Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday TED Talk: Kary Mullis Goes A-Hunting

Molecular biochemist Kary Mullis is one of science's most remarkable characters. A maverick who sets himself apart from mainstream thought, he was responsible for the technology which enables simple DNA testing through the polymerase chain reaction. He conceived the idea while driving his car at night along the California coast --- he had been trying to solve one problem, and ended up solving another that was much more important (fortunately, he had the genius to recognize this --- for which development he subsequently received the 1993 Nobel Prize). He describes the consequences of that moment here:

I was working for Cetus, making oligonucleotides. They were heady times. Biotechnology was in flower and one spring night while the California buckeyes were also in flower I came across the polymerase chain reaction. I was driving with Jennifer Barnett to a cabin I had been building in northern California. She and I had worked and lived together for two years. She was an inspiration to me during that time as only a woman with brains, in the bloom of her womanhood, can be. That morning she had no idea what had just happened. I had an inkling. It was the first day of the rest of my life.
He has never stopped since. In this five-minute talk, given at the 2009 TED Conference, he describes how the death of a very close friend --- in a hospital, attacked by a (then) unstoppable and completely resistant strain of staphylococcus bacteria --- spurred him to delve back into the caverns of his mind. Once again, he developed (and has since tested) a remedy for which we may all soon be thankful (as soon as the FDA has its bureaucratic say, of course):

The thing to keep in mind is that this molecule works because the human immune system is particularly sensitive to it. But there are many more who slip in "under the radar", as it were. Life is a constant battle against pathogens, some of whom meet their deserved fate at the hands of our immune system, but the war is also against others who continually are trying to evolve the genetic material to evade (or fool) our defense systems. In the end (surprise!), it is just like real war --- except that this time, it is our lives that are at stake.

This is why, no matter how ethically challenged (or religiously agnostic) he may be, I thank God for people like Kary Mullis --- because unlike Richard Dawkins, he is not a proselytizer for the cause, but is just who he is --- a North Carolina farm boy who won a Nobel Prize. He is open to supernatural events that have no explanation in science; he is willing to do what authority commands him not to do (e.g., combine potassium perchlorate and sugar); and he is humble enough to recognize that just because he succeeds, he does not thereby become an authority.

There are more links about Karry Mullis here; a much longer TED talk here; and downloads of this shorter talk here. You may watch the talk in its high-res version here.

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