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Discussion > A small story from Kary Mullis

I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but I know that the answer is not to believe, “Trust us. We’re here to help.” It never has been.

In my naïveté, the world was a safe place until 1968. I thought it was watched over by an elite group of people with great wisdom who had proven themselves and were entrusted with protecting us and the planet. I hoped that I, a conscientious twenty-two-year-old who loved to learn and teach, would someday be a member of that group. In the early weeks of 1968 I submitted an article I had written to the foremost scientific journal in the world, Nature, published in London. I called it “The Cosmological Significance of Time Reversal” and congratulated myself on its cleverness. It was a description—from my own experience and imagination—of the entire universe from the beginning to the end. It was one of those intuitive things that needed to be expressed as a tentative hypothesis, on account of my limitation experientially to the right now and my somewhat limited experience as a cosmologist. I was a second-year graduate student in biochemistry at Berkeley. I had read a lot about astrophysics and had taken some psychoactive drugs, which enhanced my perceived understanding of the cosmos. Not very good reasons to think that an international journal of science would want to publish my views for the edification of their very knowledgeable readership. It was accepted. I received a flurry of letters from all over the world requesting reprints. At first I was elated by the response. Nature Times News Service circulated an article beginning, “It sounds like the wildest science fiction. But an American scientist seriously suggests that half the matter in the universe is going backwards in time.” Some lady in Melbourne sent it to me with a letter asking for my autograph. Later in the article they referred to me as “Dr. Kary Mullis of California University.” I began to be a little concerned. Something was definitely amiss in the world of science.

I was not a doctor. I was still a student, only hoping to become a doctor. Who had promoted me to doctor? Why would news services pick up the story and print it all over the world in the papers? I was not really an experienced astrophysicist. What did I know about the universe? I grew up. I lost that long-abiding feeling that there were older, wiser people minding the store. If there had been, they would not have allowed my first sophomoric paper on the structure of the universe to be published in the foremost scientific journal in the world. Years later I invented the polymerase chain reaction. I was a professional scientist, and I knew what I had discovered. It was not the speculations of a kid about the universe and time reversal. It was a chemical procedure that would make the structures of the molecules of our genes as easy to see as billboards in the desert and as easy to manipulate as Tinkertoys. PCR would not require expensive equipment, and it would find tiny fragments of DNA and multiply them billions of times. And it would do it quickly. The procedure would be valuable in diagnosing genetic diseases by looking into a person’s genes. It would find infectious diseases by detecting the genes of pathogens that were difficult or impossible to culture. PCR would solve murders from DNA samples in trace materials—semen, blood, hair. The field of molecular paleobiology would blossom because of PCR. Its practitioners would inquire into the specifics of evolution from the DNA in ancient specimens. The branchings and migrations of early man would be revealed from fossil DNA and its descendant DNA in modern humans. And when DNA was finally found on other planets, it would be PCR that would tell us whether we had been there before or whether life on other planets was unrelated to us and had its own separate roots. I knew that PCR would spread across the world like wildfire. This time there was no doubt in my mind: Nature would publish it. They rejected it. So did Science, the second most prestigious journal in the world. Science offered that perhaps my paper could be published in some secondary journal, as they felt it would not be suitable to the needs of their readers. “Fuck them,” I said. It was some time before my disgust with the journals mellowed. I accepted an offer by Ray Wu to publish it in Methods in Enzymology, a volume he was preparing. He understood the power of PCR. This experience taught me a thing or two, and I grew up some more. No wise men sit up there, watching the world from the vantage point of their last twenty years of life, making sure that the wisdom they have accumulated is being used.

We have to make it on the basis of our own wit. We have to be aware—when someone comes on the seven o’clock news with word that the global temperature is going up or that the oceans are turning into cesspools or that half the matter is going backward—that the media are at the mercy of the scientists who have the ability to summon them and that those who have such ability are not often minding the store. More likely they are minding their own livelihoods.

From, Dancing Naked in the Mine Field

Sep 10, 2012 at 5:48 AM | Registered Commentershub

Shub

Depressing and inspiring at one and the same time. If only there was some way to help fast track youngsters through this process. Great post.

Sep 13, 2012 at 2:33 PM | Registered CommenterDung

Thank you for that, Shub... it carries a lot of power. I am very glad I found it.

Sep 17, 2012 at 1:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterRoger Carr