Another View of the Pauling Models

This past spring, Thomas Brennan, a photographer and the chair of Art and Art History at the University of Vermont, paid us a visit to capture his own set of images of Pauling’s models. Brennan’s research concerns the history of symbolic representation in the history of science with three-dimensional modelling, work which has taken him to institutions and repositories including the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, the Museum of Science in London, and the M.I.T. Museums.

Brennan’s photographs of Pauling’s models were captured using a low-light technique that he has used in the past for a project that he calls “Collecting Shadows.” On his website, Brennan provides this bit of background for the series:

Scotophorus pro phosphoro inventus, written by Johann Schulze in 1727, was the origin for experiments with light-based imaging that would lead to William Henry Fox Talbot’s experiments with camera-less photogenic drawings. The ability to record ‘marks of light’ without a lens, first explored in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, provides the foundation for my series of light-based images of museum objects from the history of science titled Collecting Shadows.

A sampling of the images that Brennan captured during his visit to the Pauling Papers is included here.


A View of Pauling’s Models

In 2010, Oren Eckhaus, a photographer based in New York City, visited our facility to photograph several of the molecular models that remain extant in the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers. He did so in support of Jane Nisselson’s documentary-in-progress, “Unseen Beauty: The Molecule Imagined,” which she was researching with support from the OSU Libraries Resident Scholar Program.

Now Eckhaus is preparing several of his photographs for display in an upcoming art exhibition, and he was kind enough to share a handful of the images with us. He also provided a short artist’s statement:

The idea of photographing the molecular models came as an add-on visual assistant to a movie (that is still in the making) who’s main subject is to show the representation of pure scientific ideas as real tangible forms.

In my profession, along with being a fine art photographer, I also document objects of art for museums and art collectors. Upon seeing the models, I was struck by their beauty. They are important both as art pieces and early science tools.

Therefore, the approach of photographing the pieces was a mix of an artistic and documentary point of view, showing the original scientific intent, along with their artistic beauty.

A book of 32 molecule images is in the making.

Click on any image to open the gallery and to learn more about the molecular models highlighted within.


A Funny Story from Andy Warhol


Linus Pauling, Jill Sackler, and Andy Warhol in New York, November 21, 1985. The Linus Pauling Medal for Humanitarianism was presented to Arthur Sackler that evening.

As recorded by Warhol in his diary:

Thursday, November 21, 1985

…the Sacklers were doing this thing at the Metropolitan Club and I was figuring out who to bring, and I should have brought Dr. Li, I guess, because I wound up sitting with Dr. Linus Pauling, but I brought Paige and she had a really good time…

So cabbed to the Metropolitan Club ($5). And there’s Paige sitting downstairs in the hallway. Those horrible doormen there wouldn’t let her in because she didn’t have a fur coat! …

And Dr. Pauling took my arm, he was getting an award. Upstairs I was next to Jill Sackler, across from Martha Graham, and Jill said, ‘Martha’s been dying to meet Linus Pauling for years and now she’s next to him and doesn’t know it.’

I met a man who said he invented vitamin B or C.

And Dr. Pauling was telling us that the only real killer is sugar, and then Paige and I were dumbfounded later when they brought dessert and he sat there eating all these cookies….

This brings to mind one of our favorite Pauling anecdotes, which he told in 1987, as well as one rather unfortunate photograph, which we couldn’t resist sharing below.

Usually I eat two eggs in the morning, sometimes bacon, but I happen to be lazy enough not to cook more than one thing for a meal. The last two days I was eating oxtail soup with vegetables. I don’t know what I’ll have today. Perhaps some fish. In my book [How to Live Longer and Feel Better] I say you shouldn’t eat sweet desserts, but I also quote a professor who says that this doesn’t mean that if your hostess has made this wonderful dessert you should turn it down. My wife used to say I always looked for that hostess.


Caught in the act.

Summer Creative Nonfiction

Linus Pauling, reading with Linus Jr., 1925.

Linus Pauling, reading with Linus Jr., 1925.

[Ed Note: Over the next three weeks, the Pauling Blog will be presenting five sketches on Pauling written in the style of creative nonfiction by Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet. An introduction to this work, authored by Dr. Gormley, follows below.]

Very few scientists have written about their lives and experiences in the way that Linus Pauling did. Some, but still few, held on to their papers and belongings like he did. Pauling aspired to great things and believed he would achieve them and for this reason threw away few papers that might one day enable him and others to record the events of his life and work.

