Denaturing the Mind for Discovery – Remembering Kary Mullis through the Voice of Italo Calvino

Sarah Baker

Photo courtesy of the Foundation Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Nobel laureate Kary Mullis passed away on August 7, 2019 at the age of 74. Although a controversial scientific figure due to his climate change denial, rejection of the fact that HIV causes AIDS, strong belief in astrology, and open use of hallucinogenic drugs, it is impossible to deny the importance of his contribution to biology: the invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique. I wrote this piece for Stephen Hall’s Advanced Science Communication course a couple of years ago that asked students to imitate a famous author’s distinct writing style to narrate a well-known scientific discovery. Intrigued by the idea that Mullis thought up PCR while under the influence of LSD, I tried to inhabit Mullis’ mind during this time. The style of the Italian post-modern fiction writer Italo Calvino, with its overly elaborate and somewhat mystical style, seemed to be a perfect fit for the story of the invention of PCR. The following is a fictionalization of Mullis’ insight.

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Well this is the story I will tell you and this is how I remember it. There I was, driving up and down the winding road, my beautiful Jennifer sleeping beside me, and I was in love with each turn as I headed towards my cabin. And by love I do not mean romantic love in the truest sense. It was the kind of love that comes from the full joy of being in the moment, hands gripped on the wheel. If I am being perfectly honest, I was not completely sober, but I am pleased to say that I felt as if I was in complete control of that vehicle. Or to represent the situation more truly, the LSD in my system could’ve been gone at that point. But, you know, in reality it was always there. You must understand that this was the type of road where everything looked the same, even if you had made the drive along the two-lane highway dozens of times before, as I had.

I remember it well how each redwood would try to pass by in a blur, but I would not let them do that to me. What I would really try to do was to shift one into focus, and then the next. I did this to try to understand their beauty, as you must admit that you have tried to do before too. Maybe I was driving too fast, but to be honest about it, I did not care. There was no point in worrying about it. I had to stay focused on each second to comprehend that road. I looked over and she was awake, asking me how much further, but I did not know. If I think about it, you know, it felt like only a few seconds since we were in Cloverdale. But then I saw the mile marker coming into view, and I realized that we passed Cloverdale 50 miles ago. The rolling hills had swallowed me, or rather I had the feeling that I was coming out of a deep abyss. But then, as sharply as the feeling of falling deeper and deeper, I had this feeling of serenity because I came out anew on the other side. When I try to describe it more accurately, it felt as if I was controlling my own body as I travelled as a roller coaster through the trees. There was this pulsing feeling as my brain was ebbing and flowing with the car, expanding and contracting with my thoughts.

Now really up until now I have been setting up the space in which I was existing in this moment. But to help you understand better, let’s go to the real beginning. Throughout the upward and downward tree-filled monotonous drive, my mind shifted to my work, as it tended to do. I made it so that DNA was passing by in my mind. And as I usually did, I boiled it in the heat of my mind, denaturing A’s and T’s and G’s and C’s. As my concentration cooled, the DNA retook its shape. I could do this over and over and it pleased me to watch this process to pass the time. This is not something I ever really wondered about, but it was just something that I did. So what I am speaking of is that my mind can see itself, as I am sure you have felt before. To be more precise about it, this is something that I had probably done thousands of times and I would play this process on repeat. First of all, I added heat to separate the helix. Then I watched closely as the strands came apart. Then I added my oligotide and the polymerase cut as it had been designed by nature to do.

But to make this point clear, up until now, it was always the same in my mind. So to follow my story, you must understand that as I was rocked by the rolling of the road, I suddenly thought of adding another oligotide. I let this oligotide slip into the slate of my mind and now there were two oligotides on the surface right in front of me, dangling right before my windshield. Then, as I had thought of countless times before, polymerase entered and polymerase copied. Now, if you are imagining it like I am, there were two DNA strands. But here is where this played again in my concentrated mind. All I had to do was denature and then cool once more, over and over again. If you see it with me, four DNA strands will be lying before you. Now you do it again. You see eight strands, and then sixteen, and on and on it goes. If you follow me now, you know that I extended this process to the limits of my mind, until my mind was full of DNA. Then there were too many DNA strands and they were leaking out. I was becoming aware that as I lost count, I had stumbled upon a significant discovery.

Coming back to the reality before me, I wondered how I had arrived at the cabin. This wonder hit me with fury as I was daunted by the realization of the redwoods towering over me again. Here I must explain that even with the awareness that I was more tired than ever before, and maybe less conscious, I had never felt more alive. The need for a pen overwhelmed me and I had to draw outside my mind to see what my mind saw. Where was that bottle of Cabernet that I brought with me? I poured out a glass and drew out the DNA as it amplified. This was undoubtedly a computer propagating numbers faster than I could think them. I was replicating, over, over, over—and it is difficult to describe in precise terms whether I was awake or asleep. I was totally lost and the wine had my consciousness in and out. But as I daydreamed and night-dreamed, what I saw clearly in my mind was a chain reaction. I was taken over by the thought that others had surely done this chain reaction? But then I knew this was not the case or I would have heard about it. It is difficult to say when I suddenly realized that Jennifer was out taking in the sun by the pond. Was it morning?

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