Although scientists would often like to be seen as collegial, they can be just as cut-throat as their cousins in the corporate world. And having published more than 1,200 scientific articles and been awarded dozens of prizes and doctorates, scientist Carl Djerassi must know a thing or two about these politics of science.
With his play Insufficiency, he experiments with a handful of humans from this sneaky world of lab coats and subterfuge. Djerassi’s goal, it seems, is to expose the apparently rational activities of science as deeply flawed and deeply human. He might achieve this – only just – but it is in a very cack-handed way. Insufficiency is like an drunk undergrad waving about a beaker brimming with some noxious concoction: unsure and annoying.
At the play’s core is a rather good mystery. It’s almost a locked-door ‘how-dunit’ worthy of Jonathan Creek’s time. The idea of a chemistry professor killing his colleagues with champagne bubbles, and exactly how he manages this, could be fun to unravel. But Djerassi lets it pass, focusing rather on the people involved – which isn’t a bad idea, given the temptation that a scientist-playwright might have to lecture. Instead, Djerassi knows the real drama is in how science is conducted. This is the great untold story of science: the politics within a university chemistry department and between researchers in the same field. Not to mention scientists’ inherent conflict: for science to progress, researchers must work together but for individuals’ careers to progress they must have their names at the top of the bill next to their work.
If this all sounds dry, you should look at Jocelyn Bell Burnell, whose work on pulsars is widely regarded as having missed out on a Nobel Prize because she is a woman; or how two men at the heart of government fought over the military’s adoption of the science of radar during the second world war.
You can’t look at these cases and say that the decisions in science are not political. And you can also not bother with Insufficiency.It’s a feeble attempt at dramatising these conflicts – the rational and the irrational. On the one hand, Djerassi’s protagonist refuses to publish his research, the mechanism on which science moves forward. His research is so unique it builds on the work of no one else, and he wants to protect it. Because he doesn’t build on other scientists’ work, it is almost impossible for his research to be as groundbreaking as Djerassi leads us to believe. Unlike in Einstein’s day, science is no longer driven by individuals working alone (1000 to 3000 people typically work on the breakthroughs emerging from Cern).
So Djerassi’s scientist’s position is so incredible in the modern science world, so outrageous, that it just doesn’t hold. That’s a core problem with this play, but may only be recognised by the few audience members familiar with how science works.
However, there are plenty of other problems that everyone can appreciate. First, a bum-numbingly slow opening 30 minutes that serves only to characterise the protagonist as the stereotypical renegade scientist, when a cardboard cut-out could have done just fine (Tim Dutton is very watchable in this role, though). Second, a court drama in which the prosecutor rests her case only on established motive and not evidence of wrongdoing. Third, the light-hearted acceptance of previously conscientious characters that they are implicit in two grave crimes. These are some of the worst offences, but there are many more.
Somewhere in this story there’s a strong play, a play that surprises and moves. At the moment, it’s hard to tell whether Djerassi has shoe-horned humans into his world of science, or science into his world of humans – but a play should feel like neither. Insufficiency is a belch of a play, and not in the good way.
Insufficiency by Carl Djerassi runs at Riverside until 20 October.
Photo courtesy of Sarah Sosiak.