Bob Brockie looks at the link between genius and eccentricity

When the Californian surfer Kary Mullis was introduced to the King of Sweden he said, “I believe you’re having problems with your daughter, the 16-year-old princess. I wouldn’t worry about it. I’m sure she’ll grow out of it. In fact I’m so confident that I’m willing to offer my son in marriage, in exchange for a third of your kingdom.”

What was the occasion? 1993, Stockholm, and Kary Mullis was being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Subsequently, Nobelist Mullis has distinguished himself in many ways. He was a specialist adviser in the O J Simpson trial, claims to have been abducted by aliens, communicated by telepathy, and spoken to a talking racoon. At a large and august scientific congress in Europe, Mullis’ only slides were of naked women. They did not invite him back.

The colourful behaviour goes along with a brilliant mind, for Mullis it was who discovered how to multiply up molecules of DNA. He had his eureka experience with his girlfriend asleep on his shoulder as he drove along a Californian highway at dusk in 1983. His clever idea and methodology has transformed the worlds of biology, medicine and forensics.

You will know that, these days, a single molecule of DNA from a crime scene can nail a criminal. Put the molecule into one of Kary Mullis’ black boxes and the machine will make 2, 4, 8, 16 … millions of copies of DNA in a few hours — enough to perform a battery of identity tests.

A local woman was recently shocked and horrified to learn that an out-of-control scientist was making copies of human DNA right here in New Zealand! So shocked that she wrote to the newspaper. Her indignation shows how far apart are scientists and the general public. Madam, local technicians have been multiplying up human DNA here for over 12 years. Throughout New Zealand scores of Mullis black boxes are running at this very minute amplifying human DNA as a matter of course. It has become a standard diagnostic technique in medical laboratories. Mullis’ method is also widely used to multiply up the fragmentary DNA remains of mummies, moas, the fossil bones of Easter Islanders and Neandertal people.

The patent rights to Mullis’ technique were sold to a Swiss drug firm for $300 million. Had the King of Sweden known this he might have taken Mullis’ offer more seriously.

Most of the $300 million went to the firm employing Kary Mullis, but he is not exactly a poor man.

Originally published in the Dominion, 17 September 2001

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