What a bad apple Newton was

A scientist's dramatisation reaches the parts other playwrights cannot reach

By Charlotte Cripps

28 July 2004

Where do you turn your attention after causing a revolution in sexual mores? Professor Carl Djerassi is most famous for inventing the contraceptive pill, in 1951, but the latter part of the scientist's career has been spent as a playwright. His new play Calculus, which premieres in London tonight, examines an ignoble episode in the life of Sir Isaac Newton.

Now in his eighties, Djerassi lives for part of the year in Maida Vale, west London, and the rest of the time at the artists' colony on his ranch in California that he founded 25 years ago. Previous guests have included Vikram Seth, who worked there on his novel The Golden Gate, the British sculptor David Nash and the composer John Adams. "Over the years, there have been more than 1,400 artists working at my colony," Djerassi says.

Having written a number of "science-in-fiction" books, including Cantor's Dilemma (about trust between scientific colleagues) and NO (about Viagra), Djerassi found he enjoyed writing dialogue. "I moved from writing fiction to play-writing because we scientists are never permitted to use dialogue in our work. That is why I am particularly interested in using this format to talk about science, scientific culture and scientists."

His first play, An Immaculate Conception, is about artificial insemination. Then came Oxygen, co-written with the Nobel laureate chemist Roald Hoffmann, which looks at the culture and behaviour of chemists through the eyes of the Nobel prize committee. His first non-scientific play, Three on a Couch, features a writer who fakes suicide so that he can read his own obituary. It was recently staged at the King's Head Theatre, London.

Calculus concerns the misbehaviour of Sir Isaac Newton, who accused his German rival Leibniz of plagiarism. In 1712, the Royal Society set up a commission to investigate Newton's claim. "It is a great scandal in science history," Djerassi says of the events, which took him two years to research. "I had two of my best students at Stanford University, California, to help me. I became obsessed."

The story - "about a moral calculus, rather than a mathematical calculus" - is told through the eyes of the 11 Royal Society Fellows who have to adjudicate. "I wanted to look at how these men were manipulated by Newton," Djerassi says.

In the final scene of Calculus, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, asks: "What purpose is served by showing that England's greatest natural philosopher is flawed like other mortals?" That encapsulates Djerassi's mission. Scientists such as Newton, he says, are hero-worshipped. "That is why I started writing plays that deal with scientists and their behaviour. I am a member of that tribe of scientists. Some people criticise me for hanging out the dirty lab coats in public. The fact is that people put us on a pedestal where we are not supposed to make any mistakes - not just factual mistakes, but behavioural mistakes. But we are human beings."

'Calculus', New End Theatre, 27 New End, Hampstead, London NW3 (020-7794 0022) today to 28 August