pierre laszlo

Foreword to NO
a play by Carl Djerassi and Pierre Laszlo

Science Theatre in the Classroom

It is recognized universally that the gulf between the sciences and the other cultural worlds of the humanities and social sciences is increasingly widening and that any attempt to narrow it should be welcomed. “Pedagogic wordplays” constitute a novel attempt along those lines.

In our formal written discourse, we scientists never use the dialogic form—in fact we are not permitted to use it. Yet pedagogically, dialog is frequently much more accessible and—let us be frank—also more entertaining. The purest dialogic form of literature, of course, is drama. And while until just a few years ago virtually no science has found a place in modern theatre, the situation is gradually changing as evidenced by the appearance during the past half dozen years of a number of “science-in-theatre” plays that have made it to the commercial stage (including three by one of the present authors). But people go to the theatre to be entertained and any pedagogic motive must be downplayed, if not totally hidden, to ensure that such plays are accepted on their theatrical merits.


That restriction obviously does not apply to the classroom, but on the other hand, to be used widely, the operational aspects must be extremely simple so as not to involve expensive or time-consuming preparations. Pedagogic “wordplays” that are meant to be read aloud rather than learned by heart are a possible solution; and if packaged within the time-constraints of a standard school lecture, they can easily be inserted into almost any high school or college/university lecture curriculum. And by including all audiovisual material in a CD ROM accompanying the text, the operational aspects are simplified to an enormous extent as they then require only suitable projection equipment, which is available in most classrooms.

The first such pedagogic wordplay for two voices, ICSI—Sex in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, focused on recent advances in reproductive biology and thus was envisaged primarily for an audience interested in biological or ethical/moral issues. The contents were presented in the form of a staged reading of a simulated TV interview—a form of “Wortgefecht”—by two persons using audiovisuals consisting of slides and a short video. Its main purpose was to stimulate active debate by the audience around the ethical issues created by the proposition that in the future, fertile couples will start to use the techniques of assisted reproduction for having children. For classroom settings, it was recommended that the roles of the two characters be read by student volunteers rather than the teacher/lecturer and other adult. Ideally, the teacher’s function should be minimal and focus on facilitating the subsequent discussion on the part of students.

These recommendations also apply to the present wordplay, NO, which is structured for three voices and does so in the guise of a discussion on how to raise money for a “hot” research topic—in this instance the biological applications of nitric oxide (NO). We chose the research grant discussion, because we felt that it would also be useful for students to be exposed to an increasingly vexing aspect of contemporary research: the quest for money to support research and the possible compromises that sometimes accompany such search for funds. But why did we pick nitric oxide as the scientific topic?

We are both chemists and hence wanted to select a chemical topic for this wordplay, which at the same time demonstrates the central role of our discipline in the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of most contemporary research with practical applications. We decided to pick an extremely “hot topic” (consider that no less than two Nobel Prizes were awarded for research in this field within four years!) with enormous biological applications, that has resulted in the appearance of many thousands of research papers during the past dozen years, including even specialized journals specifically dedicated to Nitric Oxide. Indeed, we had so much material to choose from that, at times, we had heated discussions between us as to precisely which topics to include or leave out. And while the chemistry seems simple, the underlying biochemistry is more complex. Knowledge of that underlying science is essential if one wishes to truly understand how such an exceedingly simple molecule can produce such an amazing array of different biological effects in the body. No wonder that we start our presentation with the question, “For instance, would you like to find out how Viagra works?” If your answer is “yes!” then you must look to NO for an explanation.

While presentation of the material in a class or lecture through the reading performance of three students is clearly attractive, we see a wider use of our paperback, which is another reason why it is made available within a single volume in three languages. We feel strongly that our pedagogic wordplay can also be used as a “book”—to be read by the reader in private at the reader’s leisure and pace—with continuous reference to the audiovisual material that is included in the CD ROM. Why insist that reading material in science must always be limited entirely to a monologist style? Why not benefit from the intrinsic human element of a dialog, or even trialog?

Human element? The play, for didactic reasons, focusses rather on the science. And yet, it pulses with the human factor. Sometimes, we wished we had been able to make it our topic and show how young women and young men, men and women young in spirit, do science. We would have loved to show how this activity, one of the noblest creations by mankind, far from being cut and dry, is hot, controversed, fueled with sweat and tears, and ultimately intensely humane. This will have to be for another time.