The Pauling Point

Linus Pauling, in lecture at the California Institute of Technology. 1935

Linus Pauling, in lecture at the California Institute of Technology. 1935

[Pauling] has a speculative mind of the first order, great analytical ability, and the genius to keep in close and inspiring touch with experimental work…. He…is nearly universally rated as the leading theoretical chemist of the world.
- Warren Weaver. Weaver diary notes, October 1933, as referenced in Force of Nature, by Tom Hager, p. 187.

Linus Pauling was known for what his students referred to as the “Pauling Point” – the notion that a problem is best analyzed and solved by examining the broadest possible picture without distorting the details.

Pauling, in other words, believed that by looking too closely at a problem, one could become lost in a mass of variables. On the other hand, should an investigator fail to examine a problem closely enough, its unique properties would fade from view. The intersection then, of “too close” and “not close enough” is “The Pauling Point.”

What follows is a philosophical discussion, written by Pauling, that demonstrates his unique – not to mention long-held – approach to problem solving.

I remember when I was 11 years old that I asked myself what evidence I had that the rest of the world existed anywhere except in my consciousness. I could not think of any convincing evidence to the contrary. I was in danger of becoming a solipsist – I am not sure that I should say that I was in danger, but there was the possibility that I might have accepted this as a philosophy.

As I continued to think about the problem, however, I recognized that the world as it presented itself to my senses seemed to be essentially symmetrical in its relation to me and to other young human beings, such as other students in the grammar school I was attending. This symmetry involves so many facets as to cause me to conclude that, despite the special relationship that my own consciousness had with me (in my interactions with the rest of the universe, as it presented itself to my senses), it was highly probable that I myself did not occupy a unique position in the universe. The actions of individual human beings influence the history of the world.

This fact is especially clearly recognized when we think about the influence that rulers and politicians have had on the history of the world – such people as Julius Caesar, Hitler, Abraham Lincoln. A writer such as William Shakespeare and a discoverer such as Christopher Columbus have clearly changed the world in such a way as to have influenced in a striking manner a tremendous number of people who have lived since their times. Actions taken by what might be called ordinary people have no doubt also had a large effect on the history of the world, even though we are not able to document such effects.

On thinking about this whole question, I recognize that my questioner probably was correct in formulating the basis of his question to me; that is, in saying essentially that I had changed the lives of millions of people. This thought gives me satisfaction, but I do not feel that I should claim special credit for my actions. I have acted in response to my education, my environment, and other factors, especially the influence on my thinking of ideas and convictions expressed by my wife. I have never had the feeling of being a martyr or of sacrificing myself, nor have I had the feeling of being ordained or selected in any way to assume a special position among the billions of people who have lived on earth.

There is one question, however, that raises itself in my mind from time to time, and to which I do not know the answer. This question deals with the theory of probability. My career has been unique. In a sense, the life of every human being is unique, but it seems clear to me that I have had the good fortune to lead a life that is significantly different in quality from that of most other human beings. Perhaps one person in a million, or one person in a hundred thousand, or one person in ten million can be said to have led a life that differs as much from that of most other human beings as mine. Yet I myself – my consciousness, my ego – am associated with this unique life that I have led.

The question that I ask myself is why this consciousness, which is I, should be associated with this life, rather than with one of the hundred thousand or million or ten million other lives that would have provided less satisfaction to me. If I were a solipsist, and able to determine the nature of the imagined universe about me, I might well have determined I in just the way that I have in fact experienced it.

But I am not a solipsist – I believe that I am a human being, like other human beings. Accordingly the problem of my identity remains, to puzzle me.

(Linus Pauling, 1981. As referenced in Mead, Clifford and Thomas Hager. Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001. 236-37.)

While Pauling most often applied his trademark technique to the sciences, as seen above, he could apply it to virtually any subject, even as a child. Where others might have become lost in the paradoxes imbued within concepts like “reality” and “self-awareness,” Pauling was able to remove himself from the equation to the point where he could arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. This technique would characterize his life’s work, resulting in some of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century.

“One could say that Pauling’s ‘failure’ was to plant a lot of seeds, basic ideas, without working them out fully…. As soon as Slater gets an idea he works it out to the end before he gets a new one. But that is also dangerous, of course, because you look at the trees and you don’t see the forest…[Pauling] looks at the forest and lets other people…work out the specific individual things in detail; he has a terrifically lively intellect, reading [Pauling's] paper, the information here is just tremendous, the ideas flow out of the pen, and there are several lifetimes of work…to be done.”

(Sten Samson. Interviewed by Anthony Serafini for Linus Pauling: A Man and His Science. 1984.)

More “facets of Linus Pauling” are available in Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker, now available in paperback from Oregon State University Press.

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3 Responses

  1. Very interesting; I was happy to see Serafini’s biography of Pauling quoted. Hager’s was good but the Serafini it’s worth noting that the Serafini bio seems to have replaced the Hager book as the definitive biography of Pauling.

  2. [...] (including diversity and racism in the United States), and philosophical questions (such as this refutation of solipsism). Over the course of his long life, Pauling trained himself to think critically about every [...]

  3. [...] When he was eleven years old, Pauling spent some time reading the Bible and concluded that the stories related there must not be true. This resulted in him becoming an atheist – a conversion that he kept to himself for many [...]

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