The amount of materials on both Linus and Ava Helen Pauling housed at Oregon State University’s Special Collections & Archives Research Center may overwhelm the researcher at first, but its wealth rarely, if ever, disappoints. The staff must be commended for recognizing early on the benefits of digitizing the materials in their possession and making it accessible to the public through the internet. I was fortunate to participate in this process by helping to develop one of the documentary histories, It’s in the Blood: A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin, and Sickle Cell Anemia.

Online access to Pauling’s life is a tremendous resource and so are the many books recording aspects of his life. There are a number of biographies on him and recently Mina Carson published one on his wife. There are also several compilations in which scholars have provided excerpts from Linus Pauling’s speeches, recollections, interviews, and the like and interspersed his own words with information about what was happening at the time.

Ava Helen Pauling, reading en route to Europe, 1926.

Ava Helen Pauling, reading en route to Europe, 1926.

After completing my master’s thesis in 2003 and the website It’s in the Blood in 2004, I moved on to another project and had no plans of returning to Linus Pauling. Yet, I found myself doing just that in 2012 when I was awarded a fellowship with the To Think, To Write, To Publish program through Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes. As one of twelve scholars I was paired with one of twelve science writers. Melissae Fellet is a freelance writer with a Ph.D. in chemistry. Our task was to produce an article on a science policy topic and write about it in the style of creative nonfiction. We bounced around several topics before deciding to write about Linus Pauling and his peace activism.

The process has been a rich experience and marks a turning point in my own research and writing. I am indebted to those associated with the fellowship. Many people had a role in this process including Lee Gutkind and Dave Guston who oversaw the To Think, To Write, To Publish program (funded by NSF award #1149107) and our mentor in this process, Gwen Ottinger. Ultimately, Melissae’s commitment to this project and our many, many lengthy conversations have helped me to grow as a writer and communicator and have pushed me in new directions.

About the Authors

Melinda Gormley ( is Assistant Director for Research at the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values at the University of Notre Dame. Melissae Fellet ( is a freelance science writer whose work about chemistry and materials science has been published in New Scientist, Chemical & Engineering News, and Ars Technica.

Melinda Gormley and Melissae Fellet have published “The Pauling-Teller Debate: A Tangle of Expertise and Values” in the summer 2015 volume of Issues in Science and Technology. (See The article and these blog posts are the result of support from the National Science Foundation award 1149107. The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Pauling the Swimming Cheat?

The Men's Gymnasium pool at Oregon Agricultural College, ca. 1920s.  This is where Linus Pauling would have taken his required swim test. Or did he...?

The Men’s Gymnasium pool at Oregon Agricultural College, ca. 1920s. This is where Linus Pauling would have taken his required swim test. Or did he…?

An odd nugget came across our desk recently.  From a column titled “Myth of Harvard swimming rule sinks 50 yards short of truth,” published in the Pasadena Star-News and authored by Robert Rector, we read

As recently as two years ago, many schools still had the compulsory swimming requirement, among them MIT, Columbia, Bryn Mawr, Washington and Lee, Dartmouth and Notre Dame.

And like Harvard, the test has become the stuff of legends.

One such tale holds that during the 1920s, Oregon State University had such a requirement, and Linus Pauling, who would go on to win two Nobel Prizes, could not swim a stroke. It was rumored that someone donned his number and swam for him.

It is most certainly true that, during Pauling’s time and for many decades following, Oregon Agricultural College did require that it’s students learn to swim before they could graduate.  (Presumably this was in keeping with the land grant mission of attaining practical knowledge, though it is less clear why the male students took their swim lessons and tests au naturale.  Allegedly it had something to do with the college pool’s filters.)  The unsourced bit about Pauling pulling a fast one is new to us and seems unlikely.

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

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

Young Pauling didn’t have any qualms about bending rules that he thought silly or inconvenient.  He infamously tried out for the college track team in order to avoid OAC’s physical education class requirements, a plan that fizzled rather quickly.

The idea that Pauling did not know how to swim, however, strikes us as improbable.  For one, OAC was a pretty small community back then – just over 3,400 boys were enrolled by the time that Pauling graduated – and it would seem to have been more difficult to slip a body double past the watchful eyes of the examiners. As a four-year ROTC cadet, one also supposes that swimming may have entered his military curriculum along the way.  Pauling and his cousin Mervyn likewise spent six weeks during the summer of 1918 helping to build wooden-hulled freighters on an Oregon coast shipyard.

