The History of the Pauling Blog: Origin Story

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[Over the next four weeks, the Pauling Blog will celebrate its tenth anniversary by sharing extracts from an oral history interview conducted with Chris Petersen, the founder, editor and publisher of the blog. This interview was led by Tiah Edmunson-Morton, who is an archivist and instructor, and also the curator of the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives, a component of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at Oregon State University Libraries, which is likewise home to the Pauling Papers and the Pauling Blog. The transcript extracts presented here have been lightly edited for clarity. Click here to view the full interview.]

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: Tell me the story of how the Pauling Blog started.

Chris Petersen: Well, the origin story of the Pauling Blog would precede the blog itself by several years.

So I started working in Special Collections in 1996 and, at that point, there was a strong interest in digitization already. The Pauling Papers had been at OSU for about ten years, kind of/sort of. Pauling made his donation in 1986, he lived until 1994. Over the course of that time, maybe twenty percent of the collection showed up and a smaller portion of that was jammed into a very small space in the old Kerr Library – a space that doesn’t exist anymore. But the part that we had mostly was not in that space; it was in a couple of other places outside of the library and was basically just in storage. And then Pauling died in ’94, it took about two years to resolve the estate, so around ’96 is when most of the stuff came. And then ’98 is when the facility that we’re in now was completed, and that’s when things came under one roof for the first time.

During that period of time, from ’86 to ’98, we had the stuff that we had and we were processing it as well as we could. And during that time, the library was very interested in doing some sort of digitization project. And so they settled on something called LaserFiche, which was a database-driven piece of software that was fairly slick. It allowed you to create a folder structure online that looked similar to what we might see in Windows Explorer now, and then digitize stuff into those folders and make it available. It could be password-protected if you wanted. And that’s how people would access the content online.

So that was something that was being pursued with gusto and press announcements went out, “we’re digitizing this, isn’t it great?” And it was, sort of. But there were a couple of problems. Number one, we started digitizing before the collection was here – never a good thing. So the collection was being processed and re-processed as time was moving forward, and this directory structure that we were creating was no longer relevant. So things got pretty messy in a hurry.

The other thing that happened was copyright: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed and put us in a situation where we could provide access to everything that we held the copyright for, which was all of Pauling’s writings, but not all the other things in the collection that weren’t his writings which, there’s a lot of that. So that project kind of fell apart as a result of that.

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There was still an interest in digitizing though, and so from there we switched into thematic websites, which is what is represented now — particular aspects of Pauling’s life and career represented through these documentary history websites mostly, but also through some more traditional kinds of digital collections that were created over time as well. So that was a big point of emphasis for Special Collections from really the beginning of my association in ’96 to, well, for the entire duration of the department, which ended in 2011.

TEM: At that point was it pretty standard or traditional for archives that focused so much on one person to digitize that much content? Or have that robust of a website, period?

CP: I doubt it. I think that we were different in a lot of ways. I think that probably there weren’t that many archives that focused on one person. We technically didn’t, we had about a dozen other collections, but they were all quite a bit smaller than the Pauling Papers.

But the library was very invested in innovation and developing a digital presence – that was a very big part of our identity as a library – and Special Collections was a big part of making that come to fruition. So there was an emphasis on that administratively, and we wanted to do it too within the department. We also were well-equipped to do it. I mean, I didn’t have a whole lot of technical skill when I started working, but [Analyst Programmer] Ryan Wick definitely did. He’s still with us and he was the driving force on the technical end. And I was a useful helper as far as that’s concerned and learned things, and he and I have been a good partnership over the years in that regard.

Anyway, this is a very long way of getting to the Pauling Blog, but… So we did all these websites and they were what they were, and they got used and we were proud of them. We were pretty obsessed with our Google ranking for a while and so that was one piece of how the Pauling Blog came about – I’ll tell that story in a second. We also had a need to tell people about events that we were participating in or hosting. And the solution we had was basically a little spot on our website and an RSS feed that would shoot out, that maybe people would use, probably not a lot of them. And that was our “something’s happening,” if you happened across our website you might find out about it, if you subscribed to our RSS feed you might find out about it.

