A Week in Books: Brain storms in a test tube

Why respect scientists who peddle silly myths?
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EVER SINCE Stephen Hawking sought to peer into "the mind of God" and watched his sales shoot through the stratosphere, heady speculation by leading scientists has picked up an impregnable prestige. From the neo-Darwinists who plant the seed of market forces in our genes to the digital wizards who find paradise on-line, tall tales from some copper- bottomed scientific source always draw a crowd. Pundits busy during this year's National Science Week (from 12 March) will give thanks for those titans of the lab who deign to share their wit and wisdom with the plebs.

Up to a point, Lord Bragg. Expert guesswork is all very well; but when top names on one patch spin yarns about a subject far beyond their ken, nasty accidents can happen on the page. And they will not, in this galaxy or the next, come much nastier than Dancing Naked in the Mind Field by Kary Mullis (Bloomsbury, pounds 12.99).

Dr Mullis won a Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1993. At the Cetus biotechnology corporation in California, he devised the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). It allows the isolation and fast replication of DNA sequences in vitro: a monumental breakthrough that lies behind genetic research into heritable diseases, the use of DNA evidence in solving crimes, the search for a clearer map of human evolution - even the central conceit of Jurassic Park. Hoffmann-La Roche thought PCR important enough to pay Cetus $300 million for the patent. Mullis pocketed a $10,000 bonus for his pains.

So far, so heroic. Big Science never sounded bigger. In his laid-back, ageless-hippie style, Mullis - a celebrated surfer, jester and all-round party animal - explains the birth of PCR with charm and zest. He offers a riveting ringside-seat account of the LAPD's DNA-sample fiascos in the O J Simpson trial. What he truly knows, he knows (and tells) wonderfully well.

But the bulk of these breezy essays stray way beyond DNA or PCR. Mullis is a knee-jerk contrarian: show him the orthodoxy on someone else's turf, and he will want to stand it on its head. Add a strong dose of New Age credulity, with a gallon of anti-government bile, and the results range from the ditsy to the plain dismal.

"Hunter S Thompson meets Stephen Hawking", shouts the cover. In your dreams (formerly LSD-assisted, he admits), Dr Mullis. "David Icke meets Julie Burchill" might be much nearer the mark.

Mullis believes that global warming and ozone-depletion are urban myths cooked up by bureaucrats in search of fat grants. He believes that a girlfriend saved him from a near-fatal overdose of laughing gas by travelling to him "on the astral plane". He believes astrology is simply "true" - if you have your horoscope "cast by a computer". And he believes (as you may have surmised) that he was abducted by aliens from his cabin in the woods.

Then the giggles have to stop. Inevitably, Mullis is also convinced that HIV infection does not cause Aids; but that a sex- and drug-induced viral overload does. He insults and libels the 99-per-cent majority of responsible researchers who disagree ("They are still making payments on their new BMWs out of your pocket"), and equates his band of heretics with Galileo contra the Church.

Now, if HIV really is a harmless virus, it matters not a lot if you transmit or acquire it. Bloomsbury (of all publishers) is promoting this daft book on the back of its author's status as a Nobel laureate. If his tiny sect is wrong, and the consensus right, it could prove fatal to its readers.

In the afterword, Kary Mullis proudly calls the Nobel "a free pass for the rest of your life". Hold on a minute there, pal. I think your pass just ran out.