More telling for us, however, is this early scene from Tom Hager‘s biography, Force of Nature. It describes the exploits of a fifteen year old boy, living in Portland, Oregon, who was hellbent on outfitting his basement chemistry laboratory.

His greatest feat was the transport of a small, brick-lined electric furnace [scavenged from an abandoned smelter in Oswego, Oregon].  Since it could not be disassembled, he talked a friend into helping him haul it down to the river, where they loaded it into a borrowed canoe, paddled miles downriver, then pushed it two miles home up Hawthorne Boulevard in a wheelbarrow.

The teenaged Pauling, it would seem, either knew how to swim or was very brave. (or foolish)

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling, 1948.

Linus and Ava Helen in their Pasadena pool.

Regardless, by 1950 Pauling had definitely sorted out his water skills to the point of building a swimming pool at his Pasadena home.  Dubbed “the pool that General Chemistry built,” the feature was funded by Pauling’s book royalties and very quickly became a bit famous.  As Ken Hedberg recalled in 1995

The Paulings had built a very nice swimming pool just below the house, a feature that made the baby-sitting task a real pleasure in the warm Pasadena summers. The children were a very lively bunch, and had a tendency (at least Linda and Peter did) to cruise through Crellin Laboratory and invite people up for swimming parties when their parents were away. There was one occasion, I believe it was during or just after such a party, when the senior Paulings came walking up the drive. I could only say, “But , I thought you were in Europe!” I do not remember their response. I do remember, though, that it did not seem to matter to either Peter or Linda whether their parents were there or not. The Paulings must have been sorely tried now and then, for once Ava Helen spoke firmly through one of the windows, “Linda, can you get rid of those people, your father and I want to swim!” It was a very reasonable request: there were so many people that there was almost no room in the pool. We all left very quickly.

The pool played a memorable role in Matthew Meselson‘s life as well

I became a graduate student of Pauling’s by an accident that involved a swimming pool. One afternoon in the summer of 1953, Peter Pauling, Linus’ middle son, had some friends over for a swim. Linus came out of the house, dressed in a tie and a jacket, and peered down at me (I was in the water, not at all well-dressed) and he said “Well, Matt, what are you going to do next year?” (You’ve got to have this picture in your mind – I am all wet, largely naked, looking up at the world’s greatest chemist, who is wearing a tie and a jacket. For someone growing up in California, that alone is intimidating). So I said I was going to go back to the University of Chicago, where I had been before, and I was going to be a graduate student of the Committee on Mathematical Biophysics. It was the only time I ever saw Linus looking amazed. After a moment he said, “But Matt, that is a lot of … baloney! Why don’t you come to Caltech and be my graduate student?” So I looked up at him and said, “Okay, I will.” And that was that.

Later on, the Paulings added a large pool adjacent to the “Big House” at Deer Flat Ranch, which is pictured below.

We’ll never know exactly when it started, but one thing is clear: be it for exercise, recreation or simple cooling off, swimming was very much ingrained into the fabric of life for Pauling and his family.

Illustration from "Linus Pauling: Vim, Vigor and Vitamins", Discover, November 1982. Photo by Joe McNally.

Illustration from “Linus Pauling: Vim, Vigor and Vitamins”, Discover, November 1982. Photo by Joe McNally.

Dr. Pauling’s Chiral Aliens

[A guest post expanding on Pauling’s idea for a science fiction novel. Post authored by the blog’s East Coast Bureau Chief, Dr. John LeavittNerac, Inc., Tolland, CT.]

Pauling lecturing with the "fish model" (foreground) that he used to demonstrate chirality, ca. 1960s.

Pauling lecturing with the “fish model” (foreground) that he used to demonstrate chirality, ca. 1960s.

In basic chemistry we have something called “chirality” which refers to a molecule with two possible non-superimposable configurations. One way to picture this is to look at your hands and place one on top of the other (not palm to palm) – your left and right hands are essentially the same shape but their shape is reversed. At the molecular level we can use one of the main building blocks of all proteins and all life – the amino acid alanine, depicted in the image below – to examine handedness.

alanine enantiomers

The diagram shows the arrangement of atoms of two alanine molecules, both of which exist in nature, arranged so that they are mirror images. They are the same molecules but if you turn the one on the right around so that it is facing in the same direction as the one on the left, the R (a single carbon atom in alanine with three bonded hydrogen atoms) on this alanine molecule faces toward the palm of the hand and the COOH moiety (a carboxyl group) and the NH2 moiety (an amino group) face outward away from the palm.