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So we wanted something better for a particular event and that was the release of a postage stamp. In March 2008, the Postal Service released a series of stamps celebrating American scientists, and Pauling was one of them. And they had an event in the basement of the Memorial Union, they had a cake, and Linus Pauling Jr. came, and students from Linus Pauling Middle School came, and all the local stamps geeks showed up, and it was great. It was actually fun – it was great.

But anyway, this was happening and we wanted to let people know it was going to happen, and we wanted a better way to do it than what we had from our website and our RSS feed. We also wanted to be able to follow up; we wanted to take pictures, we wanted to make them available somehow. And this was pretty early on in terms of photo sharing, etc. We definitely didn’t have a Flickr account or anything like that.

So I was thinking about this and I talked about it with a student of ours – Trevor Sandgathe, whom you and I know well, he’s still on staff [as Public Services Archivist] – and we talked about creating a blog. And the blog would be a place where we could be more flexible with telling stories about Pauling, but also raising awareness about events like this. That’s really how that piece of it got motivated.

But the other bit was the Google ranking. And so we would do a lot of searching for “Linus Pauling” and we got frustrated because we learned pretty quickly that, at that time – I’m sure things have changed since – but at that time, Google would lump everything that we had ever made about Linus Pauling into one pot, basically. And so you would search for “Linus Pauling” and you would get the documentary history website that was the most popular, which was Nature of the Chemical Bond, and you wouldn’t have any indication that all this other stuff existed. If you did the “Linus Pauling” search, you wouldn’t have Nature of the Chemical Bond, International Peace Movement, Proteins website, etc. All you’d have is Nature of the Chemical Bond. And if you clicked on “more results within domain,” then that’s when that other stuff would start to appear.

So essentially we were burying ourselves within our domain; we were getting this one return. The only way you would ever find anything else was if you did “Linus Pauling” plus some other word to get into that other chunk of stuff that we had put up online.

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So we started to think about that, the fact that we were burying ourselves in our own domain, and we thought, “wouldn’t it be interesting if we had a different domain that we controlled that we could use to funnel traffic into these other resources?” So essentially what we were trying was a very rudimentary approach to search engine optimization. That was another goal of the blog – unstated, but certainly it was.

So if you look at those early blog posts, we have the stamp announcement and the follow-up. But we also have a series of short posts that are very link-heavy, that essentially are retelling stories that had already been told on the documentary history websites. But the thought process was that eventually the Pauling Blog would raise up in rank in Google and that people would come across this content in the Pauling Blog, and they would click on the links, and that would get them into the stuff that was within the Special Collections domain. And that – I don’t know if it ever actually worked, but those were the two reasons why the Pauling Blog came into being. That’s the origin story.

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Ten Years of the Pauling Blog

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It’s hard to believe and even a bit overwhelming for us to think about, but ten years ago this week the Pauling Blog came into being. In the decade that followed, thirty-three people authored posts for the project, in the process compiling a body of work that now consists of over 664,000 words. Later this year we will publish our 700th post and, probably come Fall, we will record our one-millionth view. Heady stuff for a resource that, as we’re fond of recalling, was originally created to document the issuing of a postage stamp.

Nearly all of the content that has been released on this blog was written by a student enrolled at Oregon State University. It would seem fitting then that the commemorative poster that you see above was also created by an OSU undergrad. To download your own copy of the poster, please click on the image or follow this link. (11×17 in. PDF; 1.8 MB)

We will have more reflections to share soon, but for now let us sign off with an expression of gratitude. Were we Linus Pauling, in all his characteristic formality, we might “judge that it is surely fine” that you continue to read our work and find it useful. As is, we’ll simply say thank you and ask that you please keep checking back — there is much more to come.

Pauling 117

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Today we mark the 117th anniversary of Linus Pauling’s birth, which took place in Portland, Oregon on February 28, 1901. At about this time last year, we sifted through and highlighted a collection of posts that we had published from 2010 to 2013, the idea being that relatively new readers might appreciate knowing about some of the more interesting bits that we had written in the past. In that same spirit, today we present ten sets of especially compelling or fun pieces that were authored and published between 2013 and 2015. Happy Pauling Day everyone!


