Feb. 11, 2004
From oxygen to 'Oxygen,' a Cornell Nobel laureate discusses muse for chemist who was contender for element's discovery
SEATTLE-- Oxygen was discovered more than 230 years ago, seized center stage in the 18th century chemical revolution and is still catching fire today. Oxygen has been the subject of space missions, environmental and biological sciences and of drama.
It was also the subject of an unusual symposium, "It's All About Oxygen," today (Feb. 14) at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Seattle. Participants approached the subject from historical, theatrical and strictly scientific perspectives, including a presentation on the recent remarkable discovery of the presence of ozone in living cells, its production catalyzed by antibodies. (Ozone is a form of oxygen in which the molecule contains three atoms instead of the normal two.)
The theatrical side of oxygen is embodied in a two-act play, 'Oxygen ,' by Roald Hoffmann, Nobel laureate in chemistry and the Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and Stanford chemistry professor Carl Djerassi, who discussed the play at the symposium. 'Oxygen ' was written in 2000 and has had several productions in the United States, as well as England, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Japan.
Hoffmann, however, did not talk about his play at the symposium but about Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier, the intelligent and gifted wife of the great French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, the "father" of modern chemistry and the man incorrectly credited by many with the discovery of oxygen. (The English chemist Joseph Priestley is the true claimant.)
"Mme Lavoisier deserves an opera," Hoffmann said about his talk, "More About Mme. Lavoisier Than M. Lavoisier." To illustrate his talk, he used images from the Lavoisier Collection at the Kroch Library's Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell, the largest collection of materials on the French chemist outside of Paris. According to Cornell librarian and curator David Corson, the collection's 2,000 books and manuscripts document all aspects of Antoine Lavoisier's career, most notably his crucial work not only with oxygen but also the development of modern chemical nomenclature. Included among the manuscripts are laboratory notes from his dramatic experiments on the decomposition and recomposition of water, which helped to demonstrate the existence of oxygen and its role in chemical reactions.
A treasured piece in the collection is Mme. Lavoisier's travel case or "necessaire," which is, incidentally, a crucial and mysterious plot device in the play, 'Oxygen. ' A good part of the collection documents the life of Mme. Lavoisier, allegedly a talented pupil of neoclassical French painter Jacques-Louis David. Mme. Lavoisier illustrated Antoine Lavoisier's works and translated foreign scientific literature into French for him.
However, Hoffmann asks, although Mme. Lavoisier was the wife of a scientist and was an upper-class women "of great intelligence and talent" in 18th Century France, "What opportunities were open for her to do science?"
Another symposium speaker was Richard A. Lerner, president of the Scripps Research Institute, who spoke of his research team's discovery that human antibodies produce ozone.
Hoffmann discusses the chemical implications of the findings in an article, "The Story of O," in the January edition of American Scientist , which he concludes by noting, "After the beautiful and exciting Scripps work of the last three years, I'd rather leave the final word to Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier, who in a recent play about the element puts it simply: 'Imagine!'"
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