No matter how you rotate the alanine on the right, you can’t get the three moieties attached to the central carbon to line up in the same position as the alanine on the left. Likewise, you can’t get those hands to super-impose each other no matter how much you twist and turn them. So the alanine on the left is called L-alanine (levo- for the direction the molecule rotates photons) and the alanine on the right is called D-alanine (dextro- for the direction the molecule rotates photons). They are called “enantiomers,” or chiral forms, of alanine, and both exist in nature with identical chemical properties except for the way that they rotate polarized light.

There are twenty natural amino acids comprising the building blocks of all proteins. Of these twenty, only glycine is symmetrical around a central carbon atom and therefore glycine has no enantiomers. The other nineteen can exist in the L- and D-conformation.

Funny thing though, only the L-enantiomer is used to make proteins by the protein synthetic machinery of all life-forms, from single-cell organisms up to humans. It’s quite easy to understand why one enantiomer is used in life over random use of either enantiomer. In explaining this, note the pictures below, which show the three-dimensional globular structure of human beta-actin on the left and, on the right, the architectural arrangement of this actin in the cytoplasm of a cell.


The protein composed of 374 amino acids has an intricate folding pattern with coils which would not be possible if both amino acid enantiomers for the nineteen amino acids were randomly incorporated into the protein. This three-dimensional structure has to be preserved in order for actin to perform its dynamic architectural function inside living cells, as shown in the picture on the right. The coils are possible because the amino acids are all L-amino acids and glycine is neutral; otherwise the protein would behave like a wet noodle. The precise structure of the actin protein determines its function, which has been preserved and conserved since the beginning of all eukaryotic life-forms (that is, cells with a cytoplasm and a nucleus). Understanding the atomic forces that fold proteins in a unique shape is part of the reason why Linus Pauling received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954.

Aside from those who closely follow this blog, it is not well known that Linus Pauling was an avid reader of science fiction. In a 1992 interview with biographer Thomas Hager, he described his motivation to write a science fiction novel. The story line was to be the discovery of a human-like race from another planet that had evolved to use only D-amino acids (D-humans) rather than the L-isoform (L-humans). He explained that he never got around to writing this novel because the real science he was doing took all of his time.

If our L-humans met up with those D-humans, what consequences would there be? Well, what we would see in D-humans are people virtually indistinguishable from ourselves – barring, of course, the possibility that these extraterrestrials evolved out of some unearthly environmental niche. However, no mating, blood, or tissue sharing would be possible between these two races.

To explain this, consider the experience you have had when you accidently put your hand in the wrong glove. As you know, this doesn’t work well. All protein interactions and reactions catalyzed by enzymes require a direct fit to work. Substrates of enzymes have to fit precisely into the catalytic active site of the enzyme, like your hand fitting into the correct glove. Since L-humans have a different chirality from D-humans, nothing would fit or be transferrable, because of asymmetric incompatibility between L- and D- macromolecules. Even the food on our planet would not likely be nutritious for D-humans because all living things on Earth are L-organisms. In D-lifeforms, the actin coils would coil in the opposite direction and the DNA double helix would have to spiral in the opposite direction as well; otherwise the analogous D-proteins would not bind or fit on the chromosomal DNA.


It seems reasonable that D-humans might be found on other planets if you consider how life got started. By a quirk of nature on Earth, L-amino acids got a head start and self-assembled into peptides (small proteins) when this essential process for life as we know it got started. The assembly of only one enantiomer isoform into a peptide may have been favored thermodynamically over co-random assembly of L- and D-isoforms. This essential process evolved into a well-organized, membrane-protected and energy-driven protein synthetic machinery in single cell organisms like bacteria. Today, humans have essentially the same protein synthetic machinery that evolved in primordial bacteria and all life-forms on Earth have the same genetic code.

There are two essential enzymes that work together to catalyze protein synthesis in all living cells. One enzyme, called aminocacyl-tRNA synthetase, binds the amino acid to a transfer RNA molecule (there is one of these enzymes and a specific tRNA for each of the twenty amino acids). The second enzyme, peptidyl transferase, catalyzes the formation of a peptide bond linking two amino acids at the start of a chain and does this over and over again until the full length protein is synthesized and folded into its functional conformation. These two essential enzymes do not recognize the D-isoforms of the nineteen asymmetric amino acids. Thus, our chiral L-specificity has been preserved since the beginning of life.

