Think Independently: Pauling’s Years at OAC


Linus Pauling on OAC graduation day, June 1922.

Linus Pauling on OAC graduation day, June 1922.

[Ed Note: Last Saturday, Oregon State University graduated its largest class ever.  In honor of the class of 2014, we’re taking a quick look back at Linus Pauling’s years as an undergraduate at what was then known as Oregon Agricultural College.]

It might be said that brilliant ideas start with reflections on problems of daily life. The undergraduate story of young Linus Pauling traces the growth of a remarkable talent emerging from an interest in tackling the familiar problems of ordinary life. Pauling enrolled in Oregon Agriculture College (OAC) at the young age of 16 in the Fall of 1917 and graduated from OAC with a B.S. in chemical engineering in June 1922. In those five years, he matured in a significant way, both socially and academically. In school, he not only earned A’s in all of his chemistry and mathematics courses, he also stoked his passion for science and even began to approach the burgeoning field of physical chemistry – a landscape of study that he would one day play a major part in defining.

At OAC and in the decades that followed, a main propellant of his growth and success was Pauling’s persistence in thinking independently. Years later, Pauling famously suggested to a crowd of young people that, “When an old and distinguished person speaks to you, listen to him carefully and with respect – but do not believe him. Never put your trust into anything but your own intellect.”  The kernel of that idea was apparent during young Pauling’s stint in Corvallis.

Pauling at the Oregon coast with his cousin Rowena, 1918.

Pauling at the Oregon coast with his cousin Rowena, 1918.

One quality shared by most successful scientists is that they love and excel at thinking. At an early age, Pauling started to show the signs of an independent thinker, always seeking to dig deeper into a question once he was drawn to it. Pauling’s grandparents lived in Oswego, Oregon close to the newly built Portland Cement Company. On weekend visits to his grandparents, Pauling, aged 14, frequently went to the cement plant’s laboratory and spent hours there bombarding the chief chemist with questions. Many years later, Pauling remembered this patient individual as “a man who was not very interested in chemistry, but who served as scoutmaster and who was willing to talk with me and to answer my questions.”

Pauling continued to pursue this interest during his college years. In the summer of 1919, mostly due to his need to earn money to pay for school but likely also motivated by his early contacts with the cement industry, Pauling secured a summer job in southern Oregon as a blacktop pavement inspector. His main task was to monitor the quality of the bitumen-stone mixes comprising the pavement. In June 1920, these activities were crystallized in his first scientific publication, “The Manufacture of Cement in Oregon,”  which appeared in The Student Engineer. In his three-page article, Pauling specified the process by which cement was produced, from crushers cutting large rocks as a first step to the kilns yielding the final, small round particles for cooling in the finishing mill.

Freshman fun at OAC, 1918. Photo by Linus Pauling.

Freshman fun at OAC, 1918. Photo by Linus Pauling.

Pauling’s digging into the cement industry was an indication of his ability to think independently and pursue a problem persistently, a set of traits that informed his academic work as well. His course reports from the metallography lab in the spring of 1921 also provide a nice glimpse into his scientific acumen and his growing confidence. The reports are not written in the formal and impersonal manner that one might to expect to find. Instead, quite often, Pauling used plain terms and interjected many of his own thoughts in the write-ups. From item to item, a personal voice is easily identified and the reports make for engaging reading. One interesting example is the concluding paragraph to Pauling’s report on “Preparation and Examination of Specimens” (April 25, 1921), which is typically lighthearted and even boastful.  Presumably addressing his professor, Pauling writes

I have made free use of technical terms throughout on the assumption that you would understand them, but in case you do not, I refer you to my experiment on metallography the first quarter of this year, in which complete definitions are given. I have also attempted to use words of one syllable to as great an extent as is practicable in order to prevent any mental strain. Let me repeat that, for a really good article, you should read my previous experiment.

When approaching a lab topic, Pauling early on developed the habit of consulting all of the relevant literature that he could find in developing a general picture of the status of current research on that topic. In his reports, he often gave his opinions of the literature in a very frank manner. See, for example, this aside included in a 1921 report titled “Heat Treatment and Tests of Specimen and Case-Carburizing.”

Quite often in reading, I wonder where people find all the things they do to write about. Just about as often I wonder what the idea of writing so much is, and why it is necessary to really do it. Then again I find the secret. It is this. All this writing is necessary because we are acquiring so much knowledge that we are behind in writing it down as it is, and there is still room for more books. I wish that someone would prepare (or rather, had already prepared) a short concise article on heat treating steels covering about five such pages as this. His work at least would be considered useful by me.

While sharpening his scientific toolkit at the theoretical level, the undergraduate Pauling also loved the mathematical rigor required by many technical tasks. In pursuing these tasks, he developed a stickler’s personality, one that reveals itself time and again in his correspondence over the years.

One such early example is dated March 15, 1920, in a letter from Pauling to Dr. George Smith, the author of a chemistry textbook.  In it, Pauling – who had just turned 19 years old – points out a tiny technical error. On page 11 of the textbook, Smith talked about errors in weight measurement. Using the tools of the day, Smith pointed out that weighing the same sample of a given substance twice would always yield two results which were very slightly different, meaning that there is always a built-in percentage error in weight measurements.

Smith went on to explain how observers calculated errors of this sort in weighing mixtures, using as an example the measurement of the weight of a sample clay which contained in it 0.2% of magnesium oxide. Here Pauling found a point of disagreement; he thought the calculation of the percentage error of the magnesium oxide was problematic. In his text, Smith stated that if the measuring error was 0.1% in total, then for the impurity in the sample, which was 0.2% of the total clay, the percentage error would be 0.0002%. Conversely, Pauling thought the error in the weight of the impurity should be compared with the impurity itself, and that the percentage error would thus be 0.1%, instead of 0.0002%.

Ready to take on the world. 1922.

Ready to take on the world. 1922.

A few days later, on March 22, Smith wrote back to his young correspondent in a very pleasant tone, saying that although he did not agree that this was an error, he admitted that the example was confusing and  needed further clarification. What’s more, at the end of the letter, Smith enthusiastically mentioned that he was looking forward to meeting Pauling at the upcoming meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Before and during his years at OAC, Pauling thought independently about scientific problems, making every effort to find answers that were satisfying to him. He doggedly queried expert opinions, widely searched the available literature, and critically judged the information that he gathered. Only then would he put forward and test his own proposals. He was interested in industrial problems and theoretical questions alike. He was engaged with topics in the lab and gradually developed an acute scientific insight.  And by the time he left Oregon Agricultural College, he was well-poised to do great things as a scientist.

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