Dancing Naked in the Mind Field

One of the things that I am enjoying this year is the opportunity to do some reading. Maybe it is the lack of committee work, or maybe the lack of TV, but I have been reading more than I generally do in the US.

My friend Charles, generously lent me a couple of books from his personal library. The first I finished a month or so ago: The Exile Returned: a Self Portrait of the Tamil Vellahlahs of Jaffna, Sri Lanka, by S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole. Professor Hoole’s book is a fascinating insight into the complex history of the Tamil people in the Jaffna peninsula. For example, the Tamils in Jaffna were largely farmers and hence of a relatively low caste in the Hindu caste system. For reasons I do not fully understand, there were really no higher caste Tamils on the island. Well, the Hindu caste system really is not exactly friendly to the lower castes, as you might imagine. When Protestant missionaries, missionaries from the Congregational Church prominent among them, arrived in the area, they seized an opportunity and pointed out to Tamil people the really rather insulting restrictions placed upon them by their own religion. For example, people of the Sudra caste were not even supposed to be taught about the most holy books of the Hindu religion. This led to many conversions of Tamils to both Protestant and Catholic Christianity and to a local revision of the rules in Hinduism, as a response. Oversimplifying greatly, the churches established schools, the British promoted the Tamils over the Sinhalese in the island’s civil service, the British granted the island independence, the Sinhalese majority lashed out at the privileged position of the Tamils, and the current conflict was born. Or, as my friend Charles says, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, the conflict is the fault of those 18th century Christian missionaries establishing schools for the Tamils.

I just finished reading the second book that Chrles lent to me, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Kary Mullis, the 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Mullis, a biochemist, won the Nobel Prize for his work on the “polymerase chain reaction” (PCR). PCR is the foundation for all the DNA tests we hear about these days, most often on CSI. The book is a combination of autobiography and his views on a number of subjects.

He is quite a character. He is an avid surfer and, of course, that was harped upon by the media when he won the Nobel Prize. He tells the story of the morning when he gets the call from the Nobel committee announcing that  he has won the prize. He was expecting the prize the year before, He even had discussions with colleagues about what were the petty political reasons why  he had not gotten it in 1992. When he did get the call in 1993, he at first assumed that a friend of his was playing a joke on him and hung up on the caller. Needless to say, they called back. Receiving the prize that morning did not prevent him from going out surfing, even misdirecting a TV crew to the wrong beach as he left the house.

I am a great believer that science so often takes itself too seriously, so it is fun to read about a non-stuffy scientist. In this, Mullis resembles Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning, bongo-playing, physicist. They both have lives outside science. They do not let the conventions of what a Nobel Prize winning scientist should look like or act like cramp their style. They both frankly write about their interest in women in ways that most people would keep to themselves. Mullis (born 1944) and Feynman (born 1918) grew up and live(d) during very different eras and it is interesting to speculate about how much closer the resemblance between the two would be if they had grown up in the same era.

For example, Mullis received his Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1972 and, talks about his extensive use of and synthesis of psychoactive drugs. As a biochemist, Mullis was part of a culture that stayed one step ahead of the law. As a drug was outlawed, Mullis and friends would synthesize a new psychoactive drug and use it until the new drug was banned. Mullis has stated that his use of LSD helped him to come up with the idea of a practical scheme to do PCR. Feynman too tried LSD, marijuana, and ketamine, but for very brief periods and later in his career. Unlike Mullis, Feynman was worried about damage to his brain from drug use, even giving up alcohol when he became concerned that he was showing signs of alcohol dependency. Mullis, on the other hand, was not deterred even after making a factor of ten mistake in dosage for a new psychoactive drug that led to a experience so severe that he thought he would never recover.

Both men could be jerks. Feynman is known for refusing to carry his share of the work of department administration, showing a decided contempt for his colleagues in the process. My own Feynman story does not cast him in a very gracious light. When I was an experimental high energy grad student at CalTech in 1976, the high energy physics lectures were held in a conference room that was way too small. There was a long table down the center of the room with the screen and viewgraph projector on one end. Professors sat at the table and grad students sat on the floor with their backs to the walls of the room. If you  did not get there fifteen minutes early, you might not even be able to find a place on the floor. Before the talk, the visitor would be sitting in a chair next to the viewgraph projector and his host. Just when the talk was to begin, Feynman would walk into the room and approach the visitor. “Hi! I’m Dick Feynman” he would say to the speaker, who would generally be awestruck, nearly speechless, and would stumble as he jumped from his seat to grasp Feynman’s outstretched hand. Then Feynman would say “You are not going to be needing that seat, are you?” So the great man insulted the guest, did not have to arrive early like everyone else, and got the best seat at the table. I’ve already mentioned the trick Mullis played on the hapless media team and there are a few more examples in his book.

