October 2002

Jen Crispin


Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Kary Mullis

It is widely accepted in the scientific community that Kary Mullis is a kook. Which is a rather odd reaction to a man who has won a Nobel Prize in chemistry and who invented PCR, a tool that not many microbiologists or biochemists would happily live without. But I suppose that it's to be expected, as most press attention that Kary Mullis receives is not centered around his scientific achievements, but rather around his passion for surfing, his past use of LSD, and his reputation for chasing women.

So a book by Kary Mullis is bound to be more interesting than the average book of essays written by a chemist. And oh, is it. To sum up: Mullis believes in astrology, traveling through the astral plane, recreational use of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, and glowing raccoons that talk. He doesn't believe in global warming, the advice of nutritionists, or the fact that HIV causes AIDS. To put it mildly, the theories and opinions expressed in his book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, are controversial.

They are also terribly fascinating. Amongst the many things that Kary Mullis is, he is also an excellent story teller. I ended up reading at least 80% of this book aloud to my husband. It would start out, "Oh, you have to hear this!", and then I would inevitably back up and read him the whole chapter. In this book, Mullis meets the empress of Japan and calls her "sweetie," nearly kills himself with nitrous oxide, is bitten by several brown recluses back when the only known treatment was surgery, speaks to a glowing raccoon in the forest, accidentally causes an explosion during a science demonstration, and also accidentally makes tear gas in a friend's garage the summer after they graduated from high school. He has no shortage of interesting stories to tell, and he tells them well.

He's also very persuasive. I read the chapter on astrology and was ready to go out and buy an astrological chart. I read the chapter on appropriate use of scientific funding and inquiry and was ready to write a letter to my congressman, asking him to defund the relativistic heavy ion collider (RHIC) in favor of funding the search for near-Earth asteroids that could collide with our planet. (This is especially significant because I spent two years working on projects related to RHIC while pursuing my masters degree, and actually have two friends employed at RHIC right now.) Of course, most of these conversions were short-lived, and on some issues he never had much of a chance of convincing me (in fact I think it's dangerous to assert that human beings could not possibly alter the climate), but some of his arguments linger. For instance, there is a disturbing lack of scientific evidence supporting the claim that the HIV virus causes AIDS. It sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory at first to doubt something that we've all taken for granted for so long, but if it were true, why aren't there articles in peer-reviewed journals offering evidence to that end?

Kary Mullis can mess with your mind just as effectively as a dose of LSD. So if you read this book, read it with a healthy dose of scientific skepticism. As Mullis himself points out, just because something is published (and even in a scientific journal), that doesn't make it so. And just because the man won a Nobel prize, that doesn't mean he's an expert on every topic he discusses. But read this book because it's fun.

I promise it will make you laugh. And shake your head in disbelief. The only thing it won't do is bore you.

Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Kary Mullis
Vintage Books
ISBN: 0679774009
240 pages