  1. The History of the Linus Pauling Institute: A collection of ten posts published over the course of two months and detailing the history of Pauling’s namesake institute on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary.
  2. Dorothy Wrinch and the Theory of Cyclols: A four-piece series recounting Pauling’s sometimes hostile clashes with Wrinch, a British scientist whose thinking on protein structures came into conflict with Pauling’s in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
  3. Retracing Pauling’s Nobel Peace Prize: In 2013 we celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s Peace Prize by taking a close look at his road to Oslo and the experiences that ensued. The series examined the announcement of the prize in October; the response to this announcement by the media and by Pauling’s colleagues; the Pauling family’s trip to Norway; the Peace Prize ceremony itself; and the circumstances that awaited Pauling once he had returned home.
  4. The R/V Alpha Helix: Two posts chronicling the life and adventures of a research ship named after one of Pauling’s signature discoveries.
  5. Pauling’s Chiral Aliens: A fun look at an idea that Pauling had for a science fiction story, coupled with a follow-up post on the actual science behind Pauling’s idea, as submitted by Dr. John Leavitt, a former researcher at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine and a long-time friend of the blog.
  6. Irwin Stone, an Influential Man: Two pieces looking at Stone’s life and impact, including the communications with Pauling that spurred a very high profile interest in vitamin C.
  7. The Story of The Nature of the Chemical Bond: In 2014 we marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of Pauling’s most famous book by publishing a six-post series that investigated its authorship, publication and impact.
  8. Herman and Belle Pauling: An often melancholy inquiry into the short and difficult lives of Linus Pauling’s parents, neither of whom would ever come to know of the remarkable achievements attained by their only son.
  9. The New York Daily News Lawsuit: Of the many legal disputes in which Pauling found himself embroiled, this one was surely the strangest.
  10. One-Off Posts: OK, we’re cheating a little bit here since none of these pieces have anything to do with one another, but we can’t help but share three more singletons from each of the years under review:
    1. Atomic Desalination (2013)
    2. Pauling the Swimming Cheat? (2014)
    3. Pauling and the Moon (2015)

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Pauling’s Receipt of the National Medal of Science

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Ava Helen and Linus Pauling at the White House with President Gerald Ford and other recipients of the National Medal of Science, September 18, 1975

On September 18, 1975, the determination of many sectors of the scientific community culminated in an early afternoon ceremony held in President Gerald Ford’s Oval Office. It was on this date that Linus Pauling at long last received the 1974 National Medal of Science, an award that was long in the coming.

Immediately after the news of his selection was announced, Pauling began to receive a steady stream of congratulatory letters from friends and colleagues. In many of these communications, Pauling’s scientific peers made reference to the long delay that had preceded Pauling’s receipt of the award. One suggested that “in my estimation you should have been the very first chemist to receive this recognition” and another opined that “this is an honor which, for you, is long past due.”

Permeating much of this dialogue was a common understanding as to the cause of the delay: namely that Pauling’s outspokenness on social and political issues had not been appreciated by high ranking officials of the U.S. government. As one correspondent put it

we know that you would have long ago received this honor if you had been silent during the Vietnam War and if you had not spoken out on every occasion in the interest of the people of the United States as a peace-loving nation.


 

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Tagged as a communist in the 1950s and scorned by many for the consistency of his anti-war point of view, Pauling was used to fighting for the recognition that he deserved, and the case of the National Medal of Science proved to be no exception.

Established in 1959, the National Medal of Science is the most prestigious honor bestowed upon scientists by the U.S. government. Pauling, who had made significant contributions to a staggering array of scientific disciplines by the late 1950s, was clearly a leading candidate for the medal from the moment of its inception. However, his vocal campaign against the perils of the nuclear age served to politicize the process by which he might have been considered for the award, the result being that others were chosen in his stead for fifteen years.

In the run-up to 1974, a growing controversy had built around Pauling’s lack of recognition by the White House. Though scientists on the President’s Committee for the National Science Award had persistently put forth Pauling’s name as a preferred choice, he was continually passed over. The controversy heightened once word began to circulate that President Richard Nixon had pointedly refused to grant Pauling the award not once, but twice.

Some two decades later, Pauling learned that Nixon had been so upset by the tenacity of the American Chemical Society and the American Crystallography Association – organizations that both refused to put forth any nominations other than Pauling – that he decided to forego conferring the award at all. And indeed, no scientists received the decoration in 1971 or 1972.

