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Kary Mullis Celebrates the Experiment February 1, 2002

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Kary Mullis shares his personal experiences on how he started doing science and shows the audience the boldness and intuitiveness scientists should adapt when doing experiements.


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I'll just start talking about the 17th century. I hope nobody finds that offensive.

I - you know, when I - after I had invented PCR, I kind of needed a change. And I moved down to La Jolla and learned how to surf. And I started living down there on the beach for a long time. And when surfers are out waiting for waves, you probably wonder, if you've never been out there, what are they doing? You know, sometimes there's a 10-, 15-minute break out there when you're waiting for a wave to come in. They usually talk about the 17th century. You know, they get a real bad rap in the world. People think they're sort of lowbrows. One day, somebody suggested I read this book. It was called - it was called "The Air Pump," or something like "The Leviathan and The Air Pump." It was a real weird book about the 17th century. And I realized, the roots of the way I sort of thought was just the only natural way to think about things. That - you know, I was born thinking about things that way, and I had always been like a little scientist guy. And when I went to find out something, I used scientific methods. I wasn't real surprised, you know, when they first told me how - how you were supposed to do science, because I'd already been doing it for fun and whatever. But it didn't - it never occurred to me that it had to be invented and that it had been invented only 350 years ago. You know, it was - like it happened in England, and Germany, and Italy sort of all at the same time. And the story of that, I thought, was really fascinating.

So I'm going to talk a little bit about that, and what exactly is it that scientists are supposed to do. And it's, it's a kind of - You know, Charles I got beheaded somewhere early in the 17th century. And the English set up Cromwell and a whole bunch of Republicans or whatever, and not the kind of Republicans we had. They changed the government, and it didn't work. And Charles II, the son, was finally put back on the throne of England. He was really nervous, because his dad had been, you know, beheaded for being the King of England And he was nervous about the fact that conversations that got going in, like, bars and stuff would turn to - this is kind of - it's hard to believe, but people in the 17th century in England were starting to talk about, you know, philosophy and stuff in bars. They didn't have TV screens, and they didn't have any football games to watch. And they would get really pissy, and all of a sudden people would spill out into the street and fight about issues like whether or not it was okay if Robert Boyle made a device called the vacuum pump.

Now, Boyle was a friend of Charles II, He was a Christian guy during the weekends, but during the week he was a scientist. (Laughter) Which was - back then it was sort of, you know, well, you know - if you made this thing - he made this little device, like kind of like a bicycle pump in reverse that could suck all the air out of - you know what a bell jar is? One of these things, you pick it up, put it down, and it's got a seal, and you can see inside of it, so you can see what's going on inside this thing. But what he was trying to do was to pump all the air out of there, and see what would happen inside there. I mean, the first - I think one of the first experiments he did was he put a bird in there.

And people in the 17th century, they didn't really understand the same way we do about you know, this stuff is a bunch of different kinds of molecules, and we breathe it in for a purpose and all that. I mean, fish don't know much about water, and people didn't know much about air. But both started exploring it. One thing, he put a bird in there, and he pumped all the air out, and the bird died. So he said, hmm ... He said - he called what he'd done as making - they didn't call it a vacuum pump at the time. Now you call it a vacuum pump; he called it a vacuum. Right? And immediately, he got into trouble with the local clergy who said, you can't make a vacuum. Ah, uh - (Laughter) Aristotle said that nature abhors one. I think it was a poor translation, probably, but people relied on authorities like that. And you know, Boyle says, well, shit. I make them all the time. I mean, whatever that is that kills the bird - and I'm calling it a vacuum. And the religious people said that if God wanted you to make - I mean, God is everywhere, that was one of their rules, is God is everywhere. And a vacuum - there's nothing in a vacuum, so you've - God couldn't be in there. So therefore the church said that you can't make a vacuum, you know. And Boyle said, bullshit. I mean, you want to call it Godless, you know, you call it Godless.

