37: You‘re looking for what now?

Plus: The nutty Nobel Prize winner we can thank for the COVID test

This week I bring you an amusing anecdote, and a portrait of a strange inventor whose work has been vital during the pandemic. These stories have nothing at all to do with each other.

Bookstore Befuddlement

In the late ‘90s I worked in a large four-story bookstore. I was usually working in the computers-and-science section on the top floor right as you got off the escalator. Since I was often the first person a customer would see when they got to the floor, they frequently asked me questions about books in other sections of the store.

One day a man approached, looking for books on a particular topic.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Where can I find books about pediaphiles?”

Hmm, I thought. He’s looking for books about people who are sexually attracted to children. I usually hear that pronounced pedophile but on the other hand pediatricians care for kids, so I guess pedia- and pedo- probably mean the same thing. So I guess those books could be in psychology, or true crime maybe.

“What kind of book are you looking for?” I asked.

“Just a general book.”

“Well, are you interested in the psychology of pediaphiles? Or case studies?”

With obvious confusion on his face, he said, “I guess I’m trying to find out how they’re made.”

“Well, I think that would be psychology. Let me look in the computer and see what we have,” I replied, catching on that we were somehow miscommunicating something, but unsure what that might be.

“I don’t think it would be psychology,” he said, “I think it would be here in the computer section.”

“Books on pediaphiles?”

“Yeah.”

“Um…”

“Do you even know what a pediaphile is?” he asked, obviously thinking I’m an idiot.

“Well, I thought so.”

“It stands for Portable Document Format. It’s what you use when you want to e-mail a document and retain the formatting.”

“Oh! PDF file! I thought you were asking for… nevermind. Yes, we have books on PDF files.”

And I haven’t been able to look at a PDF the same way since.

Thank This Strange Man For The COVID-19 Test

In 2010 I photographed Kary Mullis, who won a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993 for inventing a method of duplicating DNA called the Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR for short. It is used today in all sorts of genetic tests including the nose swab test for COVID-19 that is the most accurate and reliable test for diagnosing COVID-19.

Kary Mullis is not what I pictured when I imagined a Nobel Prize winning scientist. He was a guitar-playing surfer who experimented with LSD. He defended astrology. He questioned whether HIV caused AIDS. He denied global warming was real. And he claimed to have met a talking raccoon that might have been an alien.

He wrote about the raccoon in his autobiography Dancing Naked in the Mind Field:

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.

He acknowledged that there wasn’t much he could do about it from a scientific viewpoint:

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.

When I interviewed him, he didn’t want to talk about any of that.

But he did tell me something about winning a Nobel Prize that I think about sometimes. He said that once you’ve won a Nobel Prize, you can get a meeting with anyone. But only one time. After that, I suppose getting a second meeting depends on whether you bring up the talking raccoon thing.

Have you ever wanted to browse a Nobel Prize winner’s bookshelf? Here’s a high resolution image from Kary’s home office. You can click or tap to embiggen and see more detail:

Looks like a lot of popular non-fiction, with some Ayn Rand and Michael Crichton thrown in for good measure. I’ve actually read quite a few of these books. I think that means I’m partway to winning a Nobel Prize some day.

Kary Mullis was the 28th inventor in my series. He died of pneumonia in 2019.

Kary Mullis was the first of two Nobel Prize winners in my series. Going in chronological order, I think there are 14 more inventors before we get to the second Nobel winner. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading. See you next time!

David