While certainly a slight against him personally and to the scientific community writ large, Nixon’s refusal to honor Pauling with the medal may have actually come as something of a relief. It is safe to say that Pauling’s relationship with Nixon was fraught with tension and mutual distaste to the point where a meeting between the two would have proven awkward. As Pauling would later point out in a reply to a congratulatory letter, “I am at least glad that it was delayed beyond the Nixon regime.”


The slights weren’t all coming from the nation’s capital. Closer to home, Pauling found himself in a tussle with a local paper, the Palo Alto Times, that had neglected to mention Pauling as being included in the membership of the class of 1974. Instead, in an edited United Press International story headlined “Stanford prof awarded national medal,” the paper focused on the achievements of Paul Flory, a recent Nobel laureate who was soon to retire from the Stanford faculty. A final paragraph listing all of the 1974 recipients did not include any reference to Pauling nor, to be fair, three other scientists who were to be likewise honored.

When he contacted the paper to complain and suggested that the publication’s omission had been “damaging” to him, Pauling was met with a rebuke: “The city editor said I was a great scientist but a lousy lawyer, and they would print the story how they wanted to.”

A similar situation played out with the San Francisco Chronicle, which ran a different story emphasizing two Bay Area scientists in the class – Flory and Ken Pitzer – but not Pauling. A subsequent follow-up with UPI confirmed to Pauling that his name had been included in the wire release issued by the news service to its regional offices.


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Many others shared a far more positive view of Pauling’s decoration. For some, President Ford’s decision to award Pauling with the National Medal of Science signified a welcome thawing of relations between scientists and the executive branch. As one newspaper editorial noted, “the withheld honors for the great scientist had come to symbolize a growing estrangement between the government and the scientific community.” In addressing this estrangement symbolically, Ford seemed to be indicating that a scientist could speak their mind without fear of penalty.

 

In remarks published in The Medical Tribune, James Neel – a fellow member of the 1974 award class – held up Pauling as a role model and suggested that the government’s recognition should serve as validation for all socially motivated scientists. In Neel’s estimation

[Pauling] personifies the best in the psyche of the scientist: he is interested in the way life functions and in keeping living things alive. His social views are thus an extension of his work and values as a scientist. His greater perception of the meaning of life is what gives significance to his ideas and resonance to his contributions.

Others, however, understood that Pauling’s road to the National Medal of Science had been rocky and offered private words of support. As biochemist Britton Chance, also a member of the class of 1974, noted

 

you may have had mixed feelings as to whether [the National Medal of Science] was worthy of your accomplishments….[but] you have had a really remarkable career, and as I hope you know, to my view you are truly the out-standing genius of our time.

By the time of his passing in 1994, Linus Pauling had received forty-seven honorary doctorates as well as essentially every award that a scientist in his fields of study could win. And though the theatrics surrounding his belated National Medal of Science award surely proved frustrating, one might posit that the commendation of peers like Britton Chance served as stronger validation for Pauling than did nearly all of the hundreds of medals, plaques and certificates that he received over the course of a hugely distinguished career.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advocating for Polyspheron Theory Over Two Decades

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[Part 2 of 2]

In the mid-1960s, as he continued to develop his close-packed spheron theory of atomic nuclei, Linus Pauling sought to use the techniques of creative visualization that had served him so well in his past theoretical work. The situation was trickier this time however, as the discipline of nuclear physics had not yet put forth a single agreed-upon understanding of molecular structure on which a visual model might be built. Rather, as Pauling put it:

There are now two ways of considering the structure of a molecule. One of these ways is by application of a highly refined set of ideas about chemical bonds that was largely developed during the period from 1860 to 1900, and was then significantly extended between 1925 and 1935 through consideration of the empirical information about molecular structure in light of basic principles that were introduced by quantum mechanics.

The second way of considering the structure of a molecule is by solving the wave equation for the molecule, describing the state of the various electrons interacting with one another and with the nuclei.

Both methods had been used since quantum mechanics entered the mainstream in the 1920s and began being applied to topics in chemistry. But according to Pauling, very little effort had been made to develop an empirical theory of the structure of atomic nuclei that corresponded nicely with contemporary ideas on chemical structure. The wave equation approach was further complicated by the fact that, by the mid-1960s, reliable quantum mechanical calculations could be carried out for only a small number of molecules.

