On Success as a Scientist

Linus Pauling, 1980s. Leigh Wiener, photographer.

Science cannot be stopped. Man will gather knowledge no matter what the consequences – and we cannot predict what they will be. Science will go on – whether we are pessimistic, or are optimistic, as I am. I know that great, interesting, and valuable discoveries can be made and will be made… But I know also that still more interesting discoveries will be made that I have not the imagination to describe – and I am awaiting them, full of curiosity and enthusiasm.

– Linus Pauling, “Chemical Achievement and Hope for the Future.” 1947.

For Linus Pauling, scientific research was always so much more than just a way to pay the bills. The passion that Pauling harbored for his career is evident in virtually every manuscript that he ever published, every lecture that he gave, and in many of the thousands of letters – both work-related and personal – that are housed in his papers.

Simply put, Pauling was almost always thinking about some aspect of science. This trait, while certainly playing a major role in his success, was, by his own admission, only one of the many reasons that he rose so far above his peers. In three of his publications from three very different points in his career, Pauling discussed a few of the major requirements that he deemed to be necessary for one to thrive and flourish as a scientist.

The first of these traits is the subject of his manuscript “Imagination in Science,” written for publication in Tomorrow and appearing in print in December 1943.  In it, Pauling writes

The scientist, if he is to be more than a plodding gatherer of bits of information, needs to exercise an active imagination. The scientists of the past whom we now recognize as great, are those who were gifted with transcendental imaginative powers, and the part played by the imaginative faculty in his daily life is at least as important for the scientist as it is for the worker in any other field – much more important than for most.

As examples, Pauling cites the work of luminaries including Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and others. Later, he sums up the main point of his manuscript nicely, suggesting that “…all of the scientific and technical advances which have been made during the present century, are due more to the imagination of scientists than to any other attribute.”

A few years later, in “Academic Research as a Career,” which was prepared in 1950 for Chemical and Engineering News, Pauling more directly addresses the path that a student interested in scientific research should follow in order to enjoy a successful career in the field.

The training that a student should obtain in preparation for a life of academic teaching and research should be as broad as possible and as fundamental as possible…. Languages are important, and the student should learn languages as early in life as possible, preferably beginning in high school. German is essential. A knowledge of French should also be obtained and an opportunity to learn something about Spanish, Italian, or other European languages should not be ignored.

In this regard, Pauling was fortunate, as his paternal grandparents, with whom he spent a great deal of time as a youth, spoke German in the home.  For most, however, language training would be reserved for the classroom.  But certain other crucial traits could not be engendered through lecture or recitation.  In Pauling’s view

There is one all important requirement – that he have a deep curiosity about nature, a consuming desire to know more about the world; in short, that he have the scientific spirit.

And though the right attitude was of course important, it didn’t hurt to be smart as well.

In addition to scholarly interest, scholarly aptitude is desirable. A brilliant student, with a penetrating mind and phenomenal memory, has the greatest chance of being a brilliant research man, provided that he also has the scientific spirit.

Linus Pauling, 1963.

As the years passed, Pauling eventually returned to his original theme – the importance of an active imagination. In his 1961 speech “The Genesis of Ideas,” presented to the Third World Congress of Psychiatry in Montreal, he emphasizes the use of the subconscious as a major problem-solving tool.  In doing so, he first introduces his remarks by quickly noting the traditional paths to scientific discovery.

Many scientists have been interested in the question of the way in which scientific discoveries are made. A popular idea is that scientists apply their powerful intellects in the straightforward, logical induction of new general principles from known facts and the logical deduction of previously unrecognized conclusions from known principles. This method is, of course, sometimes used; but much advance in knowledge results from mental process of another sort – in large part unconscious processes.

Evidently, these unconscious processes were something that Pauling utilized extensively.

My own experience, which I may illustrate in my talk by some examples, has suggested to me that it is possible to train the unconscious to help in the discovery of new ideas. I reached the conclusion some years ago that I had been making use of my unconscious to help in the discovery of new ideas in a well-defined way. I had developed the habit of thinking about certain scientific problems as I lay in bed, waiting to go to sleep. Sometimes I would think about the same problem for several nights in succession, while I was reading or making calculations about the problem during the day. Then I would stop working on the problem, and stop thinking about it in the period before going to sleep.

Continuing this train of thought, Pauling offers his opinion of what might be going on while he sleeps.

I think that after this training the subconscious examined many ideas that entered my mind, and rejected those that had no interest in relation to the problem. Finally, after tens or hundreds of thousands of ideas had been examined in this way and rejected, another idea came along that was recognized by the unconscious as having some significant relation to the problem, and this idea and its relation to the problem were brought into the consciousness.

In conclusion, Pauling explains the benefits that could be gleaned from further research into the birth of ideas.

As the world becomes more and more complex and the problems that remain to be solved become more and more difficult, it becomes necessary that we increase our efforts to solve them. A thorough study of the general problem of the genesis of ideas and the nature of creativity may well be of great value to the world.

From these three publications, one can obtain a very good understanding of the qualities that Linus Pauling considered to be necessary for the enjoyment of a successful career in science. Interestingly enough, although he recognized that a large amount of training is required to become a scientist, the few requirements that he considered most important – an active imagination, the “scientific spirit” and an involved subconscious – are among those that typically cannot be taught in a classroom.


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