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The history of the pill


The great dilemma within science
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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I think I’ve actually led you through all of chemistry, and I think the rest would take probably two years, and an elementary course in chemistry, before we could really go through it in detail, because what you really need is to learn the pictography of chemistry, and I’ve always used a very corny analogy, and explained why we have probably more trouble than almost anyone else in the ordinary sciences to make ourselves intelligible. I’m not talking about mathematicians, which is now completely different, but let’s say, in particular, biology and chemistry, if you compare the two. It would be like telling you... I want to tell you about the intricacies of old Chinese poetry. No, I could try and do it, in ordinary English, but that isn’t Chinese poetry, and I am talking about old Chinese poetry, not even modern, but even modern is bad enough. But first you'd have to learn Chinese. You’d first have to learn how to write Chinese, and that’s not an alphabet, it’s a pictography of Chinese, which is a monstrous... it’s not impossible, but how many people are willing to... adults, who don’t... are monolingual anyway, in America, and perhaps also in England, are willing to suddenly go to the trouble of learning Chinese, and learning a hell of a lot of Chinese, not just the ordinary pictography, because I want to teach them sophisticated poetry, and not really just to ask in Chinese, where the men’s room is, or something like this, but really some beautiful metaphors? Well, that’s what it is to try and explain the chemistry that turned me on, or perhaps even still turns me on, for which I need a language which is so complex that even most chemists don’t speak it any more, they only speak certain dialects in that language, and that is the horrible problem, that the difficulty in communicating, not just with the broad public, but even with each other, because we get so specialised, and we learn more and more in greater detail, about less and less. That I think is a great dilemma, probably an unsolvable one, within science, because more science has been created and discovered during the last 50 years, or perhaps even 30 years, than in the history of mankind. So how do you learn all that?

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.

Duration: 2 minutes, 40 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008