But that's not my job. I'm not into that. I do that on the weekend. And like - what I'm trying to do is figure out what happens when you suck everything out of a compartment. And he did all these cute little experiments. Like he did one with - he had a little wheel, like a fan, that was sort of loosely attached, so it could spin by itself. He had another fan opposed to it that he had like a - I mean, the way I would have done this would be, like, a rubber band, and, you know, around a tinker toy kind of fan. I know exactly how he did it; I've seen the drawings. It's two fans, one which he could turn from outside after he got the vacuum established, and he discovered that if he pulled all the air out of it, the one fan would no longer turn the other one, right? Something was missing, you know. I mean, these are - it's kind of weird to think that someone had to do an experiment to show that, but that was what was going on at the time.

And like, there was big arguments about it in the - you know, the gin houses and in the coffee shops and stuff. And Charles started not liking that. Charles II was kind of saying, you know, you should keep that - let's make a place where you can do this stuff where people don't get so - you know, We don't want the - we don't want to get the people mad at me again. And so - because when they started talking about religion and science and stuff like that, that's when it had sort of gotten his father in trouble. And so, Charles said, I'm going to put up the money give you guys a building, come here and you can meet in the building, but just don't talk about religion in there. And that was fine with Boyle. He said, OK, we're going to start having these meetings. And anybody who wants to do science is - this is about the time that Isaac Newton was starting to whip out a lot of really interesting things. And there was all kind of people that would come to the Royal Society, they called it. You had to be dressed up pretty well. It wasn't like a TED conference. The was the only criteria, was that you be - you looked like a gentleman, and they'd let anybody could come. You didn't have to be a member then.

And so, they would come in and you would do - Anybody that was going to show an experiment, which was kind of a new word at the time, demonstrate some principle, they had to do it on stage, where everybody could see it. So they were - the really important part of this was, you were not supposed to talk about final causes, for instance. And God was out of the picture. The actual nature of reality was not at issue. You're not supposed to talk about the absolute nature of anything. You were not supposed to talk about anything that you couldn't demonstrate. So if somebody could see it, you could say, here's how the machine works, here's what we do, and then here's what happens. And seeing what happens, it was OK to generalize, and say, I'm sure that this will happen anytime we make one of these things. And so you can start making up some rules. You say, anytime you have a vacuum state, you will discover that one wheel will not turn another one, if if the only connection between them is whatever was there before the vacuum. That kind of thing. Candles can't burn in a vacuum, therefore, probably sparklers wouldn't either. It's not clear; actually sparklers will, but they didn't know that; they didn't have sparklers. But, they - (Laughter) - you can make up rules, but they have to relate only to the things that you've been able to demonstrate.

And most the demonstrations had to do with visuals. Like if you do an experiment on stage, and nobody can see it, they can just hear it, they would probably think you were freaky. I mean, reality is what you can see. That wasn't an explicit rule in the meeting, but I'm sure that was part of it, you know. If people hear voices, and they can't see and associate it with somebody, that person's probably not there. But the general idea that you could only - you could only really talk about things in that place that had some kind of experimental basis. It didn't matter what Thomas Hobbes, who was a local philosopher, said about it, you know, because you weren't going to talking final causes.

What's happening here, in the middle of the 17th century, was that what became my field - science, experimental science - was pulling itself away, and it was in a physical way, because we're going to do it in this room over here, but it was also what - it was an amazing thing that happened. Science had been all interlocked with theology, and philosophy, and - and - and mathematics, which is really not science. But experimental science has been tied up with all those things. And the mathematics part and the experimental science part was pulling away from philosophy. And - things - we never looked back.

It's been so cool since then. I mean, it just - it just - untangled a thing that was really impeding technology from being developed. And, I mean, everybody in this room - now, this is 350 short years ago. Remember, that's a short time. It was 300,000, probably, years ago that most of us, the ancestors of most of us in this room came up out of Africa and turned to the left. You know, the ones that turned to the right, there are some of those in the Japanese translation. But that happened very - a long time ago compared to 350 short years ago. But in that 350 years, the place has just undergone a lot of changes.

