Chemist Who Helped Invent Birth-Control Pill Also Pioneered Novels About Science

Illustration for article titled Chemist Who Helped Invent Birth-Control Pill Also Pioneered Novels About Science

Carl Djerassi, the chemist who helped invent the birth-control pill in 1951, has spent the past couple of decades crafting a new type of literature, which he calls "science-in-fiction." It's not science fiction, it's fiction about science.


In a new interview with the Stanford Daily, Djerassi explains that he started writing novels in 1983 when his girlfriend, English Professor Diane Middlebrook, left him. He poured his rage into a 383 page novel about her. When they finally reunited a year later and got married, she read his novel and told him, "You know, it's not really very good." But she helped him improve his writing, and he started creating novels about the lives of scientists and the scientific process. (Middlebrook died in 2007, sadly.) More recently, Djerassi has graduated to writing plays, also about science.

He tells the Stanford Daily:

"I realized that if I wanted my ideas to reach a wider audience, doing it through scientific articles would get me nowhere," he said. "I wanted to talk to the 99 percent of people who are not just anti-scientific; they're ascientific–or afraid of it."

This gave birth to "science-in-fiction"–which, he emphasizes, is very different from "science fiction"–a genre that uses fictional forms to analyze the ethical, moral and personal dilemmas that often arise in the "tribal culture" of science, as he characterizes it.

After his success with novels, he moved to "science-in-fiction" drama around 2000 after being inspired by a similar scientific play. He prefers drama because of the ever-evolving nature of a play: even after it has been published as a script, everyone interprets it differently, giving it new life.

But the overlap between science and literature remains scant, and Djerassi is painfully aware of this.

"I'm really sitting between two schools," he said. "To the literary establishment, I'm still the outsider chemist who's sticking his nose in a field that's not his business. And to the chemists, I'm wasting my time."


[Stanford Daily]

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It's an interesting genre. Similar authors are Simon Mawer (whose Mendel's Dwarf is one of the best books about genetics I've read) and Richard Powers.