What is discovery? Why is it important to be first? These questions trouble the characters in Oxygen. The action alternates between 1777 and 2001, the Centenary of the Nobel Prize, when the Nobel Foundation decides to inaugurate a "retro-Nobel" Award for discoveries that preceded the establishment of the Prize in 1901. The Foundation thinks this will be easy. In the good old days, wasn't science done for science's sake? Wasn't discovery simple, pure, and unalloyed by controversy, priority claims, and hype?
The Nobel Committee decides to reward the discovery of Oxygen, since that launched the Chemical Revolution. Lavoisier is a natural choice. But what about Scheele? What about Priestley? Didn't they first discover oxygen? The play brings the candidates and their wives to 1777 Stockholm at the invitation of King Gustav III. Through the scientists' wives, in a sauna and elsewhere, we learn of their lives and those of their husbands. Meanwhile in 2001, the Nobel Committee argues about the conflicting claims of the three men.
The ethical issues around priority and discovery at the heart of of this play are as timely today as they were in 1777. As are the ironies of revolutions: Lavoisier, the chemical revolutionary, is a political conservative, who loses his life in the Jacobin terror. Priestley, the political radical, is a chemical conservative. And Scheele just wants to run his pharmacy. He, the first man on earth to make oxygen, got least credit for it. Will that situation be repaired 230 years after his discovery?
Part of a feature story on Carl Djerassi: "It is 50 years since Carl Djerassi invented the contraceptive pill... and changed human behaviour for good. He has not stood still since... His latest work... a play called... "Oxygen"... examines the nature of achievement and accolades." (The Economist Technology Quarterly, June 23, 2001)
Part of the information regarding the ACS meeting on the editor's page: "If you are one of those lucky chemists going to San Diego, be sure to... see on of the performances of the world premiere of "Oxygen"... If you're not coming,... you might want to read the play, which is being published by Wiley-VCH." (Chemical and Engineering News, March 5, 2001)
"...the mere existence of the play is to be applauded, and the authors congratulated." (Education in Chemistry, November 2001)
"The play works very well." (The Lancet, 17 November 2001)
"Oxygen is an important stage in the move towards a more inclusive form of education and plays testimony to the power of theatre to open up the possibility of an interdisciplinary way of viewing the world." (Irish Times, 23 November 2001)
As the play's cover notes declare, 'the ethical issues around priority and discovery at the heart of this play are as timely today as they were in 1777'...Harold Varmus, Nobel Prize in Medicine, comments ‘With wit, scholarship, and stage craftsmanship, Oxygen shows us how much scientists have learned about the world and how little they have changed.'" (Advanced Materials & Processes, July 2001)
"The book of the play is stylishly produced.... If you have not seen the play, I thoroughly commend the book to you." (Interdisciplinary Science Review, Vol.27, No.1, 2002)
"...We give Oxygen, an enjoyable, engrossing, and above all provocative and thought-provoking play and enthusiastic two thumbs up."(The Chemical Educator, Vol.8, No.2, 2003)
"In their play "Oxygen," chemists Djerassi and Hoffmann successfully employ ingenious dramatic devices to explore the multiple facets of the process of scientific discovery and to tell the fascinating stories of the men who made the "chemicl revolution" and of their wives as well."
Murray Gell-Mann (Nobel laureate of Physics)
"A play that burns more brightly than its subject: the complexity of the most human theme in science. What is the nature of greatness? And whom do we honor: the one who made it first, who published it first, or who understood it first? Three eminent men and three indispensable women--with their modern counterparts forced to judge. But Djerassi and Hoffmann teach us that only we can judge this question without an answer, but filled with probing insights into the nature of our lives, our loves, and our accomplishments."
Stephen Jay (Evolutionary biologist, palaeontologist and best-selling author)
The authors, two of the world's best chemists, have teamed up to take advantage of an impending, real historical event, the centenary of the Nobel Prizes, to create a fascinating, imaginary encounter in 1777 between three of the best chemists in history---the contenders for the discovery of oxygen---as they are considered more than two hundred years later for the first "Retro-Nobel." With a winning mixture of wit, scholarship, and stage craftsmanship, Carl Djerassi
and Roald Hoffman show us how much scientists have learned about the world and how little they have changed, as the complex process of discovery is revealed as a genuinely human and social endeavor with timeless qualities.
Harold Varmus (Nobel laureate of Medicine)
This play is about scientists and science history, but also about the much broader question of the nature of discovery: is it finding a tree or seeing the forest?
Jean-Marie Lehn (Nobel laureate of Chemistry)