Rocket to Success

When I stepped off the bus for the TEDx Orange Coast conference, I was greeted by a smiling and helpful volunteer who pointed me to will call where I picked up my ticket. Since the auditorium doors were not open yet, I wandered to another floor where I exchanged a card that came with my ticket for a TEDx backpack, snacks, caramel latte espresso concentrate, coupons, a recycled bottle, and a program. Had I known the program was inside, I probably would have returned it since I have difficulty seeing. By the time I realized I had a program, I was already sitting in the auditorium and I had little interest in walking anywhere.

Kary Mullis at OceanIn spite of my difficulty seeing, I read a few biographies. The first biography I chose to read was that of Kary Mullis. I would like to say that I selected his biography because I knew him or I followed his research, theories, and techniques. In truth, I chose to read his biography because it was the shortest biography in the program and I was reasonably confident I could finish reading the biography before the conference began.

According to the TEDx program, “Kary received a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1993, for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). The process, which Kary Mullis conceptualized in 1983, is hailed as one of the monumental scientific techniques of the 20th century.” If I had a SMART phone, I might have searched the internet for a simple explanation of PCR for those of us who struggled with high school chemistry. It was at that moment I decided a presentation about PCR was not something I wanted to hear.

Thankfully, when it was his turn to talk, Mullis described how he became interested in chemistry rather than the scientific wonders of PCR.

There are several reasons why I chose to write about his presentation, none of which has anything to do with PCR.

  • His presentation reveals that creativity, fun, trial, and determination are the keys to success.
  • His delivery proves it is possible to laugh about obstacles, challenges, failures, and adversity.
  • He was the only speaker who TEDx personnel allowed to significantly exceed the allotted time.
  • He captivated the audience – many of whom never built a rocket, made their own rocket fuel, considered a frog’s comfort, or won a Nobel Prize.
  • He was the only speaker that day (perhaps on either day of the conference) who received a standing ovation from the audience.

In case anyone from the Nobel Prize committee is reading this post, I think it is time to add a new category to honor the world’s top scientific comedian. I would also like to nominate Kary Mullis as a candidate under the new category of scientific comedian. Search the world if you want, but I’m confident that Kary Mullis will be the winner.


  1. What did you do as a child that you would like to be doing now?
  2. What disrupted your journey and sent you along a different path?
  3. What can you recommend that will allow others to enjoy the challenges they face?
  4. How can you increase the likelihood that others will have a successful recovery?
  5. What helps you laugh at adversity?
  6. How may I help?

Thanks to Kary and Nancy Mullis for allowing me to share my observations of Kary Mullis’ 9/21/2013 TEDx presentation in this post, TEDx Orange Coast for allowing Kary Mullis to speak at the Beautiful Minds event, YouTube for hosting the video I used in this post, and all the people who directly or indirectly contributed to the picture and video I used in this post.


  1. Yes, as I pointed out before, his was an atypical TEDx format in terms of time & layout !! But the audience liked it 🙂 and surely he will be a winner for the scientific comedian category !

    1. Taji, I have a theory about the speaker. The trait that makes him a great speaker is the same trait that makes him an extraordinary scientist. He pays attention to his audience just as he pays attention to the detail of things he studies in science. The people who observe well in one field can observe well (or learn to observe well) in other fields.

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