These two men share some odd similarities: born within 13 months of one another, each man suffered the Second World War - Djerassi as a refugee; Vonnegut as a POW - and had their personal lives scarred by young, tragic deaths in their families. Nevertheless, both became prolific writers of short stories, novels, and plays, and both lived to be elder statesmen in their chosen careers: Vonnegut to 85, and Djerassi to 91.
I'd even wager that they looked somewhat alike, with their bushy mustaches, well-coiffed hair, stylish clothing and impish eyes:
|Novelist Kurt Vonnegut|
|Chemist and writer Carl Djerassi|
Credit: DLD / Stanford
Breakfast of Champions convinced me that Vonnegut may have had more than a passing fancy for chemistry, himself. Consider this hand-drawn rendering of a mystery plastic, ostensibly factory run-off that main character Kilgore Trout has unfortunately found stuck to his feet after wading through a river in Midland City, Michigan:
|Credit: Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions|
Incidentally, I love Vonnegut's inference for the continued polymer chain; where we chemists might write n, Vonnegut inserts his time-work "ETC."
Why? I'll let the author explain his philosophy:
"The man who taught me how to diagram a segment of a molecule of plastic was Professor Walter H. Stockmayer of Dartmouth College. He is a distinguished physical chemist, and an amusing and useful friend of mine. I did not make him up. I would like to be Professor Walter H. Stockmayer. He is a brilliant pianist. He skis like a dream.
And when he sketched a plausible molecule, he indicated points where it would go on and on just as I have indicated them - with an abbreviation that means sameness without end.
The proper ending for and story about people it seems to me, since life is now a polymer in which the Earth is wrapped so tightly, should be that same abbreviation . . .it is in order to acknowledge the continuity of that polymer that I begin so many sentences with 'And' and 'So,' and end so many paragraphs with '...and so on.'
And so on. 'It's all like an ocean!' cried Dostoevski. I say it's all like cellophane."Sometimes you encounter (surprisingly accurate) chemistry in places you didn't expect.
So it goes.
*Bonus: Here's Roald Hoffman interviewing both authors in a 1999 piece for American Scientist magazine