Kary Mullis, perhaps the weirdest human ever to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry, squeezes through the crowd at the National Gallery of Art's van Gogh exhibit and eyeballs a painting of a sailboat skimming atop roiling waves. He's impressed by the painting but not by the waves.

"Those are kind of crappy waves," he says. "You wouldn't want to surf those waves."

Mullis is a surfer. It's just one of the extracurricular activities that have made him a lot more famous than your average Nobel chemist -- the others being flamboyant philandering, gobbling prodigious quantities of LSD, enlivening his scientific lectures with slides of naked women, advocating the commercial cloning of dead celebrities' DNA, defending astrology, and attacking the science establishment every chance he gets.

Mullis stares at another van Gogh for about 30 seconds, then scurries to the next one. He's full of nervous energy, a 54-year-old guy who's as restless as a hyperactive 6-year-old. He reaches over, puts his tanned hands on a woman's shoulders and massages her slender neck. She is Nancy Cosgrove Mullis, 50, his fourth wife. She's an abstract painter -- or she was until she married Mullis last year. Now, she says, she has no time for anything but taking care of her husband -- editing his writing, keeping his schedule, answering his phone.

"Kary's not too much for the phone," she explains. "He leaves it up to me."

Mullis flits around the room, taking quick glances at some paintings, ignoring others. He pauses in front of one that depicts a man harvesting wheat with a scythe. He likes it, but he's much more excited by the van Gogh quote printed on the wall above it: "I see in this reaper the image of death in the sense that humanity might be the wheat that he is reaping . . . " Somehow, that reminds him of his adventures on LSD.

"See -- the guy was on acid," Mullis says, smiling broadly. "Or he was on something. I could see writing something like that on acid."

Presumably, he didn't write his new book on acid but sometimes it reads that way. It's called "Dancing Naked in the Mind Field" and it's a chatty, rambling, funny, iconoclastic tour through the wonderland that is Kary Mullis's mind.

In it, he recounts his late-night encounter with a glowing raccoon that spoke to him, addressing him as "doctor" -- a raccoon that may or may not have been an alien. He tells of passing out after inhaling too much nitrous oxide and later learning that he'd been saved from a fatal overdose by a woman who traveled to him on an "astral plane." He denounces sociology as "a worthless science," psychologists as "modern witch doctors" and the Federal Reserve Board as a "tawdry sepsis." He claims that HIV has never been proven to cause AIDS, and he dismisses global warming and ozone damage as "illusions" perpetrated by "parasites with degrees in economics or sociology."

But Mullis is not merely a naysayer. He touts LSD as an aid in brain research and defends astrology as a valuable tool for understanding human personality: "I was born at 17:58 Greenwich Mean Time on December 28, 1944, in Lenoir, North Carolina. You can find out more about me from that than you can from reading this book."

These are the kinds of opinions usually relegated to late-night radio talk shows. But Mullis is taken seriously -- well, sort of seriously -- because he's a Nobel-certified genius. He won the prize in 1993 for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction, a process that permits the easy analysis of DNA samples. It was a world-changing invention that led to, among other things, the release of several innocent people from death row and the identification of exactly whose DNA was staining Monica Lewinsky's dress.

The idea came to Mullis in a flash one night in 1983 as he was driving to his cabin in the Mendocino, Calif., woods -- the same cabin where he encountered the glowing, talking raccoon. Eureka! He pulled off the road to jot down some calculations. Instantly, he knew it would work. Just as instantly, he knew he'd win the Nobel Prize.

But when Mullis returned to the Cetus Corp., where he worked as a lab chemist, his colleagues weren't impressed with his idea.

"They didn't think it was anything but Kary ranting and raving again," says Paul Aebersold, who worked with Mullis at the company. "Kary always had a lot of ideas that nobody paid any attention to. He had a hare-brained scheme every other week."

At Cetus, Mullis was a legendary character, famous less for his scientific brilliance than for his prodigious womanizing and for engaging in fisticuffs with another scientist after drinking too many margaritas at a company retreat.

"He could be very hotheaded," Aebersold says. "He had an intensity that is almost unimaginable."

Mullis scoffed at the scientists who scoffed at his idea. They said it wouldn't work, but he proved that it did. Cetus paid him a $10,000 bonus for his invention, then turned around and sold it for $300 million.

But Mullis didn't fare too badly. He won the Japan Prize, which paid about $450,000, and the Nobel, which paid almost as much. He became famous as an eccentric Nobel laureate, and he hired himself out as a high-paid lecturer and consultant.

"I was a very promiscuous consultant," he says, smiling.

His most famous client was O.J. Simpson. F. Lee Bailey, one of Simpson's lawyers, traveled to Mullis's beachside house in La Jolla, paused to study Mullis's refrigerator, which was decorated with nude snapshots of his girlfriends, and then sat down to drink a bottle of red wine and discuss DNA. By the time the bottle was empty, Mullis had agreed to testify that the Los Angeles police had botched DNA tests that identified the blood on the murder scene as Simpson's.

It would have been powerful testimony -- the inventor of the DNA testing process criticizing the cops' use of his invention. But Simpson's lawyers decided against calling Mullis as a witness, afraid that prosecution lawyers would use his much-publicized acid adventures to portray him as a raving nut.

It was an odd position for a Nobel laureate to find himself in -- too weird even for the O.J. defense team. The Enemy Without "I could spray anthrax right out this window and nobody would even know it," Mullis says. "We need to be thinking about that."

Mullis is thinking about anthrax and other biological weapons because he's consulting for a company that's seeking a federal contract to study biological warfare. This morning, he toured Fort Detrick, in Frederick, where military scientists research the issue. Such tours are one of the perks of the Nobel -- along with tickets to the van Gogh show.

