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.  

Linus Pauling: Scientist, Activist, Entertainer

Linus Pauling and Robert Corey examining models of protein structure molecules. approx. 1951.

Linus Pauling and Robert Corey examining models of protein structure molecules. approx. 1951.

“Linus came and gave a fabulous talk at the medical school. An enormous mob of people was there to hear him tell the whole story of molecular biology…and there was such a huge crowd that the hotel that he was to give it in couldn’t deal with it, so it moved next door…It was a big church next door and I got to hear Linus talking in the pulpit. There, it was magic.
– Dudley Herschbach, “Linus Pauling as an Evangelical Chemist.” The Scientist as Educator and Public Citizen: Linus Pauling and His Era. 2007.

Linus Pauling was known for his quick wit and ever-present sense of humor. His lectures were filled with jokes and stories, and his astounding knowledge, combined with his charismatic personality, made him famous as a public speaker.

Only a lucky handful of his audience members ever experienced that same charisma one-on-one with Pauling. Ken Hedberg, a doctoral graduate from Caltech, and now an OSU chemistry professor emeritus, recalls one particular incident with Pauling:

“Graduate students at Caltech were, as a group, in awe of Linus Pauling, who had a tendency to pad through Gates and Crellin (the building which comprised the site of the chemistry department) in his house slippers on Saturday morning. I felt this way one Saturday when he walked into my office, sat down and put his feet up on the adjoining desk, and said, “How are things going?” As it happened, they were going pretty well and I was just a bit relieved when he stood to go without asking me any penetrating questions. Then he noticed a key chain on my desk which had attached to it a small device consisting of an eyepiece with a lens containing a photograph which could only be viewed by looking directly into it against a strong light. The photograph was that of a beautiful girl, completely naked, standing on a large black rock in the middle of a rushing mountain stream. Pauling picked up the device and clapped it to his eye. “Hmmm,” he said, “Basalt.” And he walked out without another word. I was stunned, and had to look for myself for I had never noticed the rock. I think it was then that I first realized what a wonderful sense of humor Linus Pauling had, and what a showman he could be even on a small scale.”

(Ken Hedberg 1995, as quotes in Mead, Clifford and Thomas Hager. Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001. 243.)

Stories such as this abound in the biographies of Linus Pauling. His sense of humor and his enthusiasm were widely-regarded as an invaluable part of his teaching style.

For more “facets of Linus Pauling,” check out Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker, now available in paperback from Oregon State University Press.

For more information on Pauling the educator, visit the website “The Scientist as Educator and Public Citizen,” a conference devoted to the Pauling legacy. In particular, “Linus Pauling as an Evangelical Chemist,” a lecture by Dudley Herschbach that focuses on Pauling’s flair for showmanship, can be found here.

Blogroll Updates

Have a look to the right.

Have a look to the right.

If you’ll please turn your attentions to the right side of this page, you’ll note the long-awaited addition of three new links to our blogroll. Each represents a fantastic resource that, we’re quite sure, will make for some interesting reading.

The Culture of Chemistry is run by Michelle Francl, a chemistry professor at Bryn Mawr College. Naturally curious about the world around her, she uses everyday experiences to explore the chemistry behind modern living. Francl also maintains a Weird Words of Science series that discusses the history and uses of scientific words. Her main focus is chemistry learning, both in and out of the classroom. Whether you’re interested in chemistry education, or simply want a nifty science fact to impress your friends, we highly recommend a trip to this blog.

Entropy Bound, is operated by Peter Steinberg, a nuclear physicist in New York. He uses his blog to discuss a variety of physics-related topics including, but not limited to, aspects of his own work. While certain components of this site may be a little on the technical side for some readers, anyone with an interest in physics is sure to find plenty of engaging tidbits. If you’re interested in his work, make sure to check out the lecture slide PDFs that Peter has made available.

Lynne Thomas, Head Curator of Special Collections at Northern Illinois University, has developed Confessions of a Curator, a window into the archival milieu. Thomas regularly posts on the various collections housed at NIU and the ways in which her team is handling its records. She also reports on events, talks, and news relating to the profession. Her site is a terrific asset for anybody interested the exciting world (really!) of archives and special collections.

