[h1] Weird Science [/h1]
Published: October 11, 1998
IN THE MIND FIELD
By Kary Mullis.
222 pp. New York:
Pantheon Books. $24.
The prosecution had a videotape of Kary Mullis on Rollerblades in La Jolla, Calif., and this was of concern to the defense. There was worse. Mullis had taken LSD. He had surfed. He had admitted to engaging in sexual intercourse with women.
Mullis was to appear as an expert witness for the defense, and the People -- as in the People v. Orenthal James Simpson --needed badly to discredit him. Mullis -- he was the 50-something gentleman who flicked a kind of ''Hi, Mom!'' wave at the courtroom camera -- was the only world-class scientist scheduled to testify at the trial.
His long-anticipated confrontation with the prosecutors stacked up as a study in contrasts: He was smart. They were dumb. He was charismatic. They were not. Most important, the prosecutors were not experts on the polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R., the ''DNA fingerprinting'' technique used by their own crime lab. Mullis had invented P.C.R. His cross-examination promised to be the most entertaining battle since Hulk Hogan body-slammed an ailing Andre the Giant to win the World Wrestling Federation title in Wrestlemania III -- and the outcome was in about as much doubt.
The confrontation never happened, and the world was denied a rare, potentially scintillating O. J. moment. But everything is O.K. now, because we have Mullis's book, and it's a beauty. ''Dancing Naked in the Mind Field'' is a dumb title, perhaps, but this is a darkly joyous work, an autobiography of the nervous system of an extraordinary chemist. I'm not sure that a human writer, as we normally perceive one, is in control here, but the results are delightful.
Mullis begins with the event that changed his life, during a May 1983 nighttime drive through the mountains of Mendocino County in a silver Honda. Applying his knowledge of computer programming, Mullis mentally conjured up a technique of finding a specific sequence on DNA and replicating the hell out of it. ''Natural DNA is a tractless coil,'' he says, ''like an unwound and tangled audiotape on the floor of the car in the dark.'' The polymerase chain reaction makes sense of that tape. Now ''you could have all the DNA you wanted,'' he writes. And it's ''easy.'' P.C.R. finds and multiplies tiny fragments of DNA. After 30 doublings, for instance, you have a billion times as much as you started with.
Mullis explains: ''It was a chemical procedure that would make the structures of the molecules of our genes as easy to see as billboards in the desert and as easy to manipulate as Tinkertoys. . . . It would find infectious diseases by detecting the genes of pathogens that were difficult or impossible to culture. . . . The field of molecular paleobiology would blossom because of P.C.R. Its practitioners would inquire into the specifics of evolution from the DNA in ancient specimens. . . . And when DNA was finally found on other planets, it would be P.C.R. that would tell us whether we had been there before.''
Mullis submitted his paper to the two most prestigious science journals in the world, Science and Nature. Both rejected it. He had some consolation. On Oct. 13, 1993, a phone call from Stockholm offered him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. ''I'll take it!'' he said, displaying the decisiveness that has marked his career. He then called his mother to tell her she could stop sending him articles from Reader's Digest about advances in DNA chemistry.
Mullis grew up in Columbia, S.C., with a Gilbert chemistry set and a mom who gave good advice (''Now Kary B., don't you blow your eyes out!''). He has always loved chemicals: potassium nitrate, nitrosobenzene, phenacyl bromide, laughing gas, DNA, LSD. His mother sent him a Reader's Digest clip warning about the last item. LSD may also have kept him off the witness stand at the Simpson trial. By the time Mullis was scheduled to testify, the defense had destroyed the prosecution's DNA case, and Simpson's lawyer Barry Scheck felt that Mullis's personal life might distract the jurors. What would Mullis have told the jury?
First, Mullis points out that the Los Angeles police lab conducts research in a manner that was abandoned by scientists 300 years ago. The lab took a sample of blood from the crime scene and matched it against blood taken from Simpson's arm. No real scientist would do this. There should have been several target samples, from other presumed-innocent people as well as Simpson, and the study should have been ''blind.'' That is, the technicians shouldn't have been told which was Simpson's blood; all the samples should have been cryptically labeled. Instead, the L.A. lab researchers were given one target sample of blood only. They knew in advance what the ''right answer'' was. ''The way they did it was like a one-man lineup,'' Mullis writes.
Second, permanent, identifying chemicals called taggants should have been added to the blood samples to distinguish them from one another and to ascertain the chain of custody. Was the blood on the gate really taken from Simpson's arm and planted there? Taggants would have answered that question and many others, Mullis says, at a cost of less than $100. It's odd that the prosecution, which spent in excess of $10 million, decided to cut costs here.
Finally, P.C.R. matching as done by police labs, Mullis points out, is like finding the first two digits of a Social Security number: ''You can prove it's not mine if it doesn't match, but you can't prove it is mine if it does.'' Obviously, Mullis's testimony wouldn't have affected the verdict, but it might have ameliorated the post-trial Caucasian hysteria.
Mullis has many other opinions that will upset his fellow scientists, Caucasian or otherwise. He doesn't believe the ozone layer is receding. Or in global warming. Or that H.I.V. causes AIDS. He even attacks Avogadro's constant, which is used to calculate the number of atoms or molecules in any chemical. Mullis says Avogadro's number, which is 6.0221367 $(4$) 1023 (that's a 1 followed by 23 zeros), is too big. (Well, it is.) It gets worse. Mullis practices telepathy with his friend Harry, and he had a girlfriend once who traveled on the astral plane to extract a nitrous oxide tube from his mouth. He had what is commonly called a ''missing time'' experience that hints at alien abduction. He thinks that astrology is valid, or at least testable. (Of course, it is testable.)
This is the point where the reviewer is supposed to go tsk-tsk. But my heart isn't in it. Mullis spins these yarns in an entertaining fashion, and he doesn't actually claim to have boarded an alien spacecraft. (Why would aliens be interested? He's too much like them.) He can believe this stuff if he wants to. The man is, after all, a Capricorn.
Instead, I will trash him for a conventional belief. Mullis is convinced, like most white scientists, that science sprang ab ovo in Europe in the 17th century, and that it works only when stripped of religion. Mullis, who writes joyously about math throughout his book, must be unaware that those numbers he loves -- 0 through 9 -- were invented by Hindus almost 2,000 years ago in India. He has paid for this gaffe. He describes being bitten unmercifully by a swarm of Loxosceles reclusa, the Siva-like eight-legged, six-eyed brown recluse spider. To me, it's obvious that the spiders were reincarnated Hindus.
Mullis has also never benefited financially from P.C.R. Cetus, his employer, paid him a bonus of $10,000 (a 1 followed by 4 zeros), then turned around and sold the patent to Hoffmann-La Roche for $300 million (a 3 with 8 zeros). Mullis should have paid more attention to the zeros -- which were invented, by the way, by the Indians and Mayans.
One worries about Mullis. His combination of openness and brilliance may threaten lesser scientists. In a recent article in The New York Times, some of his former colleagues who were interviewed presented a revisionist history of P.C.R. They appear to have a two-pronged agenda: (1) to denigrate Mullis's work; (2) to take credit for it. Mullis seems undaunted. Currently he is trying to help people who are paralyzed. He wants ''to make chemicals that might help heal a spinal cord that had been crushed by its owner's motorcycle.'' Mullis thinks he can cure diabetes, too. ''Wish me luck,'' he says.
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