In Pauling’s estimation, the most useful attempt to date to develop a workable theory was folded into a discussion that conceptualized light nuclei as aggregates of alpha particles – particles that Pauling renamed “helions” and made a centerpiece of his theory. To address the perceived need to move forward with this mode of thinking, Pauling developed his own conceptual framework and promoted it throughout the 1960s.


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Notes from Pauling’s second Robbins Lecture, February 25, 1966

In 1966 Pauling used his platform as Pomona College’s first Robbins Lecturer to begin spreading a more popular word of this theory — he gave five lectures on the subject in February and March of that year. In 1967 he delivered three more talks on the theory, this time at Princeton University under the auspices of the Plaut Lectureship, an honorific which Pauling was again the first person to occupy. Finally, in 1971, he offered a free public lecture at the University of Colorado, Boulder, promoting his theory as the E.U. Condon Chemical-Physics Lecturer.

Throughout all of this public outreach, Pauling continued to draw up new manuscripts for publication on the topic. In these, he began considering how nuclear wave functions and magnetic-moment values could all be accounted for using polyspheron theory. He also continued to emphasize the compatibility of his ideas with the shell and cluster theories that had gained traction within the discipline.


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A figure included with Pauling’s 1976 manuscript submission to Physical Review

Pauling’s fight to push polyspheron theory into the physics mainstream continued in 1976, by which time the term “helion” was generally being used by nuclear physicists to refer to a Helium-3 nucleus. This common understanding proved disadvantageous to Pauling, as he had defined the term as referring instead to alpha particles (although, interestingly, Pauling had earlier pointed out that “his” helions were notably present in Helium-3).

But there was also good news for Pauling: by now, scientists using electron scattering techniques to investigate the electromagnetic properties of atomic nuclei with prolate deformation were publishing data that seemed to support his point of view. In particular, these experiments had derived information about the shapes of the deformed nuclei that showed what appeared to be the formation of spherons out of the objects defined by polyspheron theory as “helions” and “tritons.”

Pauling almost immediately pounced on this encouraging data, writing a paper initially titled “Comment on the Shapes of Deformed Nuclei,” and then later more forcefully retitled as “The Predication of the Shapes of Deformed Nuclei by the Polyspheron Theory.” He submitted his manuscript to Physical Review in Spring 1976, arguing that reports from current nuclear physicists had confirmed many of his model’s assumptions and that, accordingly, polyspheron theory merited wider acceptance within the field.

The referee overseeing Pauling’s manuscript asked that he make several revisions prior to publication. One major request was that Pauling reshape some of the terminology that was so specific to his theory, due to its confusing nature with respect to broader accepted nomenclature. The journal also asked that Pauling support his claims with clearer and more substantial calculations.

Pauling responded that the journal’s editors had apparently misunderstood the purpose and the importance of his work, and then appended a more substantive introduction to the beginning of the paper to clarify some of the specifics that had been requested of him. When the journal later asked Pauling to remove the extended introduction he refused and his submission was withdrawn. In 1982, some six years later, a paper with the same title finally made it into print by way of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a journal that had historically published most submissions authored by distinguished Academy members, among whom Pauling could certainly count himself.

In 1987 Pauling again attempted to advocate on behalf of his theory, writing a new paper titled “Properties of the High-Spin Superprolate Structure of 15266Dy86 are Explained by the Polyspheron Theory.” This paper once more claimed that his now thirty-year-old theory was being steadily confirmed by contemporary laboratory research.

As in 1976, the 1987 manuscript was also rejected, this time by Physical Review and by Nature alike. Seven years later, right around Pauling’s ninety-third birthday, an article with a far less forthright title did appear, once again in PNAS: “Analysis of a Hyperdeformed Band of 152 66 Dy86 on the Basis of a Structure with Two Revolving Clusters, Each with a Previously Unrecognized Two-Tiered Structure.”


Despite his periodic appeals to the practicality of his theory over the course of several decades, and disregarding his insistence that the theory had been vindicated by its prediction of novel discoveries, Linus Pauling’s ideas on polyspherons were never generally accepted by his peers in either physics or chemistry.

Today the utility of Pauling’s model of the atomic nucleus remains in doubt. What does seem to be clear is that he did not succeed in grasping one of the scientific world’s most elusive holy grails: a unified theory of quantum physics and chemistry.