In fact, everybody in this room probably, especially if you picked up your bag - some of you, I know, didn't pick up your bags - but if you picked up your bag, everybody in this room has got in their pocket, or back in their room, something that 350 years ago, kings would have gone to war to have. I mean, if you can think how important - If you have a GPS system and there are no satellites, it's not going to be much use. But, like - but, you know, if somebody had a GPS system in the 17th century some king would have gotten together an army and gone to get it, you know. If that person -

Audience: For the teddy bear? The teddy bear?

Kay Mullis: They might have done it for the teddy bear, yeah. But - all of us own stuff. I mean, individuals own things that kings would have definitely gone to war to get. And this is just 350 years. Not a whole lot of people doing this stuff. You know, the important people - you can almost read about their lives, about all the really important people that made advances, you know.

And, I mean - this kind of stuff, you know, all this stuff came from that separation of this little sort of thing that we do - now I, when I was a boy was born sort of with this idea that if you want to know something - you know, maybe it's because my old man was gone a lot, and my mother didn't really know much science, but I thought if you want to know something about stuff, you do it - you make an experiment, you know. You get - you get, like - I just had a natural feeling for science and setting up experiments. I thought that was the way everybody had always thought. I thought that anybody with any brains will do it that way. It isn't true. I mean, there's a lot of people - You know, I was one of those scientists that was - got into trouble the other night at dinner because of the post-modernism thing. And I didn't mean, you know - where is that lady?

Audience: Here. (Laughter)

KM: I mean, I didn't really think of that as an argument so much as just a lively discussion. I didn't take it personally, but - I just - I had - I naively had thought, until this surfing experience started me into the 17th century, I'd thought that's just the way people thought, and everybody did, and they recognized reality by what they could see or touch or feel or hear.

At any rate, when I was a boy - I, like - for instance, I had this - I got this little book from Fort Sill, Oklahoma - This is about the time that George Dyson's dad was starting to blow nuclear - thinking about blowing up nuclear rockets and stuff. I was thinking about making my own little rockets. And I knew that frogs - little frogs - had aspirations of space travel, just like people. And I - (Laughter) I was looking for a - a propulsion system that would like, make a rocket, like, maybe about four feet high go up a couple of miles. And, I mean, that was my sort of goal. I wanted it to go out of sight and then I wanted this little parachute to come back with the frog in it. And - I - I - I got this book from Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where there's a missile base. They send it out for amateur rocketeers, and it said in there do not ever heat a mixture of potassium perchlorate and sugar. (Laughter) You know, that's what you call a lead. (Laughter) You sort of - now you say, well, let's see if I can get hold of some potassium chlorate and sugar, perchlorate and sugar, and heat it; it would be interesting to see what it is they don't want me to do, and what it is going to - and how is it going to work. And we didn't have - like, my mother presided over the back yard from an upstairs window, where she would be ironing or something like that. And she was usually just sort of keeping an eye on, and if there was puffs of smoke out there, she'd lean out and admonish us all not to blow our eyes out. That was her - You know, that was kind of the worst thing that could happen to us. That's why I thought, as long as I don't blow my eyes out ... I may not care about the fact that it's prohibited from heating this solution. I'm going to do it carefully, but I'll do it. It's like anything else that's prohibited: you do it behind the garage. (Laughter)

So, I went to the drug store and I tried to buy some potassium perchlorate and it wasn't unreasonable then for a kid to walk into a drug store and buy chemicals. Nowadays, it's no ma'am, check your shoes. And like - (Laughter) But then it wasn't - they didn't have any, but the guy had - I said, what kind of salts or potassium do you have? You know. And he had potassium nitrate. And I said, that might do the same thing, whatever it is. I'm sure it's got to do with rockets or it wouldn't be in that manual.

