The Nobel Prize and mental health

Ah fall, the time when an elder scholar’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of Sweden. Presumably all scientists at one time or another in their career dream of autumn slumber jarringly interrupted by a pronouncement that will ensure their impact has been indelibly left on their field for decades to come: the Nobel Prize.

A Nobel Prize comes with an 8 million kronor cash prize (as of 2012), or about 1.25 million USD. Far more than that, the prestige and standing that come along with the receipt of said prize insures no shortage of seminar invitations, honorariums, and appointments, all but guaranteeing that a winner will never have to “work” another day in their life if that’s what fries their biscuit. A Nobel Prize winner may soon find themself at real risk of succumbing to the glamouros life of resting on their laurels. For some, all that fame and glory can go to their head, potentially leaving their mind a bit less comprehensible. This brings us to the topic of this essay: the world-infamous Nobel co-winner in Chemistry from 1993, Kary Mullis.

For those that have read Kary Mullis’ (self-penned, he fired his co-writer) autobiography, you will remember his accounts of being abducted by an extraterrestrial in raccoon form, his persistent belief in astral projection, and his insistence that HIV and AIDs are not causally linked among other -quite odd- convictions. He may have been attempting to instil in the reader contrary lessons in the role of scepticism and credulity in scientific thinking, he may have recounted events and reality to the best of his understanding, or he may have been just fucking with his readers. Probably all of those options and a few others come into mixed play throughout the autobiography. Perhaps a look at Dr. Mullis’ brief foray in astrophysics may provide some insight. Kary Mullis’ first publication as a biochemistry grad student came in 1968, appearing in the journal Nature: The Cosmological Significance of Time Reversal..

It is, I think, among Dr. Mullis’s proudest accomplishments. He even references the article in his Nobel Prize speech. Now considered to be a bit of rubbish, fuelled by the psychoactive recreations Dr. Mullis is now famous for, which enhanced his “perceived understanding of the cosmos.” The closest I can find to a full text of the article is a grainy scan on Readcube, the preview is limited to the first few paragraphs. Mullis’ article resulted in heavy press coverage, presumably as a result of perceived credibility from specialist language in a generalist journal, obscuring what seems to have been a very vague theory. The tenets of the hypothesis are nearly entirely untestable by experiment: the “time-reversal” described in the article makes it impossible for particles to interact with those of the opposite time sense, namely us. Oh, and time reversal happens inside a mass only after it collapses to a black hole, so “Seen from the outside there will be no effect” (quote from the article). It is just weird enough to leave me wishing I could read past the paywall.

The moral of this story is that one shouldn’t trust everything you read, even (especially?) if it is found in Nature or Science. Resonates well with some of the high-profile rebuttal(s) of prominent articles of the last few years.

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