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My interest in artists who cross two boundaries


Memorable Pugwash Conferences
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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It was held in Ronneby. Ronneby is in southern Sweden, maybe an hour’s drive from Malmö, which is on the border between Denmark, just across the water from Copenhagen. And that was an extraordinary day. It was the day on which... I’ll never forget it, Sweden decided to switch from left-hand driving to right-hand driving. They were like the Brits, and they were the last country, other than the UK that drove on what we call the wrong side of the road. Now, to try and switch that is really pretty tough. I mean you realise people... you say at midnight of the day you drive on the other side. Well, you know, what about the person who just... whose watch goes slow, or they’ve just had a drink, or something like that. Anyway... so they actually decided for 24 hours to have no traffic whatsoever in all of Sweden, and that was the day on which we arrived there... all the delegates. Now, that was really quite amusing, and I remember some Israelis who’d arrived by air, in Stockholm. I arrived from Copenhagen, across from Malmö, where a bus met us. You know, it's not a huge conference, it was one of the bigger ones. Every five years they have a bigger one. This was a quinquennial one, but still they had maybe 150 people, or something like that. And all the people who came from Copenhagen then crossed to Malmö, and then took a bus. That bus drove 25 mph and had a police car in front and back, and there were no other cars on the roads, so I don’t know what they got so excited about, but anyway. We had no problem, we were prepared for this. But then there were some Israelis who flew in from... to Stockholm... didn’t know about it, and said they got out there and they thought, war had broken out, you know, you can imagine in a city, absolutely not... there’s no traffic moving, I mean in a major city. And so that was the Ronneby conference.

And the reason why I was invited to it was they decided for the first time to add north-south agenda to it, and I decided to... that was my paper, based on my experience in Brazil, and Mexico, and Africa, and so on, and that was a very successful one. And then I was invited and went every year, for about 20 years, because Pugwash then, more and more dealt with these. And in 1969 I actually wrote one of the most important papers I’ve ever published, of 1000 or something papers, and it was called Birth Control after 1984, which was a prediction of the direction in which birth control might go, or will go, should or should not go, unless we make certain policy decisions in the developed countries, which were never made and this is why, in fact, we do so little research now, and it’s one of these, I was proved right, but I’m very sorry I was proved right, I wish I was wrong... I had been wrong.

And that was in Sochi, in the Soviet Union, on the Black Sea, so that was a very unusual place, because that’s not a subject that was very much discussed in the Soviet Union at that time, and that also was a very successful one. And I learned a lot during those conferences, because for instance, the one in the Soviet Union, this was during the height of the Nigerian Civil War. I mean it was a slaughter, and yet the two sides, the Igbo, and the I forgot... the Hausa, or whoever it was, literally... some of them managed to get to Sochi, which is extraordinary, and there these two warring tribes met together and really spoke. And then a little bit later, at one of the Pugwash conferences, first in Austria, and then in Munich, and in other places, I witnessed, really the discussion between Arabs and PLO people, and Egyptians and Israelis, just as an example of this here.

And so I was involved for quite a number of years with this, and the last time I actually went... next to last time, was in 1982, when I really discontinued... that was in Warsaw. I discontinued because I really felt I had other priorities, I had so many other things to do, and I felt that to me the utility of Pugwash, well not exhausted, is much less important, because there are so many other ways now of having communications. I mean there was no need... I’m not even talking about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even before then there were so many means of communicating by that time between Russia and the other eastern European countries, and the west, you didn’t need special places like Pugwash. In fact, they were, in some respects too private and too clumsy, so I stopped. But that was an extraordinary conference in 1982, because it was the first time in my life I was really gassed. It was tear gas, because that was the second anniversary of the Solidarity Movement, and there were some giant protests. At that time Poland was very communist, Stalinist communist, and a little of the conference was held just during the anniversary, and the Solidarity Movement had threatened to have some giant, sort of, protest, and the Pugwash people, the organisers, the Polish organisers, and the government were, of course, very concerned, and they’d arranged a tour that day to Copernicus’ birthplace, or something, I don’t know. Well, this is 100 miles away from Warsaw, so everyone was taken on this tourist trip to Warsaw, because during the week of Pugwash normally there was always one day, or half a day, of some social occasion. Well, they made that one the one. And I decided not to do this, and stayed behind, and got... didn’t want to get involved, but I ended up in really pretty hair raising... and being chased by, you know, water cannons, and police in gas masks, and so on, so that quite an experience. And that was my next to last one. Then I went to a Pugwash Conference, maybe 15 years later, in Norway, which was sort of, reminiscing, but I’d lost my own... not taste for it, because that would be unfair, but I think it was déjà vu for me.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Pugwash Conferences, Birth control, Sochi, Solidarity Movement, Warsaw, Nicolaus Copernicus

Duration: 6 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008