, even Nobel lust - these are the soul and baggage of contemporary science. To describe these to a wider public, including younger scientists, I have chosen two smuggling devices for such seemingly esoteric topics: the medium of fiction - through a tetralogy of science-in-fiction novels, where all the science and the scientists' behavior are real or at least plausible, in contrast to science fiction, where neither feature is required - and more recently also the theatre. In the process I address the question what, if any, relation exists between pure research and impure application or conduct?
Professor Carl Djerassi is one of the few American scientists to have been awarded both the National Medal of Science (for the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive - "the Pill") and the National Medal of Technology (for promoting new approaches to insect control). A member of the US National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as many foreign academies, Djerassi has received 20 honorary doctorates together with numerous other honors, such as the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry, the first Award for the Industrial Application of Science from the National Academy of Sciences, the Erasmus Medal of the Academia Europeae, the Perkin Medal of the Society for Chemical Industry, the Gold Medal of the American Institute of Chemists, and the American Chemical Society's highest award, the Priestley Medal.

For the past 20 years, he has turned to fiction writing, mostly in the genre of "science-in-fiction," whereby he illustrates, in the guise of realistic fiction, the human side of scientists and the personal conflicts faced by scientists in their quest for scientific knowledge, personal recognition, and financial rewards. In addition to his novels, his more recent work includes "science-in-theatre" plays, which have been widely staged in numerous languages around the World.

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