Science for Life and Career

Linus Pauling, 1950

[Wrapping up our series on Linus Pauling’s rhetoric as it related to the development of post-war science. This is part 5 of 5.]

Academic research as a career.” Chemical and Engineering News, November 1950

This 1950 article was written by Pauling as the twentieth installment of the American Chemical Society’s “Careers in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering,” column published in Chemical and Engineering News. “Careers” came out weekly and featured advice from leading scientists for college students and recent graduates. Pauling’s contribution, “Academic Research as a Career,” focused on the values, characteristics, and practices necessary for a scientist to succeed in a college or university setting.

Pauling began by suggesting that “A career of academic research…is the best of all possible careers, for those people who are suited to it by nature and disposition.” In exploring this notion, Pauling defined academic research as basic rather than applied, and advised that young scholars interested in an academic career avoid getting too bogged down in applied research projects sponsored by industry. He then noted that most academic research is carried out in universities, although a few non-affiliated research institutions do exist. As such, the academic scientist should be prepared to spend a portion of their time teaching. They might also expect to be paid considerably less than a peer who was employed in an applied research setting in the same discipline.

Pauling’s ideal academic researcher was characterized by several main personality traits, first and foremost

…a deep curiosity about nature, [and] a consuming desire to know more about the world; in short, he must have the scientific spirit. He must be a scholar by disposition. It is good also, if he is to be a teacher as well as a research man, that he have a strong desire to communicate his knowledge to other people.

Pauling also differentiated between the characteristics of scholarly interest and scholarly aptitude, citing interest as the more important of the two but acknowledging, of course, the usefulness of aptitude. Even still

…experience has shown us that some men who could not be described as brilliant students have become outstanding figures in academic research. Such a man might be a gifted experimentalist, or a careful, penetrating analyst of fundamental theoretical principles.

Pauling likewise encouraged young scientists to find a specialization and devote themselves to becoming an authority in that niche, but not to focus too narrowly and to maintain active research interests in other subjects or disciplines. Doing so would allow one to more fully experience the primary advantage of an academic career: the freedom of research. For Pauling’s “scientific spirits,” the promise of intellectual exploration was sure to make the career a worthwhile choice, despite the lower salaries.

Lastly, in order to prepare for an academic career, Pauling advised that students seek out as broad and fundamental an education as possible. For Pauling, this included developing a proficiency in the major languages of scientific research and publication (in 1950, French, German, and Russian were itemized as being the most important). Students should also be prepared to work toward a doctoral degree, and Pauling recommended studying with multiple faculty members on several distinct phases of a project, rather than selecting one faculty member to oversee their entire PhD process. Overall, Pauling found the greatest indicator of success in an academic position to be temperament – one is either suited to the work, or they’re not.

The significance of chemistry to man in the modern world.” Engineering and Science, January 1951 

Later reprinted under the title, “It Pays to Understand Science,” Pauling originally wrote this 1951 article for UNESCO, but it also appeared in Caltech’s monthly, Engineering and Science. Pauling began the piece by justifying his claims regarding the significance of science – and particularly of chemistry – for the average citizen. He then put forth a proposal for science education that resembled the way that math is now taught; that is, beginning in kindergarten with simplified, foundational concepts and working steadily up through each grade level.

Pauling’s model was tailored to the objective that students, by the time they finished high school, would have built a solid understanding of each of the branches of science, and would be capable of pursuing them at the university level if they so desired. At the time that Pauling was writing his piece, most students were not formally introduced to science until they had arrived at college, and most non-scientists had at best a rudimentary comprehension of basic scientific concepts that intersected with their lives in the forms of electricity, synthetic materials, the effects of gravity, and the like. But because most chemistry is done at the molecular and atomic levels, non-scientists tended to have less of an understanding of it than of the other sciences, which are more readily observable to the naked and untrained eye.

Pauling also recognized and pointed out that many advertising campaigns functioned on the principle that almost everyone has a very elementary understanding of chemistry, but no practical comprehension of its application. By way of example, he offered the following:

[The reader] is asked to buy wonderful new green medicines, containing chlorophyll. [The advertiser] hopes that the reader will remember that chlorophyll is the wonderful substance in the leaves of green plants, that purifies the air. He hopes that the reader does not know…that chlorophyll that has been extracted from the plant has, so far as any scientist has been able to discover, no action as a medicine, no activity whatsoever. Moreover, he must be hoping that the reader of the advertisement will not even think enough to ask why he does not eat a green leaf…in order to get his chlorophyll.

Chemistry’s intersections with pop culture were a recurrent theme in Pauling’s post-war lectures and general audience articles. They were also one of the biggest catalysts in his push for refocusing and intensifying science education in the public school system.

Pauling felt very strongly that a solid understanding of science was necessary for a citizen to operate in the modern world, since “…the modern world is largely scientific in its constitution.” By extension, it was crucial that the citizenry be equipped with the tools to critically evaluate the world around them – including depictions of science seen in comic strips and advertisements – and to make informed political decisions in the emerging nuclear age. As science progressed and once disparate facts could be connected into larger theories, Pauling’s proposed public education program would accordingly shift toward an emphasis on theory. Doing so would empower individuals with the capacity to recognize and understand phenomena that they came across without the need for rote memorization of individual facts.