What is discovery? Why is it so important to be first? These are the questions that trouble the people in this play. “Oxygen” alternates between 1777 and 2001—the Centenary of the Nobel Prize—when the Nobel Foundation decides to inaugurate a “Retro-Nobel” Award for those great discoveries that preceded the establishment of the Nobel Prizes one hundred years before. The Foundation thinks this will be easy, that the Nobel Committee can reach back to a period when science was done for science’s sake, when discovery was simple, pure, and unalloyed by controversy, priority claims, and hype….
The Chemistry Committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decides to focus on the discovery of Oxygen, since that event launched the modern chemical revolution. But who should be so honored? Lavoisier is a natural choice, for if there ever was a marker for the beginning of modern chemistry, it was Lavoisier’s understanding of the true nature of combustion, rusting, and animal respiration, and the central role of oxygen in each of these processes, formulated in the period 1770-1780. But what about Scheele? What about Priestley? Didn’t they first discover oxygen?
Indeed, on an evening in October 1774, Antoine Lavoisier, the architect of the chemical revolution, learned that the Unitarian English minister, Joseph Priestley, had made a new gas. Within a week, a letter came to Lavoisier from the Swedish apothecary, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, instructing the French scientist how one might synthesize this key element in Lavoisier’s developing theory, the lifegiver oxygen. Scheele’s work was carried out years before, but remained unpublished until 1777.
Scheele and Priestley fit their discovery into an entirely wrong logical framework—the phlogiston theory—that Lavoisier is about to demolish. How does Lavoisier deal with the Priestley and Scheele discoveries? Does he give the discoverers their due credit? And what is discovery after all? Does it matter if you do not fully understand what you have found? Or if you do not let the world know?
In a fictional encounter, the play brings the three protagonists and their wives to 1777 Stockholm at the invitation of King Gustav III (of Un ballo in maschera fame). The question to be resolved: “Who discovered oxygen?” In the voices of the scientists’ wives, in a sauna and elsewhere, we learn of their lives and those of their husbands. The actions of Mme. Lavoisier, a remarkable woman, are central to the play. In the Judgment of Stockholm, a scene featuring chemical demonstrations, the three discoverers of oxygen recreate their critical experiments. There is also a verse play within a play, on the Victory of Oxygen over Phlogiston. Such a play, now lost, was actually staged by the Lavoisiers for their friends and patrons.
Meanwhile, in the beginning of the 21st century, the Nobel Committee investigates and argues about the conflicting claims of the three men. Their discussions tell us much about whether science has changed in the last two centuries. The chair of the Nobel Committee is Astrid Rosenqvist, an outstanding Swedish theoretical chemist, while a young historian, Ulla Zorn, serves as a recorder for the committee’s proceedings. But with time, her role changes.
The ethical issues around priority and discovery at the heart of this play are as timely today as they were in 1777. As are the ironies of revolutions: Lavoisier, the chemical revolutionary, is a political conservative, who loses his life in the Jacobin terror. Priestley, the political radical who is hounded out of England for his support of the French revolution, is a chemical conservative. And Scheele just wants to run his pharmacy in Köping, and do chemical experiments in his spare time. For a long time, he—the first man on earth to make oxygen in the laboratory—got least credit for it. Will that situation be repaired 230 years after his discovery?