Their differences between the two men are striking, though. Feynman recognized the good he could do in the world in his position as a recognized authority/genius and as a gifted scientific communicator. Feynman served on the Challenger Commission, the commission that investigated the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle. He is remembered for demonstrating the core problem at a news conference by simply dipping a piece of the shuttle’s O-rings into a glass of ice water and them showing how brittle and easy to break it had become. Good educational theater, even if he was not the one who  discovered the problem. He did, however, school the NASA engineers about their faulty risk assessment calculations. His first year undergraduate text is a must read for graduate students and professors, even if it was never a very satisfactory text for first year students. It has remained useful for demonstrating Feynman’s ability to find the heart of a physics problem before dragging out the mathematical toolkit. And his books about his life and adventures are delightful reads that illuminate a mind that just works differently than most of the rest of ours.

Mullis’ book has a chapter describing his work as part of the defense team in the famous OJ Simpson trial. A key part of the evidence against OJ Simpson was a sample of blood found at the crime scene that DNA analysis indicated was from OJ Simpson himself. Mullis is withering in his description of the prosecution team and scathing in his analysis of all the ways the forensic team did not follow good scientific practice in collecting and analyzing the sample. His conclusion is that the uncertainties in the analysis make the DNA testing results inconclusive. Mullis is clearly unhappy that he was not called to the stand during the trial and I think I can see why the defense team did not call him. Despite his credentials as the inventor of the PCR process and his Nobel Prize, it seems clear that Mullis wanted to spar with the prosecuting attorneys demonstrating his superior knowledge. As good trial attorneys, the defense team probably knew that he could be a loose cannon and could have ended up hurting their case. Instead, the defense team told him that, after they had presented a series of witnesses that tended to discredit the DNA evidence, more witness would only make the jury’s eyes glaze over.

Outside of biochemistry, though, Mullis loses my respect completely. He describes an experience where he believes he was abducted by extraterrestials. Given his use of drugs, I think there is a simpler explanation that he might consider. He is a global warming skeptic and dismisses climate change scientists as only interested in getting their next research grant. His argument against those who warned about ozone depletion imagines that he is the only chemist who has ever heard of rate equations. He denies that HIV causes AIDS. Finally, and most outlandishly, he believes in astrology.In the HIV/AIDS case, he must take a measure of responsibility for the deaths of thousands in South Africa for being among those who provided the then government of South Africa a rationale for not providing drugs to its people that were of proven effectiveness. In the case of astrology, he undermines the whole scientific enterprise at a time when it is already under severe attack by the forces of superstition, quackery and those who discredit science when a scientific study does not agree with their political philosophy.

They say that it is “an ill wind that blowth no man good” and that is the case with Kary Mullis and his book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Fields. We have a tendency in Western society to glorify individuals, a trait we supposedly inherited from the Greeks. Kary Mullis was glorified by the award of the highest honor, the most prestigious honor,  a man or woman of science can aspire to, the Nobel Prize. And, as Nobel Prize qualifications go, he earned it fair and square.  But we should remain aware of two things. The first is that the Nobel Prize singles out individuals in a field where the real advance of science depends on the community as a whole. It is fine to celebrate those whose vision may be a bit sharper, but we should never forget that they could not have accomplished anything significant working alone. For example, awarding the Nobel Prize for PCR to Mullis alone was not without controversy. The idea was being bandied about the scientific community. There is evidence that Mullis may have learned about the idea directly from another. Give him credit, though, he made the idea work. I find the debates about priority and credit in science tedious precisely because so few ideas are truly the work of individuals working alone and Kary Mullis is no exception. And  Dancing Naked in the Mind Fields should remind us that even if you win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, you may not be a great scientist outside of your narrow specialty, or even much of a scientist at all, in some ways. Yet another reason why we should seldom elevate even the most accomplished among us to the status of heroes.

Tim

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