“Priority, politics and passion,” promised a promotional poster for last week’s staging of a new play about scientific discovery. Oxygen, which made its Canadian premiere last week at U of T, was produced by the Institute of the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology in celebration of its 35th anniversary.
With the discovery of oxygen in the 18th century as its focus, the play weaves a tale that questions the nature of scientific discovery and the desire of scientists for recognition as innovators.
The story alternates between the fictional meetings of a 2001 Nobel Prize committee, convened to award the first “retro-Nobel” for work done prior to the 20th century, and a 1777 meeting of the three scientists (and their wives) now recognized as the major participants in the discovery of oxygen. Although it’s unlikely Lavoisier, Scheele and Priestley are household names, their roles in the discovery of oxygen form the basis of modern-day chemistry.
Who is the discoverer of oxygen? Although Scheele (Swedish) and Priestley (English) are thought to have independently discovered the gas, they understood their findings in terms of the now-rejected phlogiston theory of combustion; phlogiston was thought to be the key to fire, released when anything burns or rusts.
It was the work of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier and his wife Marie, subsequent to the discoveries by Priestley and Scheele, that introduced the modern notion of combustion with the idea that a special gas (oxygen) is consumed when things burn.
The problem is this: would Lavoisier have tied his theory together if he had not known about the earlier work of Scheele and Priestley? Should those two get credit for discovering something they didn’t actually understand?
In Oxygen, as members of the 2001 Nobel committee debate, the audience learns that contention over priority in discovery and recognition are still divisive.
Another layer of the story follows the important role of the scientists’ spouses. As Dr. Bensaude-Vincet from the University of Paris X noted during a symposium after the last performance, beyond Madame Lavoisier’s direct scientific contributions, her insight into the importance of communicating one’s discovery is of crucial significance.
The play’s two distinguished chemist-playwrights were in attendance for the opening. Carl Djerassi, who has written several novels and plays, was the first scientist to synthesize an oral contraceptive (the Pill). He received a National Medal of Science for his work. Roald Hoffman was awarded the 1981 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on the process of chemical reactions and has published several books of poetry.
Djerassi, who coined the term “science in fiction,” said the format of the play allows him “to smuggle science into the minds of people.”
And what about the discovery of oxygen? The play ends inconclusively. Audience members were asked to vote on who should get credit.
While Oxygen tackles many thought-provoking ideas, this scientist thinks it is neatly summed up in this line from the play: “The product of science is knowledge …but the product of scientists is reputation.”