And so I - I did some experiments. You know, I started off with little tiny amounts of potassium nitrate and sugar, which was readily available, and I mixed it in different proportions, and I tried to light it on fire. Just to see what would happen, if you mixed it together. And it - they burned. It burned kind of slow, but it made a nice smell, compared to other rocket fuels I had tried, that all had sulfur in them. And, it smelt like burnt candy. And then I tried the melting business, and I melted it. And then it melted into a little sort of syrupy liquid, brown. And then it cooled down to a brick-hard substance, that when you lit that, it went off like a bat. I mean, the little bowl of that stuff that had cooled down - you'd light it, and it would just start dancing around the yard. And I said, there is a way to get a frog up to where he wants to go. (Laughter)

So I started developing - you know, George's dad had a lot of help. I just had my brother. But I - it took me about - it took me about, I'd say, six months to finally figure out all the little things. There's a lot of little things involved in making a rocket that it will actually work, even after you have the fuel. But you do it, by - what I just - you know, you do experiments, and you write down things sometimes, you make observations, you know. And then you slowly build up a theory of how this stuff works. And it was - I was following all the rules. I didn't know what the rules were, I'm a natural born scientist, I guess, or some kind of a throwback to the 17th century, whatever.

But at any rate, we finally did have a device that would reproduceably put a frog out of sight and get him back alive. And we had not - I mean, we weren't frightened by it. We should have been, because it made a lot of smoke and it made a lot of noise, and it was powerful, you know. And once in a while, they would blow up. But I wasn't worried, by the way, about, you know, the explosion causing the destruction of the planet. I hadn't heard about the 10 ways that we should be afraid of the - By the way, I could have thought, I'd better not do this because they say not to, you know. And I'd better get permission from the government. If I'd have waited around for that, I would have never - the frog would have died, you know.

At any rate, I bring it up because it's a good story, and he said, tell personal things, you know, and that's a personal - I was going to tell you about the first night that I met my wife, but that would be too personal, wouldn't it.

So, so I've got something else that's not personal. But that ... process is what I think of as science, see, where you start with some idea, and then instead of, like, looking up, every authority that you've ever heard of - I - sometimes you do that, if you're going to write a paper later, you want to figure out who else has worked on it. But in the actual process, you get an idea - like, when I got the idea one night that I could amplify DNA with two oligonucleotides, and I could make lots of copies of some little piece of DNA, you know, the thinking for that was about 20 minutes while I was driving my car, and then instead of going - I went back and I did talk to people about it, but if I'd listened to what I heard from all my friends who were molecular biologists - I would have abandoned it.

You know, if I had gone back looking for an authority figure who could tell me if it would work or not, he would have said, no, it probably won't. Because the results of it were so spectacular that if it worked it was going to change everybody's goddamn way of doing molecular biology. Nobody want a chemist to come in and poke around in their stuff like that and change things. But if you go to authority, and you always don't - you don't always get the right answer, see. But I knew, you'd go into the lab and you'd try to make it work yourself. And then you're the authority, and you can say, I know it works, because right there in that tube is where it happened, and here, on this gel, there's a little band there that I know that's DNA, and that's the DNA I wanted to amplify, so there! So it does work.

You know, that's how you do science. And then you say, well, what can make it work better? And then you figure out better and better ways to do it. But you always work from, from like, facts that you have made available to you by doing experiments: things that you could do on a stage. And no tricky shit behind the thing. I mean, it's all - you've got to be very honest with what you're doing if it really is going to work. I mean, you can't make up results, and then do another experiment based on that one. So you have to be honest. And I'm basically honest. I have a fairly bad memory, and dishonesty would always get me in trouble, if I, like - so I've just sort of been naturally honest and naturally inquisitive, and that sort of leads to that kind of science.

Now, let's see ... I've got another five minutes, right? OK. All scientists aren't like that. You know - and there is a lot - (Laughter) There is a lot - a lot has been going on since Isaac Newton and all that stuff happened. One of the things that happened right around World War II in that same time period before, and as sure as hell afterwards, government got - realized that scientists aren't strange dudes that, you know, hide in ivory towers and do ridiculous things with test tube.

