Scientists Can Be Crackpots Too!
I am a molecular biologist – I work with things that are smaller than a living cell. As one of my friends put it, “I spend the day moving little bits of liquid from one tube to another.” Usually in that liquid is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or ribonucleic acid (RNA), the genetic material that defines every living species. Often I am mixing this liquid with DNA to perform PCR.
PCR is a technique that has revolutionized molecular biology. PCR allows scientists to take a piece of DNA and make millions of copies of it in a little test tube in about 2 hours. It is a very elegant and simple technique that has become completely intertwined with today’s research. The current generation of researchers probably can not imagine a life without it.
PCR is used practically too. PCR is used to screen for hereditary diseases, is crucial to identifying emerging diseases such as SARS, is used for paternity testing and has helped release ~300 prisoners from prisons in the United States based on DNA tests that were not available at the time of their conviction. You can bet Abby on NCIS is using PCR every day!
So who was the genius that came up with PCR? Kary Mullis, a biochemist, thought of modern-day PCR as he was mulling over a problem he was having in the lab while driving his car. His technique changed science so much that he was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his development of PCR.
As you can imagine, Dr. Mullis pretty much had god-like stature in my mind. But then I learned some things about Dr. Mullis that left me dumbstruck.
First, Kary Mullis denies that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS. In fact, he wrote, “Years from now, people will find our acceptance of the HIV theory of AIDS as silly as we find those who excommunicated Galileo,” in his book, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field.
Ironically this is coming from the man who invented one of the techniques that is now used to test for HIV.
Ok, the man is welcome to his opinion, but the scientific facts have proven that HIV causes AIDS.
I get so aggravated when anyone, television star or Nobel laureate alike, uses their position of power to expound on beliefs that are not scientifically correct. It is even more frustrating when it is someone who actually has the appropriate background and he/she chooses to ignore the facts or are actual frauds (e.g. Andrew Wakefield).
Second, Kary Mullis also claims that climate change is not real, which he spouts in his TED Talk. The man is full of ironies as the first half of the talk is dedicated to discussing the rigor of good science. Maybe he should apply this?
Third – I would also like to point out that Kary Mullis thinks he might have had an alien encounter in which he lost 6 hours of his life and that he admits to having used LSD often (although not on the night of the alien encounter).
I guess I am just left with the feeling that we are lucky he invented PCR before he went off the deep end.