Watching Kary Mullis on TV and In-Person

April 25th, 2013

This week, Just Like Cooking has been hosting the Chemistry at the Movies blog carnival. I’m slipping in my contribution just under the wire…

I don’t especially care for the movies, but I’ve been given special dispensation by See Arr Oh to discuss chemistry in television, instead. The West Wing is my second-favorite fictional TV series of all-time (after Star Trek: The Next Generation), and I was excited when an episode in the third season prominently featured the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Kary Mullis.

Here is but one clip of the many times the episode referenced Mullis, who never appeared on camera. The Bartlet White House was hosting a dinner for Nobel Laureates, and Press Secretary C.J. Cregg was stressing about sitting next to Mullis:

I suppose the clip doesn’t make chemists look terribly great. It certainly highlights the difficulties we’ve had interacting with the general public, but I always get a kick out of seeing “real” chemistry and chemists in pop culture. And while Jean-Luc Picard failed organic chemistry, it seems like President Bartlet has some technical skills regarding gen chem.

Kary Mullis is just such an interesting guy. On one hand, you have his absolutely brilliant development of PCR. The technique was revolutionary, yet extraordinarily straightforward—one of those things that other scientists curse themselves over not having thought of first. But Mullis also has a weird side. He believes HIV does not cause AIDS (video), and he claims to have once engaged in conversation with a fluorescent raccoon. The autobiography he submitted to the Nobel Foundation is also very odd. At times, it reads like the narration to Stand By Me:

We tortured the cows. We sliced apples and slipped them onto the electric fence that contained them in the newer parts of the pasture. Cows like apples and they kept trying. We watched the chickens pecking at the black mud around their chicken house. We heard the squeal of young pigs being castrated by my grandfather and the veterinarian, but we weren’t allowed to watch.

When my great-grandmother died she was almost a hundred and we were glad to see her go because every time she would come over to my grandmother’s house, she would try to kiss all of us. She looked almost a hundred and, heartless, cruel, mindless little children that we were, she repulsed us. She grabbed us anyway and kissed us until she was through. They put her body in a metal casket with gauzy curtains and left it in the living room near the grandfather’s clock, which announced the hours with a number of resonant bongs and marked the half-hours with a single chilling tone. Her body was there for three days until the service on Sunday at Mt Zion Baptist Church. We dared each other to go in and look at her. The adults were unaffected and took their regular meals right in the next room. We found it difficult to sleep. The clock seemed more alive than usual.

You’ve got to read the full thing. It is short, which is what makes the above passages so weird. It’s not like I pulled them from a 300-page book. Mullis added an addendum to his autobiography in 1999:

Addendum, August 1999

And then early in the spring of 1997 there was Nancy and my whole heart began to unfold and everything else before seemed like a long dream from which I had awakened at last. Married: Nancy Lier Cosgrove, San Francisco, CA March 21, 1998.

And here’s where I can attest that Mullis is indeed an odd creature. In 1998, I was invited to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the American Academy of Achievement‘s annual banquet. They invite high schoolers who’ve done well in a variety of competitions to attend their annual celebration to induct more ridiculously famous achievers into their ranks. The whole experience was surreal. On the first night, I sat ten feet from Puff Daddy as he talked to the audience about stowing-away on Amtrak trains to get to recording studios when he was starting out. In a different session, I sat between the owner of the company that made Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and George Lucas. Perhaps experiencing sensory overload, I skipped out on a subsequent session to sit on a couch in the lobby of the main lodge that overlooked the Grand Teton Mountains. While minding my own business, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and some other guy walked up, said hello, then sat down on the couch on the other side of the coffee table. Like I said, surreal.

What does all of this have to do with Kary Mullis? Well, he was there too. I had already fallen in love with chemistry as a high schooler, so I knew who Mullis was and I kept my eyes peeled for him and other Nobel laureates. As it turned out, Mullis was not too hard to spot, since he was constantly full-on making out with his new wife. It was unreal…in the hallway, at dinner, in the audience at the sessions. In a room packed with high schoolers, Mullis was the one who stood out for excessive amorous behavior.

I guess inventing PCR entitles you to a bit of PDA?


5 Responses to “Watching Kary Mullis on TV and In-Person”

  1. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    “Mullis also has a weird side”

    I think you are being charitable to Mullis.

  2. Chemjobber Says:

    Chemists need love too, Paul.

  3. a Says:

    For your delectation, a scholarly work without peer:

    http://www.amazon.com/Dancing-Naked-Mind-Field-Mullis/dp/0679774009

  4. a Says:

    Also, Steven Shapin’s amazing takedown of said book

    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v21/n13/steven-shapin/nobel-savage

    If you want good science writing, steve shapin is the man…..

  5. Paul Says:

    A nice, short video on Mullis, LSD, and PCR:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riDeuzVrlEQ

    …and an interesting quote from his Nobel lecture:

    At Dreher High School, we were allowed free, unsupervised access to the chemistry lab. We spent many an afternoon there tinkering. No one got hurt and no lawsuits resulted. They wouldn’t let us in there now. Today, we would be thought of as a menace to society. If I’m not mistaken, Alfred Nobel for a time was not allowed to practice his black art on Swedish soil. Sweden, of course, was then and still is a bit ahead of the United States in these matters.


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