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Kary Mullis at TED

The strange experiences of the man who invented the PCR Test used for diagnosing COVID

If you hang out on social media in 2021, you’ll know that every second person is now an expert on the PCR test used to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19 (and by expert, I mean ‘watched something posted by a random person on YouTube’). Two themes recur in social media posts about the polymerase chain reaction test: firstly, that ‘the cycles of the PCR test are set too high’ and so give a false positive for the virus (usually misunderstanding the difference between test cycles and cycle thresholds), and secondly that the inventor of PCR said that it wasn’t fit to be used for detecting infectious viruses.

This latter objection appears to have arisen from a misreading of an old article that discusses the PCR test in regards to detection of HIV, and references the controversial view of Kary Mullis – who won the 1993 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his invention of PCR – that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. As the article mentions, PCR tests don’t quantitatively test for actual levels of infectious virus, but instead identify genetic sequences of virus through amplification to see if they are present in a sample.

Kary Mullis’s view on HIV-AIDS was hardly the only unorthodox belief he held – he also criticised the science of climate change (see the TED talk embedded below), touted astrology as a valid tool in understanding human personalities, recounted a case of mental telepathy with a dear friend, and told Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, that the hallucinogenic drug had helped him come up with the idea for PCR.

But beyond those opinions, in his autobiography Dancing Naked in the Mind Field Mullis also recounted two rather extraordinary personal experiences – one of which was what seemed to be an ‘alien abduction’ experience, the other his rescue from death by a future lover who found him while traveling on the astral plane (a lot to unpack there…details below).

We discussed Mullis’s ‘alien abduction’* experience more than a decade ago here on the Grail. While he didn’t actually encounter aliens per se, his encounter with a talking, glowing raccoon shares many features with what has been referred to as a ‘screen memory’. (* Note: We’re using ‘alien abduction experience’ as a label for a type of experience, not as a necessarily literal term. And as Kary Mullis himself notes before recounting his story, “some people have experiences that are so strange, they attribute them to alien intervention of some kind. Close encounters of the first kind, second kind, third kind, etc., as though alien intervention would always fall into certain categories. I had one of those experiences myself. To say it was aliens is to assume a lot. But to say it was weird is to understate it. It was extraordinarily weird.”)

Mullis tells of how in 1985 he drove from Berkeley out to his rural cabin late one Friday night, arriving around midnight, and immediately headed for the outside lavatory :

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.”

On thinking about the strangeness of the previous night, Mullis was surprised that “the most unusual thing about it was that it did not bother me as much as it should have”. He went back to investigate the area to try and understand what happened, but realised it was probably a futile quest, so decided to try and forget about it.

However, despite his initial feeling that the incident had not bothered him, he found that he could no longer walk out into the woods on his own without suffering a panic attack. “Why had I suddenly developed an irrational fear of a place I’d always enjoyed?” he wondered. For a couple of years he avoided the area, until one day he did some ‘psychotherapy’ by taking an AR-15 and emptying a couple of clips into “a giant old hollowed bay laurel growing right out of a waterfall full of ferns” that had become the focus of his fears.

Mullis’s experience echoes that of Whitley Strieber, author of a seminal abduction story in his book Communion: it occured while in a remote cabin, and a strange animal was seen preceding the experience (in Strieber’s case, an owl). Alien abduction experience researcher John Mack has noted that three of the most common animals seen immediately before the loss of memory in these experiences are deer, owls, and raccoons.

Mullis also mentions in his autobiography that his daughter later told him that she had also had a ‘missing time’ experience at the cabin late at night, and both were also synchronistically attracted to Strieber’s Communion (“on the cover was a drawing that captured my attention. An oval-shaped head with large inky eyes staring straight ahead…when she saw the book, she had experienced the same sort of vague recognition as I had”), and shocked to find the similarities between their experiences and what happened to Strieber.

Kary Mullis’s ‘alien abduction experience’ came a little more than a decade after another strange experience that allowed him to cheat death. In 1974 he decided to partake in some nitrous oxide (“I had a cylinder of it at home and liked to inhale it once in a while. I would breathe in a few breaths, and my mind would sail off briefly into something primeval and human-less.”), but as he was on this particular day also under the influence of a powerful antihistamine, he blacked out before he could turn off the tank and was instead “immediately out cold and dead to the world”. And yet, miraculously…

I woke up and the tube was on the floor in front of me. I had no idea how long I had been out. The gas was still running, it was cold enough to be condensing water out of the air, and the tube was frozen. The next thing I noticed was that my mouth felt funny. My tongue and lips were numb. I’d been anesthetized for a long time, and the tube was frozen solid. I shakily made my way to the bathroom, where there was a mirror. My upper and lower lips on the right side had bright white stripes from the frozen tube, and the tip of my tongue was white, like snow. Frostbite.

Mullis immediately phoned his girlfriend (and wife-to-be) Cynthia, who took him to a hospital. Despite severe damage to his tongue and lips, he made somewhat of a fantastic recovery and did not suffer permanent disfigurement or loss of function.

However, one thing about the experience bothered him and his doctor, ‘Marc’:

If I was unconscious long enough to have my tongue and lips frozen, how did the tube come out of my mouth? Animals anesthetized on nitrous oxide do not move. One of the advantages of nitrous in dentistry is that the patient doesn’t wiggle or jerk around at all. The tank was half full, and there was still enough nitrous in there to keep me asleep for hours more. I should have been completely immobile, and I could have died. But when I awoke, the tube was some distance from my face. It was all very strange. What had happened?

Four years after his nitrous oxide mishap, Mullis spontaneously hooked up with a woman named Katherine O’Keefe (Mullis says he and his wife Cynthia had an ‘understanding’ that their marriage was somewhat open). After having sex with this stranger he had only just met, she suddenly asked him “if I had ever figured out who pulled the tube out of my mouth that fateful day in Kansas. My jaw dropped. No one except Cynthia and Marc knew about that tube. I hadn’t talked about it. When you freeze your mouth by being totally stupid, you don’t feel compelled to tell people about it.”

When Mullis recovered from the initial shock, he asked her how she knew about it. “I was there,” she replied, “and I pulled it out of your mouth. I waited until I was sure you were okay and then I left.”

It turned out that she could travel on the astral plane. Her mother had taught her how to do this when she was a child. It required that she imagine a machine surrounding her. The machine would respond to her intentions. She had been in transit when she had seen me dying. She knew I would later play a role in her life, so she stopped and pulled out the tube.

As a scientist, Mullis knew that many would be skeptical of his experiences. “I wouldn’t try to publish a scientific paper about these things,” he confessed, “because I can’t do any experiments.” Mullis was resigned to them being ‘just’ a personal experience – but also didn’t want to deny that they happened. “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.”

Kary Mullis died in August 2019 at age 74.

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