April 15 2012

Good Evening, Doctor

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is a scientific technique in molecular biology to amplify a single or a few copies of a piece of DNA across several orders of magnitude, generating thousands to millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence. Developed in 1983 by Kary Mullis. PCR is now a common and often indispensable technique used in medical and biological research labs for a variety of applications. These include DNA cloning for sequencing, DNA-based phylogeny, or functional analysis of genes; the diagnosis of hereditary diseases; the identification of genetic fingerprints (used in forensic sciences and paternity testing); and the detection and diagnosis of infectious diseases. In 1993, Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.... for his work on PCR. --- (Wikipedia Entry)

Writing in his 1998 autobiography, Dancing Naked in the Mind Field, Nobel Laureate Dr. Kary Mullis recounts an unusual event that happened to him along the Navarro River in Mendocino County, California, at his weekend cabin in the summer of 1985.

Arriving around midnight on a Friday night, he “turned on the kitchen lights, put my bags of groceries on the floor, and grabbed a heavy, black flashlight. I was headed to the john, which was about fifty feet west of the cabin, down a hill. Some people thought it was a little eerie at night, but I didn’t—- I liked the night. I liked sitting in the dark on the custom carved redwood seat. I liked the sound of owls in the valley. But that night, I never made it to the seat.

“The path down to the john heads west and then takes a sharp turn to the north after a few earthen steps. Then it runs level for about twenty feet. I walked down the steps, turned right, and then at the far end of the path, under a fir tree, there was something glowing. I pointed my flashlight at it anyhow. It only made it whiter where the beam landed. It seemed to be a raccoon. I wasn’t frightened. Later, I wondered if it could have been a hologram, projected from God knows where.

“The raccoon spoke. ‘Good evening, doctor,’ it said. I said something back, I don’t remember what, probably, ‘Hello.’

“The next thing I remember, it was early in the morning. I was walking along a road uphill from my house. What went through my head as I walked down toward my house was, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ I had no memory of the night before. I thought maybe I had passed out and spent the night outside. But nights are damp in the summer in Mendocino, and my clothes were dry, and they weren’t dirty.

“The lights in the cabin were dim. I quickly turned off the switch. Miles from Pacific Gas and Electric, I had my own solar panels and a couple of batteries under the house. It was adequate but not deluxe. I was always careful about the lights. The grocery bags were still on the floor, and I started putting them away. The freshly squeezed orange juice from the Safeway in Healdsburg was no longer cold. My memory of the night before was slowly returning. I recalled that I had headed to the john with my new nice black flashlight. Where the hell was that?

“All of a sudden, it came back to me. The talking, glowing raccoon! Had that happened? It was as clear a memory as my early morning brain allowed. Yes. I remembered the little bastard and his courteous greeting. I remembered his little shifty black eyes. I remembered the way my flashlight had looked on his already glowing face. Where was my flashlight?”

Where, indeed.

Looking back upon this episode thirteen years later, Mullis says, “I wouldn’t try to publish a scientific paper about these things, because I can’t do any experiments. I can’t make glowing raccoons appear. I can’t buy them from a scientific supply house to study. I can’t cause myself to be lost again for several hours. But I don’t deny what happened. It’s what science calls anecdotal, because it only happened in a way that you can’t reproduce. But it happened.”

It’s difficult to imagine what it would be like to discover something as momentous as the PCR process. It’s difficult to imagine winning a Nobel Prize. It’s difficult to imagine experiencing such an extraordinarily unusual encounter. But what may be more difficult to imagine still, is if that mind-bending meeting should, in a way we are unable to fathom at this time, be the most significant of these events. 

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