Uncovering scientific myths

Print edition : September 01, 2001

Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Kary Mullis, Vantage Books, New York, 2000; pages 222; $13 paperback.

HOW should you respond to all the hype and controversy over issues such as global warming and the AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome? The answer may be found in this fascinating book, written by the Nobel Prize winning chemist Dr.Kary Mullis, whose discovery of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), redefined the world of DNA, genetics and forensic science. He not only challenges you to question the authority of scientific dogma but also provides a rare insight into the workings of an eccentric, unusual and uncanny mind. This is a book that should be compulsory reading for both scientist and layman burdened with legitimate doubts about the seriousness of global warming and man's role in it.

The book also highlights the danger of scientists uncritically accepting the received truth from the scientific establishment, and helps one to appreciate the wisdom of the Royal Society's succinct motto, 'Nullius in Verba' (take no one's word for it). It is a book every science student must read in order to think for himself or herself and understand the implications of research that is heavily reliant on grants from powerful drug companies. There is often more to the matter than meets the eye, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of research funded by drug companies with vested interests. The book draws our attention to the folly of blindly accepting blindly any proposition even from eminent scientists, so long as it is based on second hand evidence.

Kary Mullis was born in North Carolina, U.S., in 1944. He attended the Georgia Institute of Technology in Columbia, South Carolina, and then the University of California at Berkeley where he received his doctorate in 1973. As a chemist, he was interested in unravelling the mystery of the DNA. The natural function of DNA is to reproduce itself.This happens every time a cell divides into two daughter cells. The DNA make up the genes, and a person has between 30,000 and 40,000 genes that reside in 46 chromosomes; 22 matching pairs and the sex chromosomes X and Y.

It was while driving on Highway 128 in California one night that Dr.Mullis, in a flash of intuition, understood the possibility of amplifying DNA in the laboratory "by the repeated reciprocal extension of two primers hybridized to the separate strands of a particular DNA sequence." So dawned the age of the PCR. For his discovery he received the Japan Prize in 1992 and the Nobel Prize in 1993. The Cetus Company, where he worked, made $300 million from Hoffman-La Roche for the PCR!

When he was a young boy Mullis received a chemistry set as a Christmas present from his mother. This was the beginning of his life-long interest in chemistry. (When the Russians launched the space race by sending Sputnik I into orbit, science education in America benefited greatly from the millions of dollars that the U.S. government poured into it.) After graduating from high school, Mullis worked at Columbia Organic - a supplier of research chemicals. His job was to go through the orders and find the cheapest supplier of the chemicals, some of which had several different names. He had to translate them into their chemical names. One day he found out a bizarre transaction: Columbia Organic was buying a chemical from the Swiss company, Fluka for one of its customers in Illinois. Columbia Organic was paying Fluka $100 for a gram. But Columbia had the same chemical in stock under another name. So when Columbia Organic placed an order with Fluka,it would in turn order the required amount from Columbia Organic for $24 a gram and send it to the customer in Illinois!

WE perceive our environment through our five senses: hearing, sight, taste, touch and smell. Aristotle recognised this fact some 2,000 years ago when he wrote Nihl est in intellectu quod non primus in sensu (Nothing is understood by the intellect which is not first perceived by the senses). The human ear can detect sound frequencies up to roughly 20,000 cycles a second, beyond which we can no longer hear even though the air around our ears is still vibrating. Dogs and bats can hear higher pitches than humans, children higher than adults, and women higher than men.

A variety of sensory systems produce signals beyond human experience: bees recognise patterns of polarised skylight; birds use a magnetic compass while migrating; fish use distortions in the electric field for orientation and detection of prey that live in murky waters. About 20 per cent of the known species of mammals use sound as a means of "viewing" their surroundings. Given that our window on sound is narrow, Mullis argues that "our ears must have evolved mostly for the purpose of listening to ourselves." On the other hand, our biggest window is vision. Light has many manifestations, and the most familiar form that our eyes use is sunlight.