Scientists, you know, made World War II as we know it, quite possible. They made faster things. They made bigger guns to shoot them down with. You know, they made drugs to give the pilots if they were broken up in the process, They made all kinds of - and then finally one giant bomb to end the whole thing, right? And everybody stepped back a little and said, you know, we ought to invest in this shit, (laughter) because whoever has got the most of these people working in the places is going to have a dominant position, at least in the military, and probably in all kind of economic ways. And they got involved in it, and the scientific and industrial establishment was born, And out of that came a lot of scientists who were in there for the money, you know, because it was suddenly available. And they weren't the curious little boys that liked to put frogs up in the air. They were the same people that later went in to medical school, you know, because there was money in it, you know. I mean, later, then they all got into business - I mean, there are waves of going into your high school, person saying, you want to be right, you know, be a scientist. You know, not anymore. You want to be rich, you be a businessman.

But a lot of people got in it for the money and the power and the travel. That's back when travel was easy. And those people don't think - They don't - they don't always tell you the truth, you know. There is nothing in their contract, in fact, that makes it to their advantage always, to tell you the truth. And the people I'm talking about are people that like - they say that they're a member of the committee called, say, the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change. And they - and they have these big meetings where they try to figure out how we're going to - how we're going to continually prove that the planet is getting warmer, when that's actually contrary to most people's sensations. I mean, if you actually measure the temperature over a period - I mean, the temperature has been measured now pretty carefully for about 50, 60 years - longer than that it's been measured, but in really nice, precise ways, and records have been kept for 50 or 60 years, and in fact, the temperature hadn't really gone up. It's like, the average temperature has gone up a tiny little bit, because the nighttime temperatures at the weather stations have come up just a little bit.

But there's a good explanation for that. And it's that the weather stations are all built outside of town, where the airport was, and now the town's moved out there, there's concrete all around and they call it the skyline effect. And most responsible people that measure temperatures realize you have to shield your measuring device from that. And even then, you know, because the buildings get warm in the daytime, and they keep it a little warmer at night. So the temperature has been, sort of, inching up. It should have been. But not a lot. Not like, you know - The first guy - the first guy that got the idea that we're going to fry ourselves here, actually, he didn't think of it that way.

His name was Sven Arrhenius. He was Swedish, and he said, if you double the CO2 level in the atmosphere, which he thought might - this is in 1900 - the temperature ought to go up about 5.5 degrees, he calculated. He was thinking of the earth as, kind of like, you know, like a completely insulated thing with no stuff in it, really, just energy coming down, energy leaving. And so he came up with this theory, and he said, this will be cool, because it'll be a longer growing season in Sweden, you know, and the surfers liked it, the surfers thought, that's a cool idea, because it's pretty cold in the ocean sometimes, and - but a lot of other people later on started thinking it would be bad, you know. But nobody actually demonstrated it, right? I mean, the temperature as measured - and you can find this on our wonderful Internet, you just go and look for all NASAs records, and all the weather bureau's records, and you'll look at it yourself, and you'll see, the temperature has just - the nighttime temperature measured on the surface of the planet has gone up a tiny little bit.

