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It’s hard to know what to think about Kary Mullis, author of this ebook of smart and funny essays. After all, Mullis won the Nobel prize in chemistry for inventing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique. He was also an avid surfer and an aficionado of LSD. He didn’t believe HIV causes AIDS, he didn’t believe humans are contributing to global warming, and he didn’t believe there is a hole in the ozone layer. And he was brilliant. And erratic.
an eccentric scientist bumps up against the edges of reality
Mullis’s book Dancing Naked in the Mind Field is highly entertaining. Mullis was eccentric, no doubt about it. There are chapters/essays about inventing PCR and about going to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize, about numbers, the scientific method, astrology, our senses — and there are chapters about (almost) being an expert DNA witness for the O.J. Simpson defense team, playing with electricity, playing with chemistry, how he almost killed himself playing with nitrous oxide — being saved only by the intervention of a friend who happened to be traveling on the astral plane and saw his dire situation, and of course chapters on his global warming, HIV, and ozone hole opinions.
The chapter “No Aliens Allowed” has probably affected Mullis’s reputation more than any of the others: After having passed what he called a “functional sobriety test”, he then experienced an impressive missing time episode in the mountains near Mendocino that began with a glowing raccoon greeting him: “Good evening, doctor”. Even he thought it was weird:
Some people have experiences that are so strange, they attribute them to alien intervention of some kind…. 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.
smart and funny essays from a nobel-prize-winning scientist
Dancing Naked in the Mind Field is great fun because you never know what’s going to be on the next page, but you can be sure it’ll be interesting — the product of a curious, open-minded genius scientist who likes to enjoy life, writing a very accessible book about the things he thinks about, whether on the scale of the universe or a corner of his lab.
The biggest battle I fought with the danger officer was over the fact that I insisted on keeping my lunch and a case of Beck’s beer in the same fridge in which I kept my radioactive isotopes. I kept the beer in bottles on the bottom shelf and the radioactive isotopes in a sealed lead-lined container on the top shelf. I pointed out to him that there was no way known to science that anything, even radiation, could escape from a closed lead-lined container into a sealed bottle. “I”m planning on drinking most of that beer myself,” I said. “If it wasn’t safe, I wouldn’t put it in there.”
Fortunately, Pete Farley, the president of Cetus, liked my beer. He liked coming into my lab in the afternoon and taking a bottle from my refrigerator. This presented the danger officer with a dangerous situation, so he took the safest way out: He stopped searching my refrigerator.
Once he hired a beautiful young woman as his assistant. He sent her into my lab to conduct a safety inspection. I eventually called her Nostradama Saltatis or “Our Lady of Safety.” The danger officer thought she might be able to handle me. Instead, I invited her home for dinner, and several months later she moved in with me.
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