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When You’re a Flaky Genius, Problems Can Cease to Exist

TONY PERRY. “When You’re a Flaky Genius,
Problems Can Cease to Exist :[San Diego County
Edition]. ” Los Angeles Times (pre-1997
  [Los Angeles, Calif.] 1
Sep. 1991,1. Los Angeles


Author(s):TONY PERRY
San Diego At Large
Section:Metro; PART-B; Metro
Los Angeles Times (pre-1997
Fulltext). Los Angeles, Calif.: Sep 1,
1991.  pg. 1

(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los
Angeles Times 1991all Rights reserved)

Two words tend to stick to Kary Mullis.

One is flake. The other is genius.

Flake: “People expect me to be flaky and have odd ideas. I do
have odd ideas. I dabble in a lot of things, but I dabble

Genius: “I do have a certain genius. But I’m not a `serious’
genius like Einstein. I’m a more playful kind of genius.”

Eight years ago, while working for a Northern California
research firm, Mullis developed a technique for copying DNA, the
genetic blueprint of life.

Mullis’ technique, called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR),
revolutionized biology and medical diagnosis and made him the toast
of the scientific world. Among other uses: PCR led to the “genetic
fingerprinting” now used in criminal forensics.

The scientific journals are ablaze with new uses for PCR.
Products using the technique are worth millions.

And where is Mullis?

Living in a small rented apartment on Neptune Place in La Jolla,
overlooking Windansea Beach.

He consults when he wants, travels the world picking up awards,
and reads widely in matters of cosmology, mysticism, mathematics,
virology, chemistry, artificial intelligence and more.

He’s also interested in riding motorcycles, photographing women
and moving permanently someday to Mendocino.

He is happy as he can be: even though the sea salt in the air
makes his computer crash frequently.

He got just a $10,000 bonus for his discovery, but that doesn’t
bother him. He’s 46 years old, thrice-divorced and lives alone, but
is keeping close company with a young biochemist.

He’s funny, talkative and gracious, all in a Southern accent (he
grew up in South Carolina).

He likes to go to scientific meetings and say provocative
things: “I’m not addicted to social approval.”

He is among those who say the link between AIDS and HIV has not
been proven and that the government may be wasting billions chasing
the wrong virus:

“Anyone who had nothing else to do in 1983 became an AIDS
researcher and got funded.”

He has little sympathy for the environmental movement, which he
thinks uses science to scare the populace about non-existent

He sees an appalling similarity between the guilt-trip Baptist
ministers of his youth and the guilt-trip environmentalists of the

“Change is the name of the game on Earth, at least for primates.
I like what’s going on in the world.”

He thinks the best ideas come from outside big institutions like
universities and biotech companies. He thought of PCR while riding
in the woods:

“If you’re too establishment-oriented, you’re not likely to come
up with something really original.”

He made his first scientific splash at UC Berkeley as a graduate
student in 1968 (he got a doctorate in biochemistry) when he
published “The Cosmological Significance of Time Reversal.”

He argued that the universe is a dynamic balance between matter
that is shrinking and matter that is expanding. It is not an idea
that has caught on.

That doesn’t faze him: “The paper has some subtle aspects that
most cosmologists don’t pick up on.”

He would like to again find something as important as PCR. But
if he doesn’t, that’s OK.

“I don’t feel any responsibility to solve problems,” he says.
“Most problems are just the thoughts of problems.”

He then quotes Sartre and draws a graph to prove his point.

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