Linus Pauling’s Polyspheron Theory

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[Part 1 of 2]

“I consider the polyspheron theory to be a simple statement about the insight into nuclear structure that is provided by the experimental data and to some extent by the quantum mechanical calculations.” 

– Linus Pauling, 1976

In the early twentieth century, when physicists were gaining knowledge of the properties of atomic nuclei in strides, the still young field of quantum mechanical theory was being used to interpret experimental data. At the same time, chemists were beginning to explore the implications of quantum theory as it pertained to molecular structure, a trend that culminated in Linus Pauling’s groundbreaking book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond, published in 1939.

In the following forty years however, no single theory of the structure of the atomic nucleus emerged that could conceptually account for all the results that chemists and physicists were observing. Nor was there a satisfactory theory that could link the behavior of the most infinitesimal and internal parts of the atom with the much larger scale of molecular behavior and chemical reactions. In other words, there was not yet a single accepted unified theory of quantum physics and chemistry. The pursuit of just such a theory stood as a holy grail of sorts, occupying the hopes, dreams and energy of many a twentieth century scientist.

For parts of five decades, Linus Pauling strove to develop just such a theory, one that could account for the basic structural tendencies and behaviors of the atomic nucleus and prove useful not only for atomic physicists but also for chemists. His efforts resulted in what he called “close-packed spheron theory,” simplified later as “polyspheron theory.”


Though he had begun work on the topic much earlier, Pauling first revealed his theory to the world on October 11, 1965 at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, held at the University of Washington in Seattle. His talk that day was titled “The Close-Packed-Spheron Theory of the Structure of Nuclei and the Mechanism of Nuclear Fission,” and its contents mirrored a pair of similarly titled papers that he published that same year: “The Close-Packed-Spheron Theory and Nuclear Fission,” published in Science, and “The Close-Packed-Spheron Model of Atomic Nuclei and Its Relation to the Shell Model,” which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In each of these works, Pauling advanced a theoretical framework that incorporated features of three older theories – the cluster, shell and liquid-drop theories – while also accounting for several observed phenomena of atomic nuclei that were difficult to explain at the time, such as asymmetric nuclear fission. Importantly, the close-packed spheron model of the nucleus differed from past models by declaring “spherons” as its units, rather than nucleons. Pauling described his rationale for this choice as having been an outgrowth of his thinking about nuclear fission.

Twenty five years ago a phenomenon of tremendous importance was discovered, nuclear fission. In the uranium nucleus and other heavy nuclei, fissioning produces a lighter and a heavier nucleus, with mass ratio about 2/3, several hundred times as often as two nuclei with equal mass are produced.

Why is fission asymmetric in this way? Here is a simple reason why this might be: I assume that in nuclei the nucleons may, as a first approximation, be described as occupying localized 1s orbitals to form small clusters. These small clusters, called spherons, are usually helions, tritons, and dineutrons: in nuclei containing an odd number of neutrons, a (Helium-3) cluster or a deuteron may serve as a spheron.

Pauling’s basic assumption here was that, in atomic nuclei, the nucleons were in large part aggregated into clusters that are arranged as closely as allowed by the laws of physics. Nuclei with more neutrons than protons were called tritons or dineutrons by Pauling. Likewise, the clusters of neutrons and protons occupying localized 1s orbitals were called spherons.

The most important spherons in Pauling’s conception were aggregates of two neutrons and two protons, which he called helions, though they were already known to physicists as alpha particles. The localized 1s orbitals that these spherons occupied could also be described mathematically as hybrids of the central-field orbitals that are outlined in shell theory. This process of hybridization of orbitals provided a formal basis for relating the cluster model – of which Pauling’s theory was an extreme version – and the shell model.

Pauling also put forth the idea that the spherons in a nucleus were arranged in a series of concentric layers. For a large nucleus, the outer part of the cavity inside the surface layer was occupied by spherons that were in contact with the inner side of the surface layer. These spherons constituted a layer of their own, within which Pauling believed there might reside yet another layer of spherons. To avoid confusion with the “shells” of the shell model, Pauling referred to his spheron layers as follows: “the mantle” for the surface layer, and the “outer core” and “inner core” for the two additional constituents of a three-layer nucleus.

In an effort to assure the scientific rank and file that he was not seeking to upend their entire understanding of nuclear physics, Pauling promised that the quantum mechanical calculations enabled by his polyspheron theory were essentially the same as those that had been made using various other models in the past.

