Linus Pauling: Movie Star Extraordinaire

Linus Pauling holding models of the structure of water. 1960s.

Linus Pauling holding models of the structure of water. 1960s.

In our search for a person to do a set of two or three filmed lectures in chemistry you have been suggested over and over again as the candidate of first choice.
– J. A. Campbell, National Science Foundation. Letter to Linus Pauling. 1956.

The National Science Foundation, founded in 1950, is an organization dedicated to providing federal aid for education and research in all non-medical fields of science. From its inception, Linus Pauling had been connected with the organization, providing reviews and suggestions regarding the dispersal of grants. He, along with many other scientists throughout the United States, donated their time and skill to the Foundation in the spirit of promoting science-based learning.

In late 1956, Pauling was contacted by J.A. Campbell, the NSF’s Program Director for Institutes. The Foundation was preparing 90 institutes across the U.S, directed at high school-level science teachers and scheduled to take place during the summer of 1957. The Foundation, recognizing the difficulty of providing instructors for all of these institutes, appealed to Pauling for aid.

The National Science Foundation had formulated a plan to film lectures given by notable scientists and educators, and then to distribute these films onward to the various summer institutes. (In many respects, this was to be the 1950s equivalent of today’s online classes and video conferencing.) The Foundation approached Pauling first because, after polling scientists around the country, he had been chosen as the top science lecturer in the nation. Flattered by the recommendation and always interested in conveying science to the masses, Pauling was more than happy to lend his talents to the organization.

Letter from Linus Pauling to J.A. Campbell, December 10, 1956.

Letter from Linus Pauling to J.A. Campbell, December 10, 1956.

In a letter to Campbell accepting the proposal, Pauling suggested a few potential lecture topics along the lines of those that he typically presented to his freshman students. The overall topic, “valence and molecular structure,” was quickly accepted by the NSF organizers, who were happy to rely on Pauling’s experience. Because of Pauling’s status as a much-lauded veteran lecturer, Campbell and his NSF associates gave him a free hand in planning the lectures, occasionally sending letters of gratitude and encouragement. They knew that with Pauling, a recent Nobel medalist, at the helm, the project was likely to succeed.

In the early spring of 1957, Pauling submitted a series of proposals and grant requests, officially launching the project. By the middle of the March, he had his funding and the venture was well on its way.

The actual lectures were filmed in a Los Angeles studio using two still cameras and a tertiary camera for close-up shots of models and demonstrations. By the time filming was complete, Pauling had produced three films, each approximately fifty minutes in length. In the films, Pauling explained the basics of molecular valence and bonding, detailed the properties of various elements in terms of their structure, and manipulated a host of examples, models and diagrams.

For Pauling, lecturing to a camera undoubtedly felt a little stiff and formal. He was used to engaging his students and interacting directly with his audience. For the sake of propriety, he was also forced to put his “classroom calisthenics” on hold. In a normal lecture he would have been in constant motion, first sitting on the lecture table, then swinging his body between chalk tray and table. He might, as he was known to do, even have wandered into the audience, still lecturing as he brought an atomic model, designed and possibly built by himself, to his students for closer inspection.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Carl Anderson, February 1, 1957.

Letter from Linus Pauling to Carl Anderson, February 1, 1957.

Nevertheless, Pauling’s controlled and formal lecturing style did not cover his sense of showmanship. The NSF lectures provided a wonderful example of Pauling’s abilities as both a teacher and a public speaker.

After reviewing the films, John Campbell wrote Pauling a letter expressing his pleasure with the project’s results. The films were a success with the National Science Foundation staff, which was comprised of some of the most knowledgeable scientists in the country. Moreover, before the films even debuted, copies had been ordered by more than fifty of the NSF’s summer institutions.

As it turned out, the films became quite popular among the science-education community. Pauling’s personal secretaries fielded dozens of requests for the content, as did Caltech and the National Science Foundation offices. Many high school and college instructors found the lecture series to be ideal and expressed interest in presenting the films to their students. Beginning in 1958 and continuing through the early 1960s, Pauling’s films, housed by the NSF, were in almost constant circulation around the country, making stops at schools from coast to coast.

With the creation and success of this work, Pauling was able to introduce a whole new medium for instruction to educators around the country. On a personal level, he was very pleased with his performance; so much so, in fact, that he sent copies to his oldest son, Linus Jr., as Christmas presents.

The entirety of the three Pauling NSF films, each divided into segments, can be found here and here, accompanied by full transcriptions.

To learn more about Linus Pauling’s work as a scientist and educator, visit the website Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond.


2 Responses

  1. […] – bookmarked by 1 members originally found by sabotosh on 2008-11-16 Linus Pauling: Movie Star Extraordinaire – bookmarked […]

  2. […] the xenon question was not forgotten. In 1957, Pauling gave three lectures on the chemical bond which were filmed by the National Science Foundation and distributed to institutions around the […]

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