Linus Pauling and the Search for UFOs

Linus Pauling, 1983.

Upon Linus Pauling’s death, the OSU Libraries Special Collections received approximately 500,000 of his and his wife’s personal items. Of this half-million item collection, a significant portion is comprised of his personal books which range from heavily academic texts to science fiction and murder mysteries. Amid the shelves of chemistry texts and genre fiction, however, there is a small subsection of books that has been known to draw attention from the Special Collections staff: the conspiracy texts.

As evidenced by his lifelong devotion to scientific discovery, Linus Pauling possessed a deep interest in mystery and the unknown. It seems that, while most of his research revolved around academically sanctioned scientific problems, he occasionally spent his free time exploring more unorthodox subjects. As he aged and his devotion to pure science was tempered by his growing sense of social responsibility, Pauling began to expand his interests and become engaged in issues he had previously ignored.

Beginning in 1963, Pauling took a position as fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a think tank founded by Robert M. Hutchins as a part of the Fund for the Republic. The Center was known for its unusual and sometimes controversial activities, including proposing a new constitution for the United States and promoting radical political movements among students. For the first time in forty years, Pauling’s primary work had stepped out of the bounds of research-based science. The atmosphere at the Center allowed him to explore problems that his fellow scientists might have considered, at best, unorthodox.

His interest in cover-ups and clandestine activity appears to have begun in the same way it did for many other Americans–with the assassination of President John. F. Kennedy. During the Cold War, Pauling had met and corresponded with Kennedy regarding peace and nuclear disarmament. While the two men did not always agree on matters of foreign policy, Pauling had a great deal of respect for the President and was shaken by his death. Following Kennedy’s assassination, Pauling began reading accounts of the event, taking a marked interest in the numerous conspiracy theories of the day. He followed the subject with some interest through the 1980s, building up a small collection of materials on the “magic bullet” and “multiple shooters” theories. [For more on Pauling’s interactions with President Kennedy, see our earlier blog post on the subject.]

The JFK assassination had introduced Pauling to a whole new series of problems, where scientific fact could only go so far and the pitfalls of hoax and disinformation had to be carefully navigated. For years, he had played the role of the armchair gumshoe, reading countless murder mysteries, picking out clues and racing the protagonist to the revelation. As tragic as it was, the assassination had given Pauling a chance to apply his talents as an investigator to a problem beyond the sciences. The world of conspiracy and intrigue held an allure for Pauling that he could not deny.

In the mid-1960s, Pauling began to take an interest in UFOs and extraterrestrial life forms. Between his longtime love of science fiction and the public focus on the development of the U.S. and Soviet space programs, spaceships and aliens seemed to be a logical point of focus for him. He quickly found that, for once, he was not at the forefront of a field of study. While he had been synthesizing proteins and teaching future chemists, the American public had become obsessed with the potential for life in space. The American UFO craze had begun in 1947 with an upswing in reported “flying saucer” sightings which resulted in a series of U.S. Air Force investigations (Projects Blue Book, Sign, and Grudge). In 1952, the term “Unidentified Flying Object” was coined and, by 1956, several civilian research groups had formed, including the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization and the National investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena.

A Study of Unidentified Flying Objects

In order to understand what was going on in the world of UFO studies, Pauling did what came naturally. He began to read. While the ‘flying saucer’ section of the Pauling personal library is very small, it’s clear he was interested in the big picture, pulling from both scholarly and popular sources. One text, entitled NASA’s Space Science and Applications Program, is a well-worn report on NASA’s long term goals in space exploration and bioscience. Another, The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, is billed as “The complete report commissioned by the U.S. Air Force.” This volume, though lacking Pauling’s typical marginalia, sports heavy wear suggesting that it was a favorite.

A Study of Unidentified Flying Objects - 02

For more sensational reading, Pauling settled on the likes of Brinsley Trench’s The Flying Saucer Story and John G. Fuller’s Incident at Exeter. Pauling’s copy of Trench’s work is speckled with hastily scribbled questions, the word “check” next to underlined passages, and notes to contact a variety of scientists and officials. His margin comments belie a heavy skepticism suggesting that, despite his willingness to explore the unorthodox, Pauling maintained a strict logical outlook. As can be expected, claims that defied conventional science readily drew Pauling’s criticism. At one point, Trench claims “It [a UFO] could easily withstand temperatures at 15,000 degrees Fahrenheit, without showing any traces of melting.” A large question mark sits in the margin next to it as a testament to Pauling’s disbelief.

It’s easy to imagine an aging Linus Pauling reading books about outer space and aliens in his free time, much as others read romance novels or tabloid newspapers. And certainly, his interest in the topic was primarily recreational, but it appears to have evolved over time. Pauling’s interest in UFOs peaked in 1966. He began preparing to formalize his research, going so far as to create a research proposal enumerating the requirements of an in-depth study on UFOs. As he became increasingly involved in the question of extraterrestrial sentience, his research became more and more intensive. When he had exhausted the available literature, he began contacting other academics for aid. Set into his copy of Frank Edward’s Flying Saucers: Serious Business is a 1968 letter from Pauling to Sterling A. Colgate, president of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. In the letter, Pauling queries Colgate regarding a recent siting near the New Mexico campus, asking for information on the Institute’s official position regarding UFOs. By involving other researchers in his work, Pauling was taking a big step. He had announced that, despite public and scientific skepticism, he was willing to approach UFOs as a viable research topic and, more importantly, associate his name and reputation with that research.

Unfortunately, Pauling’s UFO work never went very far. Following his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, he increased his efforts for nuclear disarmament, eventually pushing aside many of his lesser interests. By the 1970s, he was heavily involved in the promotion of orthomolecular medicine and the movement against the Vietnam War. Though we might imagine his interest in extraterrestrials continued, evidence suggests that his activist lifestyle left no room for further inquiry.

For more information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal or the OSU Special Collections website.


This letter, posted by request, was written from Linus Pauling to Stirling A. Colgate on June 19, 1968.

Letter from LP to Colgate 6-19-1968