TITLE: Dancing Naked in the Mind Field AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: November 20, 2004 1:19 PM DESC: Read this book for a look at a quirky mind that won a Nobel Prize. ----- BODY: I recently finished reading Kary Mullis's Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. Mullis is the sort of guy people call a "character", the sort of guy whom my college friends would have called a "weird dude". But he's a weird dude who just happened to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry, for discovering PCR (polymerase chain reaction), a technique for finding and replicating an arbitrary sequence of nucleotides on a strand of DNA. The book consists of sixteen disconnected chapters that talk about various parts of Mullis's life as free spirit, biochemist, and celebrity scientist. I enjoyed his many chapters on the joys of doing science. He writes of discovering chemistry and electricity as a child, and he writes of the May evening drive up California's Highway 128 on which he had the brainstorm that led to PCR. In one chapter, Mullis tells us about making chemicals with a friend as a high school student, first in the commercial lab of a family friend and then in a homemade lab he and his friend built. Always the entrepreneur, Mullis hatched a scheme to make and sell chemicals that no one else was selling. In the doing so, he learned why no one else was doing it: the fabrication process was dangerous and wasteful. But he learned a lot. A neat line: When Mullis and his buddy took their first batch of nitrosobenzene to their family friend, he was "pleased to the point of adopting us both as his children forever. Chemists get emotional about other chemists because of the language they have in common and the burns on their hands." I know this feeling well from working with student programmers. But the burns on our hands are all metaphorical; they consist in the dangling pointers we've all chased, in the data files we've created and overwritten, in the failed attempts to make a language say something it cannot. This sort of precociousness has long been a hallmark of young computer programmers. From Jobs and Wozniak, Gates and Allen, all the way to all the local ISPs operating out of rural garages across the country, the history of computing is full kids who have set out to follow their curiosities and changed the world. The advent of the Internet and World Wide Web opened the doors to even more people. I only wish that I had the entrepreneurial spirit that accompanies their curiosity. Maybe I would have changed the world, too? In another chapters, Mullis describes how he came to know that no titans of thought were "minding the store", overseeing the world of science with firm, guiding hands. The science world is just a bunch of mortals doing their own things, with no distinguished wisdom for knowing today or the future. He contrasted how a naive, somewhat flaky article he wrote in college was published in the journal Nature, which later rejected -- along with all the other highest-ranking journals -- his paper describing PCR and its implications. I especially enjoyed the chapters that comment on the nature of science in the modern world. Mullis gives his views on how having to seek external grants distorts the scientific process, from the choosing of projects to the "selling" of results in a politically-correct culture. He tells that science has changed, and so should how we do science, but what people do doesn't change all that fast. He gives as an example something most high school graduates will remember, if only faintly: Avogadro's number. Computations using 6.02*1023 molecules (did I remember correctly, Mr. Smith?) used to be essential to the conduct of chemistry, when chemists had to work with relatively large masses of substance. But now chemists work with dozens of molecules, or 2, or 1. What's the point of doing calculations 23 orders of magnitude larger? Computing has its own historic remnants that affect how we think about programming and programs long after the world changed underneath them. Social change is slow, though, and the university is no exception. As long as we are able to discuss controversial ideas and offer alternatives, we have some hope of making progress. Perhaps my favorite chapter deals with how science and math are the result of humans trying to extend their limited senses. In the beginning, humans knew the world only from their natural senses, among which Mullis counts the traditional five plus the senses of falling and time. He argues that our sense modalities developed around the physical needs of the species. For example, our sense of hearing grew to hear sounds in the range that we can make, thus supporting the development of language; our sense of sight came to see the colors we needed to see and in the light conditions available to prehistoric man. As humans progressed intellectually, we derived science as way to see, hear, and otherwise sense things we could not perceive naturally. Mathematics grew as a way for us to describe these newly-perceived phenomena. For Mullis, this is a natural progression. However, over time, science has increasingly moved away from the original range of our natural senses, to increasingly small objects (quarks, anyone?) and increasingly large objects (galaxies and universes). Mathematics has followed a similar path toward abstraction. The result has been science and math increasingly divorced from the lives and understanding of non-scientists. We have moved away from "human-scale" science, from things we can apprehend naturally, to the physics of the very small and very large. Mullis suggests that we return most of our energy -- and most of our funding, 90% or so -- to things that can matter to everyday people as they live everyday lives. He includes in this category the sort of biochemistry he does, of course, for its potential to affect directly and dramatically human life. But he also suggest that we seek a better understanding asteroids and comets so that we can prevent the next major impact, like the ones in prehistoric times that caused mass extinction of species. Are we any better prepared than the dinosaurs were for a major asteroid impact, even if we are able to predict its coming years in advance? This all seems a bit crazy, but then that's Mullis. Thinking way-out thoughts can lead to change, if the ideas gain traction. Unfortunately, Dancing ... includes some chapters that are so unusual that they may turn some readers off. You will find plenty about drug use, alien abduction, and out-of-body experiences (that were. seemingly, not the result of drug use). Mullis clearly dances naked in the mind field and is not at all constrained by the rationalism that dominates science and technology these days. As a result, he ends up believing some odd juxtapositions at once. If you are put off by such stuff, skip these chapters; you'll not miss anything of "scientific substance". You may miss out on wondering just how a Nobel Prize-winning scientist can think so many strange thoughts, though. And, who knows, you may miss out on the next big thing. Mullis's analysis is not always all that deep, and he has biases like any interesting person. But he writes about interesting ideas, which can serve as a trigger for his reader to do the same thing. I rate Dancing Naked in the Mind Field worth a read. -----