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.
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,
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.