In 1993, biochemist Kary Mullis won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his development of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a process that allows the amplification of specific DNA sequences. Since then, though, he has often played the enfant terrible to his once-adoring scientific ‘parent’. In the year following his Nobel Prize, he revealed that during his 20s he taken “plenty of LSD”, and considered it “much more important than any courses I ever took”. In fact, in a curious echo of another DNA pioneer – Francis Crick – Mullis is said to have told Dr Albert Hofmann that “LSD had helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction that helps amplify specific DNA sequences.”
Mullis has sparked further controversy with his questioning of the ‘conventional wisdom’ concerning HIV-AIDS and Anthropogenic Global Warming. To be sure, Mullis has a dislike of paradigm enforcement in the halls of science, and in particular the current system of grants-based science. In his words, “Science is being practiced by people who are dependent on being paid for what they are going to find out,” and not for what they have actually discovered.
So, you just know that a TED Talk by Kary Mullis is going to be an entertaining affair. For the most part, he holds forth with a fascinating history of the beginnings of modern science (via stoner-speak) through the Royal Society, and his own boyhood beginnings in science. The audience loves it, with plenty of laughs. And then the Global Warming discussion comes…and things get a little quieter in the room. Here’s the whole talk (about 30 minutes in length):
Now, if all that wasn’t enough, here’s one more fascinating thing about Mullis. He’s had an alien abduction experience. Well, a glowing raccoon experience, but pretty much the same thing, as you’ll see. In his autobiography Dancing in the Mind Field (Amazon US and UK), Mullis relates how he drove from Berkeley out to his cabin late one night:
…I got there just around midnight. I had driven up alone, and I had passed the functional sobriety test – I had made it through the mountains.
I turned on the kitchen lights, put my bags of groceries on the floor, and grabbed a heavy, black flashlight. I was headed to the john, which was about fifty feet west of the cabin, down a hill. Some people thought it was a little eerie at night, but I didn’t – I liked the night. I liked sitting in the dark on the custom carved redwood seat. I liked the sound of owls in the valley. But that night, I never made it to the seat.
The path down to the john heads west and then takes a sharp turn to the north after a few earthen steps. Then it runs level for about twenty feet. I walked down the steps, turned right, and then at the far end of the path, under a fir tree, there was something glowing. I pointed my flashlight at it anyhow. It only made it whiter where the beam landed. It seemed to be a raccoon. I wasn’t frightened. Later, I wondered if it could have been a hologram, projected from God knows where.
The raccoon spoke. “Good evening, doctor,” it said. I said something back, I don’t remember what, probably, “Hello.”
The next thing I remember, it was early morning. I was walking along a road uphill from my house. What went through my head as I walked down toward my house was, “What the hell am I doing here?” I had no memory of the night before.”
Bill Chalker has talked to Mullis about this experience, and other strange things that happened at his cabin (and based on which, I have decided that I really need to get myself to a Nobel Prize after-party…). Mullis also mentions in his autobiography that his daughter later told him that she had almost the exact experience at the cabin (she walked down the hill, and basically disappeared for 3 hours). Synchronistically, both were also attracted to Whitley Strieber’s classic ‘alien abduction’ book Communion, and amazed to see their experiences mirrored in Strieber’s account.
Whitley Strieber’s narrative is very similar to Mullis: he’s in a remote cabin, and he sees a strange animal preceding the experience – in his case, an owl. John Mack has written that this is a common theme in ‘alien abduction’ tales – three of the most common animals seen immediately before the loss of memory are deer, owls, and…raccoons. Another thing that Mack reveals is that these experiences are often shared within families, just as in the case of Kary Mullis and his daughter.
When it comes to his ‘alien abduction’ experience (and I apply the term as a label, rather than an explanation), Mullis knows exactly how it fits into the criteria for scientific acceptance. I found his words rather poignant:
I wouldn’t try to publish a scientific paper about these things, because I can’t do any experiments. I can’t make glowing raccoons appear. I can’t buy them from a scientific supply house to study. I can’t cause myself to be lost again for several hours. But I don’t deny what happened. It’s what science calls anecdotal, because it only happened in a way that you can’t reproduce. But it happened.
I do believe we should give Dr Kary Mullis an honorary Daily Grail membership.