A Post-War Vision for Science

Linus Pauling, 1946

[Ed Note: Today and in the four posts that will follow, we will be examining a series of popular articles and lectures that Linus Pauling delivered from 1946-1951 that outline his vision for what science might become in world no longer dominated by war.]


Linus Pauling believed that the enormous scientific innovation characterizing World War II had resulted in a landscape where science was more relevant than ever to people’s daily lives. As such, in his post-war (defined here as 1946-1951) popular lectures and articles, he tended to focus on spaces where science intersected with everyday life, be it in medical research, education, or even popular culture.

Pauling’s vision for the future of science was optimistic and premised on the notion that the scientific community would build upon its war-time achievements and thrive in an environment defined by free exchange and ample resources no longer constrained by military imperatives. Major themes that he turned to during this period included the need for the creation of a National Science Foundation and subsequent provisions for large-scale funding of scientific research; the intersection of structural chemistry with biological and biomedical chemistry; and the imperative that scientific research and education be made accessible to the general public.

Pauling also frequently made mention of promising developments in medicine. Citing current breakthroughs in structural chemistry, Pauling predicted a ten to twenty year period of rapid advancement in medical research that would contribute to a sophisticated molecular understanding of disease and facilitate the synthesis of chemotherapeutic compounds tailored to specific illnesses. In pushing forward these ideas, Pauling once again emphasized his concern for the health and well-being of society, and his fundamental belief in the value of improving one’s understanding of the world around them.

Molecular architecture and biological reactions,” Chemical and Engineering News, May 1946

In this 1946 critique, Pauling made the argument that contemporary research on the nature of physiological reactions was falling short of the mark because of a lack of understanding about molecular structure, and a lack of emphasis on the connection between structure and function.

According to Pauling, prior research on physiological reactions had attacked the problem from the wrong direction by surveying the chemical reactivity of molecules. (e.g., the tendency of molecules to break their chemical bonds, the strength of bonds between atoms, and the formation of new chemical bonds.) Pauling instead put forth a different approach that would focus on the size and shape of molecules, and the nature of the interactions between molecules as opposed to within them.

Bolstered by this alternative framing, Pauling believed that researchers would soon arrive upon major new advancements, and that vexing questions would begin to be answered. “The next twenty years,” he predicted, “will be as great years [sic] for biology and medicine as the past twenty have been for physics and chemistry.” At the time that Pauling wrote this, scientists had developed only a rudimentary concept of the structure of proteins, a research topic of keen importance to his own lab. But Pauling believed that without a strong basis in molecular structure, it would be near impossible to gain a complete understanding of protein structures, to say nothing of the physiological processes to which they are fundamental.

Pauling next provided a brief summary of the progress that had been made over the previous forty years on structural questions across the sciences, citing the development of the electron microscope as being particularly crucial.

There was still work to be done though. For Pauling, the molecular world was a “dimensional forest,” and he believed that a particular ecosystem between 10 and 100 Å (or 10-7 and 10-6 cm) was home to tantalizing clues about the nature of growth processes, duplication mechanisms for genes and viruses, and enzyme activity. But the technology of the day had not yet caught up; no method had been developed that could enable scientists to view that unknowable part of the “forest.” As Pauling explained, the era’s electron microscopes could get close, and other instruments could go even smaller, but no tool was quite sophisticated enough to illuminate processes and substances within that size range.

To make this specific issue more comprehensible for a non-scientific audience, Pauling likened the situation to that of a scientist in space, attempting to study the Earth from thousands of miles away. With microscopes, diffraction units, and other scientific technology also appropriately scaled up, such a scientist might be able to “…distinguish Central Park, the rivers, and such aggregates of sky scrapers as Rockefeller Center…,” but would not be able to discern individual skyscrapers.

From there, using chemical methods, they would be able to identify “substances” moving across the surface of the Earth that they could not necessarily see, such as cars, buses, and ships. With an electron microscope, they could uncover information about the size and shape of objects to within ten feet, and through x-ray and electron diffraction, they would be able to study in detail the structure of objects smaller than one foot in diameter. But there was no tool that could handle objects in between these sizes, so the scientist’s understanding of life on Earth would necessarily be tempered by their lack of ability to see anything within that range of focus. Scaled back down to the molecular level, this was the situation in which structural biologists found themselves in 1946.

In order to overcome these difficulties, Pauling advocated for a greater allocation of resources to advance work in structural biology. He also argued that knowing the shapes and sizes of molecules would shed light on their physiological activities, as more and more evidence was suggesting that physical properties – as opposed to chemical properties – determined a great many molecular activities. (This was clearly the case with enzymes: catalysis reactions, it had been shown, only occurred in instances where two pieces of a molecule fit together like pieces of a puzzle.)

With the war now over, buoyed by ample funding, and following his suggestions on the most fruitful lines of inquiry, it was Pauling’s belief that the sky was the limit. “[P]recise information will rapidly accrue,” he suggested, “including ultimately detailed structures of fibrous proteins, respiratory pigments, antibodies, enzymes, reticular proteins of protoplasm, and others.”

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