Now, Mullis is sitting in his room at the Jefferson Hotel, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, his bare feet curled up underneath him. He picks up a bottle of red wine, refills his glass, then pours one for his guest. That kills the bottle, so he tells Nancy to call room service and order another. By the time it arrives, he's ready for more.

For the next hour, he drinks and talks. He prefers monologue to dialogue. As his friend R. B. Haynes says, "Conversation with Kary is usually 90 percent Kary and 10 percent the other party." Today, the ratio is closer to 99-1 as Mullis discourses on anthrax, evolution, religion and surfing before settling on one of his favorite topics -- the incompetence and corruption of other scientists.

"A lot of what is called scientific literature is false," he says. "The driving force is their careers. Scientists are not beyond the kind of greed and ego that lawyers have."

One result of scientific corruption is the evidence for global warming, he says. It's blatant balderdash, a fiction concocted by pseudo-scientists out to win government grants and by people who have a psychological need for an enemy. "The Russians have disappeared as our enemy, and we have to replace them with ourselves," he says, scoffing. "We're the enemy, we're spoiling the planet."

A photographer arrives to take his picture and Mullis ducks into the bathroom to change his clothes. When he emerges, Nancy straightens his collar and combs his thinning hair with her fingers. He chugs down the contents of his wineglass and then they head out the door, holding hands like a couple of teenage sweethearts.

"He's really an old hippie at heart," Nancy says, as she watches Mullis pose for pictures on the sidewalk. "He makes me laugh all the time. I said I wanted my next husband to be funny. I never said I wanted him to be a genius. I probably would have said I wanted him to be a temperate drinker, but you can't always get everything."

Their first date didn't go well, she says. Mullis was taking pain pills for an injury and then he started drinking and he got a little weird. But on the second date, they hit it off. They got married a year ago, despite his mother's warning.

"When I met his mother, she said, Honey, I gotta tell you, he's not husband material. He hurts people.' "

It was his fourth marriage, her third. So far, they agree, it's working out well.

"He has calmed down," she says. "He needs a lot of attention. I give him a lot of attention. I take care of him. It's not like he intimidates me. I can handle him. But he's intense. He's so intensely honest that it borders on tactlessness. He gets something in his head and that's the way it's got to be. He could wear a person down fast." The Enemy Within

Incense perfumes the air in Yes!, a Georgetown New Age bookstore, where the shelves are labeled "Consciousness" and "Dreams and Reincarnation." Mullis takes a seat in front of a human-size statue of a Hindu goddess with four arms. He has come to deliver a speech on his theories about AIDS.

"You want to start?" his host asks.

"Oh," Mullis says. He was expecting an introduction. "I thought you were going to say something like: This is Dr. Kary Mullis, who won the Nobel Prize in 1993 by a fluke and who has since been out in the world saying ridiculous things that he has now put in a book, "Dancing Naked in the Mind Field." ' "

That gets a laugh from the crowd of maybe 25 people.

Leaning way back in his chair, his feet splayed out in front of him, his left hand rubbing the back of his neck, Mullis launches into his most incendiary theory: "There is zero data that could support the statement that HIV is the probable cause of AIDS."

He doesn't know what causes AIDS, he says. He suspects that what we call AIDS is actually a variety of diseases. "The guys who were hanging out in the bathhouses of San Francisco had every parasite you could imagine," he says. "It was a whole way of life that killed a certain percentage of the people who lived it."

That's not all. He says, "I don't actually think it's a disease." He says, "There isn't an epidemic that you can verify." He says, "It's not transmitted by sex." He says, "I don't really respect the people who call themselves AIDS scientists."

AIDS scientists, like global warming researchers, are just in it for the money, he claims. The Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health are pushing AIDS research because it's a lucrative source of federal funding: "CDC was ready for a new plague. NIH was eager to get out of the cancer war and into the war on AIDS."

Needless to say, Mullis's ideas are not shared by most scientists.

"There is just no question that HIV causes AIDS," says Stephen O'Brien, an AIDS researcher and head of the Laboratory of Genomic Diversity at NIH. "Mullis's opinion is nonsense. It's the equivalent of arguing that the world is flat. . . . The man is a pariah whose opinion is shared by less than one-one-hundredth of one percent of people who are thinking about AIDS."

Steven B. Harris, a Utah physician and author of a well-known essay attacking Mullis's AIDS theory, is more succinct: "He's out to lunch."

Mullis knows what other scientists say about him, but he doesn't care. At the bookstore, he describes AIDS researchers with a variety of unprintable expletives.

A man with gray hair and a goatee raises his hand. He says he's been HIV-positive since 1984, that he took the anti-AIDS drug AZT for a couple years but stopped. Now, he says, his T-cell count -- the number of a kind of white blood cell that is killed by HIV -- has gone way down.

Mullis interrupts him: "Change doctors!"

The man continues. His T-cell count is down to 150, which is usually thought of as dangerously low. He asks Mullis for advice.

"I would say there is no evidence that I can find in the scientific literature that you should worry about HIV or your T-cell count," Mullis tells him. "If you'd stop worrying, maybe you'll be all right. You look pretty healthy to me."

Mullis is a chemist, not a doctor, but he's not shy about dispensing medical advice to a man with a potentially lethal disease. Don't even bother getting tested for HIV or T-cells, he says: "The people who are doing those tests are a bunch of {expletives}."

Kary Mullis -- he's a fun guy to drink with, but you wouldn't want to bet your life on his theories. CAPTION: Kary Mullis likes to surf and flow with his unorthodox opinions. ec CAPTION: Kary Mullis won the Nobel in chemistry for his DNA research. He also touts LSD, defends astrology and claims that HIV doesn't necessarily cause AIDS. ec