Light is made up of seven colours, and each colour is different because of its wavelength. As the astrophysicist Prof.Jayant Narlikar points out, all wavelengths are extremely short and are measured in nanometres (1 nanometre (nm) = one billionth of a metre). Red light has the longest wavelength in the range of 620-770 nm, while violet and blue light have wavelengths in the range of 390-450 nm. The wavelengths of other colours lie in between. Nature, however, does not limit itself to this 390-770 nm range.

Mullis did a "thought experiment," in which he tried to find out what would happen if he wiggled a little magnet at greater frequencies? At a frequency of 428 trillion times a second, the magnet would start making red light; and at 550 trillion times a second, it would glow green; at 800 trillion times a second, the light would no longer become visible. A little faster, it might even burn you (ultraviolet or UV light). Our vision is centred on the 550 index that we call green, Mullis argues is "because we developed our vision while we were living under the canopies of giant trees that let in only the green light!"

In the late 1970s, when Mullis was working at the University of Kansas Medical Center, he began to accumulate electronic equipment that was left behind when laboratories closed down for lack of funds. It was at this time that his second wife left him. So he had room to experiment with the equipment he salvaged. While at Berkeley he came to know that there were people, especially in India, who could control their heart rate with their mind. We now know that Amblyrhynchus, the marine iguana lizard in the Galapagos islands, whose principal enemy is the shark, can stop its heartbeat momentarily on the approach of a shark. The shark locates the lizard by listening to its heartbeat. Mullis decided to carry out experiments on the electrical conductivity of his skin. He found that when he hooked his wrists to 9 volts the resistance in his skin ranged from about 14,000 ohms to about 100,000 ohms. He then decided to control the resistance of his skin. He discovered that in order to raise the resistance he "had to think about something really boring or meditative," with the voltage meter reading occasionally going as high as 180,000 ohms. On the other hand, a look at the photograph of an unclad woman in Playboy sent the needle below the 10,000 ohms mark! It was so much fun that he even added an oscilloscope to the equipment.

He did more weird things, such as inhaling nitrous oxide or laughing gas. He would inhale a little at a time from a cylinder at home and let his mind "sail off briefly into something primeval and human-less."But one day when, after having taken a powerful antihistamine with his girlfriend Cynthia Gibson to ward off the effects of mosquito bites the previous night, he gulped some nitrous oxide for a few minutes of bliss and passed out. When he woke up, the gas was still running, the tube was frozen, and his lips and tongue were numb. He had to be rushed to hospital by Cynthia and recovery took a month.

As J.M.W. Slack writes in his book Egg and Ego, nowadays, assessment of researchers is not by the content of the articles, not even by their titles, but just by the names of journals in which they are published. "Fashionable journals" such as Cell, Nature, Science. In 1968, while a student at Berkeley, Mullis submitted an article entitled, 'The Cosmological Significance of Time Reversal' to Nature, and was quite surprised when it was accepted. Years later, after he discovered the PCR, he sent a paper on PCR to Nature. Much to his dismay Nature rejected it, and so did science. It was, however, published later in Methods in Enzymology.

As an editorial in Nature argues, "Science is ultimately about ideas moving around inside people. It does not reside in textbooks or in large pieces of equipment." Scientific pronouncements must be supported by experimental data. Mullis is at his best discussing the scientific method and dealing with those scientists who advise governments and make comfortable salaries arranging scientific symposia and stories for the media. Mullis refers to them as "parasites with degrees in economics or sociology who couldn't get a good job in the legitimate advertising industry. They are responsible for a lot of the things that you accept year after year as your problems."

We seem to take everything that the scientific community says to be the gospel truth. As Mullis points out, very little experimental verification has been done to support important societal issues, such as "the belief that AIDS is caused by human immunodeficiency virus, the belief that fossil fuel emissions are causing global warming, and the belief that the release of chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere has created a hole in the ozone layer." Mullis comes down heavily on those scientists who "speak out strongly about future ecological disaster and promote the notion that humans are responsible for any changes going on."

