Pauling the Educator

Linus Pauling in lecture, 1960s.

Linus Pauling in lecture, 1960s.

…[T]o awaken an interest in chemistry in students we mustn’t make the courses consist entirely of explanations, forgetting to mention what there is to be explained.”
– Linus Pauling. Letter to A. A. Noyes. November 18, 1930.

Linus Pauling began his teaching career in 1919, as an undergraduate sophomore, when Oregon Agricultural College offered him an assistant teaching position. After completing his graduate work at Caltech, Pauling dove into the role of educator as a fulltime professor.

Pauling believed that every student should approach chemistry with a sense of wonder and anticipation — he wanted his students to be excited and engaged. Pauling was not one to drone on in a hot classroom while his pupils dozed in their seats. Instead, he was always moving, gesturing and talking, a veritable flurry of activity at the front of the room. His lectures were filled with demonstrations, drawings, and models.

At a recent conference hosted by Oregon State University, one of the speakers, Nobel laureate Dr. Dudley Herschbach, told a story of Pauling’s in-class exploits. Dr. Herschbach explained,

“[T]here’s a classic [demonstration] always done in freshman chemistry – you have a bowl of water, you throw a chunk of sodium in, with some phenolphthalein so it changes colors as things go around and it reacts to produce a base. Well, Linus would do that, and then he’d get very excited about it and say “Isn’t this wonderful, it’s giving off hydrogen,” and all this, and then he’d say “What if we did it with gasoline!” He’d run down here, and all the students would be moving out of the way because the guy looks crazy because he’s so excited. He pours some gasoline in, steps back, and throws off the sodium chunk. Nothing happens. It was his way of making sure they appreciated one of the wonders of chemistry, that is, the business [of] how different things are.”

During his career at Caltech, Pauling’s freshman lectures became famous. While giving a presentation, if something caught his attention, he would explore the problem, following it through its different disciplines, tracing out theories and methods as he went. These seeming digressions often served to teach his students much more than any standard chemistry lecture could.

Indeed, Pauling was both interesting and entertaining, blessed with both an expansive knowledge base and a quick wit. Thomas Hager, a Pauling biographer, writes,

“Together with a spontaneity, vigor, and excitement, there was an ever-present sense of humor, and what a great many people have called ‘showmanship.’ Some have called one aspect of it ‘classroom calisthenics’ – leaps from the classroom floor to a sitting position on the lecture desk with legs dangling, or parallel bar exercises with one hand on the chalk tray and the other on the lecture podium, the body swinging back and forth while the lecture was going on at the same time.”

Despite his advanced abilities and deep understanding of multiple scientific disciplines, Pauling chose to spend much of his career teaching freshman chemistry. He was dedicated to bringing fresh minds into the field. By igniting a passion for the subject, or at least sparking an interest in young students, he knew he would be able to benefit both his pupils and the sciences.

Included among his students are:

Jerry Donohue – Aided James Watson and Francis Crick in their discover y of DNA’s structure.

Martin Karplus – Known for the creation of the Karplus equation.

Matthew Meselson – Responsible, in collaboration, for discovering how DNA replicates, recombines, and is repaired in cells.

E. Bright Wilson, Jr. – Notable advances in the fields of quantum mechanics and spectroscopy.

To learn more about Linus Pauling’s influence as an educator, please visit the website “Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History.”

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