The back cover of his book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, referred to Kary Mullis as the world’s most eccentric Nobel Prize-winning scientist. That’s not surprising since the book not only describes how Mullis redefined the world of DNA, genetics, and forensic science, but also about his mysterious encounter with a being from elsewhere, and his belief in astrology.
Mullis, whose research paved the way for major advances in medical diagnostics, molecular biology and forensic science, died on Aug. 7 at his home in Newport Beach, Calif. He was 74.
The process for analyzing DNA that Dr. Mullis invented is called polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. It replicates a single strand of DNA millions of times, enabling scientists to pinpoint a segment of the strand and amplify it for identification. The process allowed him to literally blow up a DNA strand to the size of a dinosaur.
In fact, the science of PCR, because it allows for the unlimited replication of small bits of DNA, was one of the inspirations of “Jurassic Park,” the Michael Crichton novel about a theme park of cloned dinosaurs that Steven Spielberg turned into a movie franchise.
His method is now used to detect genetic mutations that can lead to diagnoses of diseases, like sickle cell anemia; analyze ancient sources of DNA, like bones; assist in obtaining crime scene evidence (he was recruited as an expert witness in the O.J. Simpson murder trial); and determine paternity.
It was used as well to decode and map the entire human DNA as part of the Human Genome Project, the landmark international research effort that ran from 1990 to 2003.
The obituary on Mullis in the The Los Angeles begins this way: “Kary B. Mullis was an LSD-dropping, climate-change-denying, astrology-believing, board surfing, Nobel Prize-winning chemist who was both widely respected and equally criticized for his controversial views.”
Curiously, Mullis didn’t think HIV caused AIDS, calling it “a hell of a mistake.” In his book, he also denied that climate change is caused by humans, a belief he held to the end.
While studying biochemistry for his PhD at Berkeley, his interest in hallucinogens blossomed. One LSD trip inspired a paper on time travel. It was later published by the science journal Nature.
We read Mullis’s book years ago, and what I remembered most about it was the cover photo, the chapter on astrology, and the story of his alien encounter.
Here’s how Mullis’s experience is described on Whitley Streiber’s Unknown Country website:
“Mullis described an encounter with an odd entity, accompanied by missing time. While at his family cabin one night in 1985, Mullis was walking to the cabin’s outhouse around midnight when he spotted what he described as a glowing raccoon that said, ‘Good evening, doctor.’
‘Mullis’s next memory was of walking down the road toward the cabin near sunrise six hours later; his clothes were dry, despite the dew that would have had settled that evening. After reading Whitley Strieber’s Communion, Mullis realized that his encounter with the glowing raccoon, along with his missing time and the fear he would experience when trying to approach the spot where the encounter occurred, was part of an unrealized otherworldly encounter.”
Mullis’s other-worldly experiences are also included in The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, by Dr. Jeffrey Kripal. The book explores stories from former skeptics who had their attitudes toward the paranormal “flipped” after having their own extraordinary experiences.