Pauling and Einstein

Today, in honor of the Albert Einstein exhibit being hosted at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, we’re taking a look at the relationship between the famed physicist and another of the twentieth century’s most publicly prominent scientists, Linus Pauling.

The details of Einstein’s biography are, by now, well established.  Born in Ulm, Germany in 1879, the toddler scarcely spoke until the age of three. As a young adult, he studied at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich and worked odd jobs after graduation until acquiring a position as a patent examiner.

In 1905 he published four papers that formed the foundation of his most widely recognized work, including the landmark paper which theorized the relationship between energy and mass (E=mc²) and another which described the dual-state nature of light as consisting of both particles and waves. After becoming an assistant professor at the University of Zurich, he advanced quickly within the ranks of Central European academia. He was appointed Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute and Professor at the University of Berlin in 1914. A year later, he completed his initial work on the general theory of relativity.  After renouncing his German citizenship for political reasons, Einstein moved to Princeton, New Jersey in 1933, where he had accepted what would be his final position at the newly created Institute for Advanced Study.

Though he eventually spent twenty-three years in Princeton, Einstein visited his future home for the first time in 1921 to deliver the Stafford Little lecture series on the theory of relativity, and to accept an honorary degree. He was forty-two at the time, and received the Nobel Prize for physics the following year. Twenty-three years later, Linus Pauling followed his example, delivering the Vanuxem Lectures on “The Structure and Biological Properties of Molecules” at Princeton in 1954. He accepted his first Nobel prize, for chemistry, that same year.

Pauling first met Einstein in 1927 and gradually became better acquainted with the celebrated figure through intermittent contacts at Caltech, where Einstein spent several winters in the early 1930s.  One particular classroom encounter was deemed newsworthy by the day’s media.  As recounted in a 1931 New York Times article

Last Winter Dr. Einstein was an interested listener while Dr. Pauling discussed his chemical bond research.  After the lecture, reporters noted that the German sage asked Dr. Pauling a number of questions.  ‘I’m afraid I’m not up on the chemical bond,’ Dr. Einstein was heard to say.  ‘I shall have to brush up on the subject before taking more of your time.’

Excerpt from an unknown publication, 1931.

The two eventually shared more extensive and personal interaction following Pauling’s agreement to serve on the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS), which Einstein founded along with the physicist Leo Szilard. The ECAS was formed in the wake of the 1946 release of a widely circulated telegram impelling the need to “harness the atom for the benefit of mankind, and not for humanity’s destruction.” Einstein, having worked for peace in various respects since 1914, became deeply involved in the movement to pacify international atomic policy following the end of the Second World War.

While Einstein and Szilard were primarily responsible for the creation of the ECAS, it received the backing of the Federation of American Scientists from the moment of its inception. The ECAS raised funds for the National Committee on Atomic Information, but also produced informational material for professionals and the general public. Those in the Committee sought mainly to increase public understanding of the scientific facts of atomic energy and their implications for society, but also warned about the dangers of extreme nationalism and atomic war. Pauling was invited to join the group shortly after its creation, at which time his name was added to the Committee’s broadly distributed appeals.

It is clear from numerous sources that Pauling greatly admired both Einstein and his work. And as gleaned from the experiences of others, it seems that Einstein held Pauling in a somewhat similar esteem. According to Alexander Rich, a post-doctoral fellow of Pauling’s who visited Princeton in 1951, when discussing Pauling, Einstein commented “Ah, that man is a real genius!”

Similarly, Einstein seemed sympathetic with and appreciative of Pauling’s many difficulties with the U.S. government, particularly during his fight for a passport.  In one exchange of letters, Einstein wrote

It is very meritorious of you to fight for the right to travel. The attitude of the government corresponds, of course, to the state of transition toward a kind of totalitarian state in which we find ourselves.  The fact that independent minds like you are being rebuked equally by official America and official Russia is significant and to a certain degree also amusing.

Though the two men often shared a similar drive and purpose, subtleties differentiated their opinions about how best to influence certain issues, including international atomic policy. Both men desired lasting world peace, but Einstein placed more emphasis and a greater sense of urgency on the creation of a world governing body. Pauling was a proponent of world government, but spent a great deal of his time supporting more specific issues and causes. In this vein, Pauling once invited Einstein to join a new organization, Everybody’s Committee to Outlaw War, but Einstein declined, arguing:

I surely do not need to assure you that, in principle, I am wholeheartedly on your side. I believe, however, that in the present situation a mere declaration to outlaw war would be quite ineffective. Even if it were possible to create a mass movement around this slogan, it is clear that competitive armament and the danger of war cannot be prevented without a world government which has sufficient power and independence.

While the two held different perspectives on methods for pursuing peace, Pauling enjoyed a relationship with Einstein that was unique among his fellows at the ECAS. Though often not present for Committee meetings, when in Princeton the Paulings used whatever time they could to visit with Einstein.  Late in life, Pauling would recount the general nature of these meetings.

We discussed, not science, but mainly world affairs for about an hour every evening. We came to know him quite well. I think he liked my wife especially. They both had excellent senses of humor. When anything funny about national leaders and their behavior – or about anything else for that matter – was said, he would laugh uproariously…. His reasonableness and his remarkable sense of humor impressed me most in his association with me and my wife.

As Einstein aged and Pauling became more involved in world affairs, their relationship was subject to intermittent gaps. Following years of sparse and ill-documented exchanges, Pauling was inspired to take notes after his last visit to Einstein’s home in November of 1954. Pauling wrote that the two had discussed a range of familiar topics, including their experiences with the ECAS as well as Einstein’s sincere regret at having urged President Roosevelt to pursue the development of atomic weapons.

Pauling diary notes, November 1954.

In his final years, Einstein continued to study and work. He diligently attempted to finish his decades-long pursuit, the complete formulation of a unified field theory which would bring together all of the laws of physical force – such as gravity and electromagnetism – into a “pure field theory.” He also kept up on current events, and one of his final actions was to sign what came to be known as the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, a non-partisan appeal by scientists (including Pauling) for world peace and the abolition of war. He died shortly afterward at Princeton on April 18, 1955.

On May 12, at a function sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Pauling spoke in front of an audience that had assembled to honor the memory of the late Einstein. During the 25-minute speech, Pauling discussed Einstein’s accomplishments, their time together at the ECAS and the ongoing struggle for peace and humanity against war and, in particular, the hydrogen bomb. Pauling likewise shared with the audience portions of his last conversation with Einstein, and closed with some thoughts on the unique level of respect and admiration that he felt towards the man.

The greatest inspiration that I myself received from Einstein came not from his science but from his general outlook on the world – his expressed feelings about social and political questions, and especially about war. . . I think that Einstein was as clear-headed when he thought about international affairs as when he thought about physics, and I trusted his judgment beyond that of any other man.

3 Responses

  1. […] associations, including the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS). The ECAS, chaired by Albert Einstein, spent a substantial amount of time and energy addressing the need to place atomic weapons under […]

  2. […] And here below is the entry – the two sentences Pauling wrote sitting on the sidewalk after leaving Einstein’s Princeton home that morning (via): […]

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