Friday, May 22, 2015

Childhood with Tear Gas and TNT

Review: Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Cary Mullis


I knew The Emperor of Scent was jogging my memory about something, and finally recalled the flavor of thought from Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis' autobiographical Dancing in the Mind Field. There it was again—that joyful sense of discovery you remember from your childhood explorations of the world, the belief that you can learn it all if you just keep your eyes and mind open. 

Of course, not many of us have childhood memories that include compounding tear gas or keeping laboratory refrigerators stocked with radioactive isotopes. 

Kary Mullis was awarded the Nobel for chemistry in 1993, but even before the prize ceremony in Stockholm, his discovery was changing lives. Before Mullis, DNA evidence had to be fresh and abundant in order to be useful in forensic science. Mullis uncovered a way to replicate DNA, expanding the existing sample of whatever size until you have enough to be useful. Move over, Gil Grissom—Kary Mullis is the real star of CSI! 

Mullis doesn't hesitate to discuss the use of his discovery—one essay titled Fear and Lawyers in Las Angeles covers the multi-layered part he played in the sensational trial of OJ Simpson. But the collection of essays in the book is more about that journey of discovery than it is about the road signs along the way. Don't look to learn how to put together a polymerase chain reaction. You might learn how to survive the bite of the brown recluse spider, choose nutritional foods, determine which scientist is telling the truth in a debate. 

Or you might simply trip the light fantastic with Kary Mullis. He's a marvelous dancer!