I can’t think of any reason why the D-amino acids would not support life, but it has to be one isoform or the other, not both. Apparently Pauling felt the same way. Should it ever come to pass, D-humans will be interesting to meet and they will be equally interested to meet us, hopefully without mutual disappointment.

The Sci-Fi Author that Might Have Been…


…and featuring a debut story by Linus Pauling?

Along with detective stories, crossword puzzles and the occasional walk, reading science fiction was Linus Pauling’s primary form of leisure.  The hundreds of dog eared sci-fi monthlies spanning multiple decades in his personal library (used to good effect by a past Resident Scholar of ours) are testament to a keen interest in the genre.  It was not until recently, however, that we learned of Pauling’s one-time interest in dabbling as a fiction writer himself.

From an October 1992 interview with Thomas Hager, conducted in support of his 1995 biography, Force of Nature:

Thomas Hager: Do you continue to have an interest in science fiction now?

Linus Pauling: Yes, I subscribe to two of the science fiction journals. Argosy and Science Fiction and Science Fact, the two principle science fiction journals I subscribe to, and I usually read them. The serials sometimes are just too long, I don’t bother to read them. And of course the problem is first the characters have been changing recently. Instead of being adventure science fiction stories, they are sort of sexual relations science fiction stories – the way with novels, too. I don’t read novels anymore either except for old ones that I re-read. And then the science fiction stories, the plots all seem to me to be old ones that I have read before. Sometimes it seems to me that the stories aren’t so interesting as they were in the old days.

TH: Well, that’s probably true. You’ve been reading them long enough, they repeat.

LP: Yes, for years I thought I would write a science fiction story based upon the idea that one can have life essentially identical with life on earth which is based on DNA and proteins and amino acids, but with other handedness. In my General Chemistry or College Chemistry freshman chemistry text, I have a footnote about Alice in Wonderland, or I have a page or two about right-handed and left-handed molecules. And I quote Alice in Wonderland saying, ‘But would looking glass milk be good for me?’ And I said of course it wouldn’t be. It would be made of D-amino acids. And someone who had been converted to the dextral form would not be able to eat anything unless he could get food made of D-amino acids… And couldn’t get married and have children unless he could find a wife who had also been. Well I was going to have a catastrophe in the ship going through space. Some sort of catastrophe that changed everything from left-handed to right-handed.

Extracted from "College Chemistry," 3rd edition, 1964.

Extracted from “College Chemistry,” 3rd edition, 1964.

TH: Now do you remember what sort of catastrophe it would’ve been?

LP: No. Well, it’s pretty hard for a scientist to invent a catastrophe that would do that. It had to be a catastrophe somehow involving multiple worlds, not just a shockwave. Because you would have to have angular momentum, chirality, and it’s very hard even to convert L-alanine to D-alanine, for example.

TH: If you lifted an L-being out of the third dimension into the fourth dimension and turned them over and put them back, would that…?

LP: Oh yes. Surely that’s exactly what people who have written about multi-dimensional space had said or the man who wrote Flatland. You could do that in three dimensions and go back to two dimensions.

TH: I wonder, but I’m trying to think, would that result in that sort of inversion in that…?

LP: Oh yes, well, if you had a scalene triangle, three edges unequal to one another, three edges all different, and turn it over, it goes from being a right-handed to a left-handed.

TH: So in any case, that’s an interesting idea. It is too bad you never finished that.

LP: Yes, well of course, one complaint about some science fiction writers is that their handling of interpersonal relationships is poor. This is a complaint I had of E. T. Bell‘s science fiction books. He wrote two or three science fiction books under the pseudonym John Taine. And they were mildly interesting from the science, sort of. Not more interesting than books or stories by many science fiction writers. Mildly interesting, but the handling of personal, interpersonal relationships was very poor. Of course, good science fiction stories depend to a considerable extent on the personal relationships, just as good novels do.

TH: Do you feel that would have been a weakness if you had tried writing one?

LP: Well, I thought I recognized the need for including a good story of this sort inside of the story, but I’m not sure that I could do it. But the main thing is I never have had time. There are always scientific problems that I am trying to solve and that interest me more.

Pauling's personal collection of science fiction periodicals, as housed in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center.

Pauling’s personal collection of science fiction periodicals, as housed in the OSU Libraries Special Collections & Archives Research Center.