So if you just average that and the daytime temperature, it looks like it went up about .7 degrees in this century. But in fact, it was just coming up - it was the nighttime; the daytime temperatures didn't go up. So - and Arrhenius' theory - and all the global warmers think - they would say, yeah, it should go up in the daytime, too, if it's the greenhouse effect. Now, people like things that have, like, names, like that, that they can envision it, right? I mean - but people don't like things like this, so - most - I mean, you don't get all excited about things like the actual evidence, you know, which would be evidence for strengthening of the tropical circulation in the 1990s. It's a paper that came out in February, and most of you probably hadn't heard about it. "Evidence for Large Decadal Variability in the Tropical Mean Radiative Energy Budget." Excuse me. Those papers were published by NASA, and some scientists at Columbia, and Viliki and a whole bunch of people, Princeton. And those two papers came out in Science Magazine, February the first, and these - the conclusion in both of these papers, and in also the Science editor's, like, descriptions of these papers, for, you know, for the quickie, is that our theories about global warming are completely wrong. I mean, what these guys were doing, and this is what - the NASA people have been saying this for a long time. They say, if you measure the temperature of the atmosphere, it isn't going up - it's not going up at all. We've doing it very carefully now for 20 years, from satellites, and it isn't going up. And in this paper, they show something much more striking, and that was that they did what they call a radiation - and I'm not going to go into the details of it, actually it's quite complicated, but it isn't as complicated as they might make you think it is by the words they use in those papers. If you really get down to it, they say, the sun puts out a certain amount of energy - we know how much that is - it falls on the earth, the earth gives back a certain amount. When it gets warm it generates - it makes redder energy - I mean, like infra-red, like something that's warm gives off infra-red.

The whole business of the global warming - trash, really, is that - if the - if there's too much CO2 in the atmosphere, the heat that's trying to escape won't be able to get out. But the heat coming from the sun, which is mostly down in the - it's like 350 nanometers, which is where it's centered - that goes right through CO2. So you still get heated, but you don't dissipate any. Well, these guys measured all of those things.

I mean, you can talk about that stuff, and you can write these large reports, and you can get government money to do it, but these - they actually measured it, and it turns out that in the last 10 years - that's why they say "decadal" there - that the energy - that the level of what they call "imbalance" has been way the hell over what was expected. Like, the amount of imbalance - meaning, heat's coming in and it's not going out that you would get from having double the CO2, which we're not anywhere near that, by the way.

But if we did, in 2025 or something, have double the CO2 as we had in 1900, they say it would be increase the energy budget by about - in other words, one watt per square centimeter more would be coming in than going out. So the planet should get warmer. Well, they found out in this study - these two studies by two different teams - that five and a half watts per square meter had been coming in from 1998, 1999, and the place didn't get warmer.

So the theory's kaput - it's nothing. These papers should have been called, "The End to the Global Warming Fiasco," you know. They're concerned, and you can tell they have very guarded conclusions in these papers, because they're talking about big laboratories that are funded by lots of money and by scared people.

You know, if they said, you know what? There isn't a problem with global warming any longer, so we can - you know, they're funding. And if you start a grant request with something like that, and say, global warming obviously hadn't happened ... if they - if they - if they actually - if they actually said that, I'm getting out. (Laughter) I'll stand up too, and - (Laughter) (Applause) They have to say that. They had to be very cautious.

But what I'm saying is, you can be delighted, because the editor of Science, who is no dummy, and both of these fairly professional - really professional teams, have really come to the same conclusion and in the bottom lines in their papers they have to say, what this means is, that what we've been thinking, was the global circulation model that we predict that the earth is going to get overheated that it's all wrong. It's wrong by a large factor. It's not by a small one. They just - they just misinterpreted the fact that the earth - there's obviously some mechanisms going on that nobody knew about, because the heat's coming in and it didn't getting warmer.

So the planet is a pretty amazing thing, you know, it's big and horrible - and big and wonderful, and it does all kinds of things we don't know anything about. So I mean, the reason I put those things all together, OK, here's the way you're supposed to do science - some science is done for other reasons, and just curiosity. And there's a lot of things like global warming, and ozone hole and you know, a whole bunch of scientific public issues, that if you're interested in them, then you have to get down the details, and read the papers called, "Large Decadal Variability in the ... " You have to figure out what all those words mean. And if you just listen to the guys who are hyping those issues, and making a lot of money out of it, you'll be misinformed, And you'll be worrying about the wrong things.

Remember the 10 things that are going to get you. The - one of them - (Laughter) And the asteroids is the one I really agree with there. I mean, you've got to watch out for asteroids. OK, thank you for having me here. (Applause)

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