Because our posts cover a variety of fields, we have now implemented a new blogroll breakdown, dividing our links sections into Chemistry, Physics, Archives & Special Collections, and History of Science. Links to plenty more great sites will be added in the weeks to come.

As always, we’d love to hear from our readers. If there’s a Pauling-related topic about which you would like to learn more, please do let us know. Likewise, if you feel that your project fits in well with the theme of The Pauling Blog and would like to be included on our blogroll, shoot us an email with a link to your site. We can be reached at special[dot]collections[at]oregonstate[dot]edu.

Finally, a special note of thanks to our OSU Libraries colleague Margaret over at infodoodads for her kind review of our work. Margaret, your next bottle of vitamin C is on us!

Pauling the Educator

Linus Pauling in lecture, 1960s.

Linus Pauling in lecture, 1960s.

…[T]o awaken an interest in chemistry in students we mustn’t make the courses consist entirely of explanations, forgetting to mention what there is to be explained.”
– Linus Pauling. Letter to A. A. Noyes. November 18, 1930.

Linus Pauling began his teaching career in 1919, as an undergraduate sophomore, when Oregon Agricultural College offered him an assistant teaching position. After completing his graduate work at Caltech, Pauling dove into the role of educator as a fulltime professor.

Pauling believed that every student should approach chemistry with a sense of wonder and anticipation — he wanted his students to be excited and engaged. Pauling was not one to drone on in a hot classroom while his pupils dozed in their seats. Instead, he was always moving, gesturing and talking, a veritable flurry of activity at the front of the room. His lectures were filled with demonstrations, drawings, and models.

At a recent conference hosted by Oregon State University, one of the speakers, Nobel laureate Dr. Dudley Herschbach, told a story of Pauling’s in-class exploits. Dr. Herschbach explained,

“[T]here’s a classic [demonstration] always done in freshman chemistry – you have a bowl of water, you throw a chunk of sodium in, with some phenolphthalein so it changes colors as things go around and it reacts to produce a base. Well, Linus would do that, and then he’d get very excited about it and say “Isn’t this wonderful, it’s giving off hydrogen,” and all this, and then he’d say “What if we did it with gasoline!” He’d run down here, and all the students would be moving out of the way because the guy looks crazy because he’s so excited. He pours some gasoline in, steps back, and throws off the sodium chunk. Nothing happens. It was his way of making sure they appreciated one of the wonders of chemistry, that is, the business [of] how different things are.”

During his career at Caltech, Pauling’s freshman lectures became famous. While giving a presentation, if something caught his attention, he would explore the problem, following it through its different disciplines, tracing out theories and methods as he went. These seeming digressions often served to teach his students much more than any standard chemistry lecture could.

Indeed, Pauling was both interesting and entertaining, blessed with both an expansive knowledge base and a quick wit. Thomas Hager, a Pauling biographer, writes,

“Together with a spontaneity, vigor, and excitement, there was an ever-present sense of humor, and what a great many people have called ‘showmanship.’ Some have called one aspect of it ‘classroom calisthenics’ – leaps from the classroom floor to a sitting position on the lecture desk with legs dangling, or parallel bar exercises with one hand on the chalk tray and the other on the lecture podium, the body swinging back and forth while the lecture was going on at the same time.”

Despite his advanced abilities and deep understanding of multiple scientific disciplines, Pauling chose to spend much of his career teaching freshman chemistry. He was dedicated to bringing fresh minds into the field. By igniting a passion for the subject, or at least sparking an interest in young students, he knew he would be able to benefit both his pupils and the sciences.

Included among his students are:

Jerry Donohue – Aided James Watson and Francis Crick in their discover y of DNA’s structure.

Martin Karplus – Known for the creation of the Karplus equation.

Matthew Meselson – Responsible, in collaboration, for discovering how DNA replicates, recombines, and is repaired in cells.

E. Bright Wilson, Jr. – Notable advances in the fields of quantum mechanics and spectroscopy.

To learn more about Linus Pauling’s influence as an educator, please visit the website “Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History.”