Perhaps unwittingly, this assurance left many colleagues within the field wondering why Pauling was bothering to develop this theory at all. For many physicists, Pauling’s work seemed redundant, or perhaps merely an attempt to change the names of existing terms to new ones that fit more elegantly into Pauling’s conceptual framework of atomic structure.

Pauling countered this skepticism by suggesting that both qualitative and rough quantitative conclusions could be drawn from his model without the aid of extensive calculations. If these conclusions agreed with the experimental evidence, Pauling argued, then detailed calculations of this sort might not always be required in the future, pushing scientists just that little bit closer to the discovery of their holy grail.

Cameron and Pauling’s Attack on Conventional Views of Cancer

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Announcement published in the LPISM Newsletter, Spring 1979.

[An examination of “Ascorbic Acid and Cancer: A Review,” published in 1979. This is part 2 of 2.]

Linus Pauling and Ewan Cameron began their paper “Ascorbic Acid and Cancer: A Review” – published with Brian Leibovitz in Cancer Research in March 1979 – by detailing the history of research on ascorbate and establishing a connection between cancer and scurvy. This line of thinking was predicated on the observation that cancer patients, like scurvy patients, were abnormally deficient in Vitamin C. The authors, in turn, traced this observation back to the importance of Vitamin C in maintaining the balance of the intercellular matrix. They likewise emphasized that cancer is a disease that originates in the body, emanating from the patient’s own cells.

The paper next identified the two main traits of cancer: abnormal cell proliferation and invasiveness. Keeping these characteristics in mind, the authors hypothesized that the release of an enzyme, hyaluronidase, contributed to occurrences of cancer. Hyaluronidase breaks down the gel-like substance that surrounds cells, they argued, and creates a pathway that allows cells of any kind to continue multiplying. In healthy individuals, this process is self-limiting. When the process goes completely unchecked however, cells can become malignant and invade the surrounding tissue. Pauling and Cameron believed this to be the likely mechanism for metastasis, the point in a cancer’s progression at which survival rates plummet.

While they knew that it was highly unlikely that a simple infusion of Vitamin C would cure a cancer patient – as it would do in the case of scurvy – Pauling and Cameron theorized that an infusion of this sort would contribute to the inhibition of hyaluronidase, thus keeping cell proliferation in check. As they repeatedly emphasized in their review, Vitamin C’s main benefit was to increase host resistance to diseases that caused unrestrained cell proliferation. What Vitamin C did not do was guarantee complete remission.

Once they had described ascorbic acid’s defensive role, the authors moved on to its limited ability to take the offensive. One function that increased Vitamin C was believed to carry out was the capacity to “encapsulate” a tumor or disseminated tumors to the point where they were no longer malignant. As Pauling pointed out to his colleagues, when his wife Ava Helen was first diagnosed with stomach cancer and surgeons went in to remove her tumor, they noted that the mass had unusual presentation for its location and appeared to be encapsulated. Ava Helen had been taking large doses of Vitamin C for several years before she was first diagnosed, and her husband attributed the nature of her tumor and the ease of its removal to her intake of Vitamin C.


Central to the review paper were the clinical results that Ewan Cameron had compiled at the Vale of Levin Hospital in Alexandria, Scotland. Cameron had begun to see positive results early on, but found that his studies were somewhat skewed because so many of his patients were terminal and ended up dying regardless of their treatment. Cameron was worried that his data did not present much of an argument in favor of Vitamin C, a situation that was further muddied by the fact that, “the terminal stages of cancer are a compound of so many human, individual, pathological and even emotional variables, as to be nearly impossible to quantify.”

In an effort to provide what the authors believed to be a more accurate picture of Vitamin C’s treatment benefits, Cameron’s later studies measured survival time in ascorbic acid patients and compared them with non-ascorbic acid patients. This comparison revealed that a patient on supplemental ascorbic acid survived, on average, four times as long as a patient with a similar prognosis who had not received ascorbic acid.

In conducting his trials, Cameron encountered the additional barrier of patients who failed to adhere to the Vitamin C regimen once they were released from the hospital. Cameron called this mode of behavior the “reverse placebo” effect, noting that some patients, when left to their own devices, would discontinue their ascorbic acid intake because it was “just Vitamin C.” Believing that it would be treated with greater respect if it sounded more like a drug, Cameron half-jokingly suggested that pharmacies rename Vitamin C as “Pauleron” to dissuade patients from underestimating its potential.