St Jude calls those who mislead humanity "clouds without rain." If something is not clear, we should try to find out who really benefits from it. As Mullis found out, the "American patent on the production of freon, the principle chlorofluorocarbon used in refrigerators and air conditioners, expired just about the same time freon was banned. Those countries that had just begun producing freon without paying for the privilege were asked to stop. And a new chemical compound, a commercial product that would be protected by patent, would soon be substituted and make a lot of money for the company that produced it."

Mullis also questions the indirect evidence that points to a shrinking of the ozone layer, as reported from the increase in the incidence of skin cancers. Instead of correlating skin cancer to UV levels, he wonders why no one has ever thought of measuring the UV light reaching the earth for a few years in the Antarctica? He seriously doubts if man's activities alone could destroy the ozone in the upper atmosphere.

He envisages the following scenario in the event of a hole appearing in the ozone layer: "The UV rays from the sun would come through that hole and strike the earth's atmosphere, where they would be absorbed by the miles-thick layer of oxygen surrounding the earth. Then it would make more ozone. When the UV rays from the sun combine with oxygen, they form ozone. The ozone thus formed absorbs UV light, which continues to come from the sun, and prevents it from penetrating any farther into the oxygen below that has not been converted to ozone."

Global warming may be a part of a complex set of human-generated problems that include not only pollution, degradation of forests, loss of biodiversity but also the great imbalance in the wealth and standard of living between the developed and the undeveloped worlds. Mullis is not convinced that human actions alone are responsible for global warming or ozone depletion. According to him, "the temperature of the Earth is due to the size and shape of the orbit that it follows around the sun, the angle that its rotational axis is tilted to its orbit, the length of its days, the radioactive decay and residual gravitational heat deep below the crust, and the elements that were here from the beginning, and God knows what else, but not us." He feels that we may be, in fact, heading back into another glacial period.

As The Economist points out, long before mankind, and even the industrial age that led to the burning of huge quantities of fossil fuels, global climate warmed and cooled in cycles, as a result of such natural events as volcanic eruptions, fluctuations in solar radiations, and quirks in the earth's rotation. So why do scientists, even those that go to make the U.N.'s Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), conclude that man's actions have "contributed substantially to the observed warming over the last 50 years." The reason, according to Mullis, is that "scientists have a considerable financial stake in our continuing belief that these problems threaten our lives and must be solved. They get paid for it." The current annual budget of the IPCC is of over $1 billion!

Many of us have accepted without question and as a scientific fact that AIDS is caused by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). But Mullis, while working at the Specialty Labs in Santa Monica, searched scientific literature to find out whether there was any incontrovertible proof to link HIV with AIDS. He looked for the reference specifically in recognised peer-reviewed primary journals, where every single experimental detail must be described so that the experiment could be repeated by another scientist to check the outcome. He did computer searches and found that neither Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in Paris (France), nor Robert Gallo of the US National Institutes of Health, "nor anyone else had published papers describing experiments which led to the conclusion that HIV probably caused AIDS." Thus no one seems to have ever proven that HIV causes AIDS. Peter Duisberg, the brilliant virologist at Berkeley, expressed doubts about such a link, but he was sidelined. As Mullis reveals in his book, Editors rejected Peter Duisberg's manuscripts, and his research funds were cut off.

The true nature of the big drug companies came to light when Dr.Mullis as a Nobel Laureate was invited to speak at a conference organised by the Glaxo Pharmaceutical Company in 1995. Glaxo offered to defray the cost of all his travel and accommodation and also pay him an honorarium of $1,500. Glaxo had been successfully marketing AZT as a drug against AIDS. But the sad truth was that "no one has ever recovered from AIDS, even though they have recovered from HIV." Dr.Mullis had always maintained that AZT was "not only useless against AIDS, but in fact it was poisoning people. " So when Dr.Mullis informed Glaxo that he would speak about the fact that there was no scientific evidence that HIV was the probable cause of AIDS, his lecture was cancelled.

Dr. Kary Mullis is an extraordinary scientist, who has written a Tio Pepe of a book, which is a delight to read.

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