This is an excerpt from the Noble lecture of Kary B. Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993.
…I’m going to try to explain how it was that I invented the polymerase chain reaction [PCR]. There’s a bit of it that will not easily translate into normal language. If that part weren’t of some interest to more than a handful of people here, I would just leave it out. What I will do instead is let you know when we get to that and also when we are done with it. Don’t trouble yourself over it. It’s esoteric and not crucial. I think you can understand what it felt like to invent PCR without following the details.
I never tired of tinkering in labs. During the summer breaks from Georgia Tech, Al Montgomery and I built an organic synthesis lab in an old chicken house on the edge of town where we made research chemicals to sell. Most of them were noxious or explosive. No one else wanted to make them, somebody wanted them, and so their production became our domain. We suffered no boredom and no boss. We made enough money to buy new equipment… it was a golden age, but we didn’t notice it. We learned a lot of organic chemistry.
I had made no professional plans that would work in Kansas, so I decided to become a writer. I discovered pretty quickly that I was far too young. I didn’t know anything yet about tragedy, and my characters were flat. I didn’t know how to describe a mean spririt in terms someone else could believe.
So I had to get a job as a scientist…
I didn’t know that the Nobel lectures of every prize winner are publicly available at nobelprize.org, and I came across this one obliquely while reading something else. I had never heard of Kary Mullis before, and I have only a passing understanding of what PCR is.
But Mullis doesn’t just explain what it is and why it matters; in fact he only does a medium job of that. He tells us a story, a true story—one both exciting and painful.
It is rare to read such a confessorial memoir, especially on the theme of scientific discovery. I hope you will read the rest and share your thoughts.
Dr. Mullis also keeps a personal website with lectures, his beliefs and a biography.