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

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 seriously.”

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 problems.

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

“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.

Around the Town

Look for yourself.

* San Diego bumper sticker: “Ambiguous.” I’ll say.

* Trouble right here. . . .

In San Marcos, parents are fighting a plan for a 40-table pool hall. They’re afraid it will promote shiftlessness among teen-agers.

* How tough is the recession?

For the first quarter of 1991, 209 businesses went bust in San Diego. Compared to 50 during the same period in 1990.

* There is a social group in town for gays and lesbians who are vegetarians and like to ride bicycles.

* Indecent foliage.

Two young girls in La Costa told police they saw a naked man up a tree.

No arrests, no pruning.