A chemical balance A calmer Kary Mullis, Nobel-winning scientist and hallucinogen gourmand, brings his theories about gonzo genetics and random nature to Baltimore.

October 13, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

Not long ago it seemed the world was intent on remembering Kary Mullis more for his public antics than for his science.

Sure, his 1993 Nobel-winning discovery let scientists make unlimited copies of DNA samples, but that's not what put Mullis in the public eye.

Surfing and taking LSD did that. Slipping slides of naked women into his lecture, calling the empress of Japan "sweetie," cornering an Esquire reporter at his bedroom door and suggesting a more intimate way of getting to know him -- that's what took Mullis from the pages of Science to Elle.

He was not a bumbling, nutty professor, or a myopic, half-mad scientist talking in convoluted theorems. He was Hunter S. Thompson in a lab coat.

When asked about those days, you can almost hear him shrug over the phone from New York, the first stop of a 12-city book tour that brings him to Baltimore Friday. "Dancing in the Mind Field" (Pantheon Books, $24), a collection of essays written "to get people to start thinking," was released last month.

"There's the pre-Nancy Kary and the post-Nancy Kary," says Mullis, talking about the influence his fourth wife, Nancy Cosgrove, 50, has had on his life. Cosgrove, a former schoolteacher, brought him one of the great mysteries, he says: "true love."

The couple married last fall. "It calmed me down. It didn't make me more serious, because I was always serious," says Mullis, 53.

Love made him drink less. Love banished the pictures of old girlfriends from his refrigerator door. Love put abstract paintings, by his new wife and her sister, on the walls of his home in La Jolla, Calif. "My house is a lot more refined-looking," he says.

What of the old, gonzo Kary Mullis? Is he gone forever? Yes, and no. The antics are gone, but he still surfs the Pacific. He still takes hallucinogens.

"I wouldn't recommend them for everybody. But for me, it shows me something about myself that I didn't know, the experience of having my brain working in an altered way," he says. "The problem with the use of any drug is that people don't realize the dangers that are there."

A bit of a buzz

Once he nearly fried his brain. He synthesized a hallucinogen, took the concoction and crushed a friend's clarinet because he thought it was a snake. A day later, he woke up huddled under a desk. Three days passed before the drug's effects wore off.

"I had annihilated my personality," he writes of that experience. "I now knew what it felt like to be psychotic, to be meaningless. ... It sure as hell hadn't been fun being lost."

In conversation, Mullis exhibits an amazingly facile mind. He moves easily from discussing the history of science to the possibility that wearing a wet suit and sitting in a tub of cold water could be a great weight-loss program. After all, the body will burn fuel -- fat -- to stay warm.

He is still a contrarian, giving serious consideration to astrology, extraterrestrials, people traveling the astral plane. For Mullis, life is full of unanswered questions, and no question is off-limits. He no longer looks for answers in the lab. A trained biochemist, Mullis specialized in DNA research and molecular biology for 15 years before winning the Nobel Prize.

That part of life is behind him. These days he is more of a "writer as well as a scientist-philosopher type of guy," he says. "Dancing in the Mind Field" is his first book.

"Basically, what I think about is truth," says Mullis.

The current orthodoxy on global warming and the thinning ozone layer do not impress him. He doesn't believe humans have a great effect on such things. The accepted thesis that HIV causes AIDS has not been proved, he says. To Mullis' way of thinking, people should be as skeptical of scientific pronouncements as they are of political promises.

Scientists, beset by the need for grants and research funding, have their own agendas, he says. Every week a new disaster or cure seems to burst on the scene, and behind them are scientists hoping to make a living on the outcome, says Mullis. Scientists have built a separate world, complete with its own language. Gone are the days of shared scientific observation and demonstration at the Royal Society of London.

"You can't pick up a book on quantum electrodynamics and even think you understand the first page," says Mullis, who advocates making science more easily understood. "Sometimes it feels better to discuss your work in terms that almost nobody outside of your work circle can understand, because if you really try to explain it to them in the simplest terms, you might show them how simple it is."

Kary Banks Mullis was born in Lenoir, N.C., and grew up in Columbia, S.C. His mother, who stayed home to raise her family, said he had an "overactive mind." At age 6, he built a magnetic device to open a closet door. Later, he built rockets and used frogs as home-grown astronauts.

The discovery

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