The Power of Indulging Your Weird, Offbeat Obsessions

Being curious and obsessed can lead to interesting places

Clive Thompson

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A light box with the words “STAY CURIOUS” spelled out on it, sitting on a desk in front of a stack of books, with a pen lying on the desk in front of it. The entire photo has been tinted dark blue
Photo by Justin Heap on Unsplash

Let me start here with a story about deep, obsessive curiosity.

Back in 1964, the microbiologist Thomas Brock visited Yellowstone National Park to do some sightseeing. He was on a long car ride, and wanted to break up the monotony.

While peering into the hot springs, he noticed a curious blue-green tinge. When he asked a park ranger about it, he was told it was algae. That surprised Brock: Those pools are so hot that some of them reach a boiling temperature. At the time, scientists didn’t know of many lifeforms that could readily thrive such scalding environments.

But Brock couldn’t stop wondering about what exactly was going on in those boiling pools. He was dying to know: What was alive down there? How was it surviving?

So he spent the next six years revisiting Yellowstone and taking samples from pools, geysers, and vents. And along with his colleague Hudson Freeze, he discovered a species — Thermus aquaticus — that was previously unknown.

Essentially, they’d documented the category now known as “extremophiles”. As they wrote in a 1967 paper that hit the scientific world like an earthquake, “It is thus impossible to conclude that there is any ‘upper temperature of life.’”

That discovery is cool enough, yes?

But the story took an even more significant turn ten years later. Kary Mullis, a biochemist, was trying to create a faster way to copy DNA using enzymes — but the process he was designing required a lot of heat, he didn’t have any enzyme that could readily endure it, making it hard to scale.

Then one day he found Brock and Hudson’s Thermus aquaticus. Bingo: It thrived in heat, which is precisely the condition he was looking for. Using T. aquaticus, Mullis found the enzyme Taq polymerase, which could do the high-temperature copying necessary. Mullis wound up creating a process that could rapidly generate millions of duplicates. It’s a trick that’s incredibly useful for everything from police investigators trying to isolate crime-scene DNA to doctors trying to diagnose diseases.

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net