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In the final section of their review paper, Pauling and Cameron warned of unexpected and unexplained potential consequences associated with ascorbic acid therapy. In particular, some of Cameron’s patients, after showing marked improvement for several weeks or even months, succumbed to what Pauling called a “whirlwind” of cancer. Autopsies later revealed sudden massive tumor growth and dissemination.

Interestingly, most of these “whirlwind” tumors contained a large volume of necrotic cancer cells. Pauling put forth two possible explanations for this, which he included in the review. One explanation was that, though necrotic cancer cells can be less harmful than live cancer cells, the inflammation caused by their presence might cause rapid tumor growth or become toxic to the patient in such a large volume.

A second explanation, which he thought more plausible, was based on the understanding that abruptly discontinuing Vitamin C caused ascorbate levels to plummet. In this circumstance, if ascorbic acid was inhibiting tumor growth as believed, a drastic and sudden decrease in the treatment could lead to rapid, unrestrained tumor growth.

Pauling couldn’t provide solid evidence for either possibility, but he felt that both supported the review’s hypothesis. In the first instance, ascorbic acid could be killing the cancer cells. In the second, the negative consequences of withdrawing ascorbic acid inversely suggested the benefit of continued ascorbic acid use.

Pauling and Cameron concluded their review by listing areas of ascorbate research that were encouraging but had, to date, only received preliminary investigation. Specifically, the paper pointed out that no trials had been conducted to consider the effects of ascorbate in general cancer management.


The Cameron, Pauling and Leibovitz review provoked mixed reactions. Many readers, particularly aspiring physicians, were intrigued and encouraged by the results. On the other hand, quite a few others remained skeptical and focused on the aspects of treatment that Vitamin C could not promise to provide. Shortly after the review came out, Pauling received a letter from a medical student who reported that the paper had been torn out of archived copies of Cancer Research at both Cornell Medical College and the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Pauling confirmed that this had happened at both locations, but was unable to persuade anyone to rectify the situation.

In the fall of 1979, a handful of months after the review was published, the Mayo Clinic released the results of its own clinical trial, which concluded that Vitamin C did not contribute to longer survival times, nor did it offer any therapeutic benefit for cancer patients. When the results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Cameron wrote a letter to the editor providing a rebuttal of sorts.

In Cameron’s letter, he pointed out that the Mayo Clinic hadn’t followed the same procedures as those used at the Vale of Leven. Importantly, in Cameron’s trial, only 5% of patients had received recent chemotherapy treatment. By contrast, in the Mayo Clinic trial, only 5% of patients hadn’t received recent chemotherapy. Cameron also suggested that patients, fearful that they were in the control group and not receiving supplemental ascorbate, were dosing themselves with Vitamin C, as it was easy to obtain outside of the trial setting. If this was indeed the case, the Mayo Clinic data likely supported the Cameron-Pauling hypothesis.

Despite Cameron’s centrality to the debate, the editor of the New England journal refused to print his letter, a decision that only increased the levels of skepticism surrounding Cameron and Pauling’s work.


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In publishing their review and the papers that led up to it, Pauling and Cameron sought to update the popular view of cancer as an invasion of foreign cells that needed to be entirely destroyed to produce clinical success. Once people accepted a new view of cancer, Pauling believed that attitudes toward cancer treatment would also change.

Perhaps most importantly, Pauling and Cameron wanted physicians to stop assuming that troubling side effects were a sign of a treatment’s success and instead to begin concentrating more on the overall health of patients. Though they focused primarily on Vitamin C, the duo hoped that their review would encourage researchers to gather more evidence for an orthomolecular approach to cancer, one that would emphasize vitamins and natural methods as opposed to cytotoxic chemicals.

Although Pauling and Cameron’s perspective was not widely accepted during their lifetimes, researchers today are increasingly focusing on alternatives to chemotherapy and radiation. Immunotherapy, still in its infancy during Pauling’s life, has now become a standard treatment for certain cancers. Additionally, researchers have been able to show that high-dose Vitamin C, administered intravenously at even higher levels than Pauling and Cameron had attempted, does indeed provide therapeutic benefits in some cancers.