The George Fischer Baker Lectureship and the Beginnings of the Manuscript


[Celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Part 2 of 6.]

While Linus Pauling attempted throughout the 1930s to sit down and compose a book-length treatment of his ideas on chemical bonding, he was seemingly destined not to complete it. Burdened, in a sense, by his own and other’s rapid advancements in understanding, early attempts at what would become The Nature of the Chemical Bond quickly went out-of-date if they were even briefly set aside.

A window opened at the end of 1936, when Pauling began to receive offers to serve as visiting fellow at two different institutions on the East Coast. One offer came from the Institute for Advance Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and the other from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, to give the chemistry department’s George Fischer Baker Lectures. Pauling quickly saw the latter option as a chance to give himself both the time and structure necessary to write his book. The Baker Lectures appeared to Pauling to provide the best circumstances to accomplish this, since every year’s lectures were followed by a publication.

Pauling promptly tried to figure out how his writing of The Nature of the Chemical Bond could fit in with the Baker Lectures. In November 1936, he asked Jacob Papish, who was arranging the fellowship, if an expanded text based on his lectures was possible and how much the book might cost. Pauling wanted the price to be set as low as possible to have a “good sale,” and based his expectations on the one-cent per page cost of previous books published in the series. Royalties were also of interest as Pauling was already planning additional editions and expansions of his yet unwritten book. Papish welcomed Pauling’s idea and suggested (very correctly, as it turned out) that his book would be one of the most successful of the series. However, all royalties for the first edition would go to the Cornell University Press, while royalties for any subsequent editions belonged to Pauling.

With everything seemingly arranged by December, Pauling only needed approval to take leave. The death in June of Caltech chemistry head Arthur A. Noyes created some hesitation in the minds of those around Pauling; as he told Papish, “the authorities of the Institute” questioned whether it was appropriate for him to take leave. The matter was quickly resolved however and Pauling began to plan for his trip the following autumn.

The Pauling family, summer 1937.

The Pauling family, summer 1937.

Initially Pauling hoped that his whole family, including Ava Helen, Linus Jr., Linda, and Peter, could join him in Ithaca, where they would all stay together in a house. But the family was growing and, in June 1937, Ava Helen gave birth to the youngest Pauling child, Crellin. Linus Pauling, most likely relaying the results of his failed attempts to convince Ava Helen that the whole family make the trip, had told Papish a month before the birth that it would most likely only be him. Ava Helen did end up joining her husband on the train and staying with him for about a month, leaving the children and their dog Tyl in the care of Lola Cook, who lived with the Paulings to assist with childcare and household chores.

Preparations related to Pauling’s work responsibilities were also necessary. Pauling told E. Bright Wilson, Jr. that he planned to stay in Pasadena “until the last possible moment” so he could help the new lab workers settle in and prepare for the coming months without him. Pauling also arranged for a graduate student to work under him while at Cornell, choosing Philip A. Shaffer, Jr. from Harvard rather than someone from Caltech. Shaffer’s assistance was sufficient to merit a mention by Pauling in the preface to The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Two research fellows, however, did accompany Pauling from Caltech: G. C. Hampson, who continued his research on crystal structures, and H. D. Springall, who continued his work on electron diffraction. Both also earned Pauling’s gratitude in the preface.

The Paulings arrived in Ithaca during the last week of September 1937. Their date of arrival gave Linus one week to settle affairs before the start of his duties, which included giving the Baker Lectures on Tuesdays and Thursdays and leading a weekly Wednesday seminar. The couple selected the Telluride House, which housed students, as their residence while in Ithaca, and Pauling wound up staying there for the duration of his lectureship. It didn’t take long for Pauling to make an impact: during the third week of his visit, he gave a public lecture to an audience of 100 that drew the attention of the Cornell Daily Sun and the Ithaca Journal. The town newspaper described Pauling as building “his story around the statement that ‘Structure is the basis of all chemistry,'” a story that was subsequently detailed in the Baker Lectures and The Nature of the Chemical Bond.


At the beginning of November, once living arrangements had been fully ironed out, Ava Helen returned to Pasadena. The separation was difficult for them both. By writing to each other several times a week, they salved their heartache and kept up to date on the everyday activities that occupied them and those around them. Ava Helen kept her husband informed on how Peter was beginning to read, how Linus Jr. was learning to pronounce “competitor,” and how Crellin was being “such a good baby” who “literally never cries.” Though Pauling missed the children, he longed for Ava Helen most of all and told her several times how lonely he was and that working was the only thing that was keeping his emotions together. On November 20, he wrote

I love you, my own dear Ava Helen, with every bit of me. Life doesn’t mean anything while you are away – I live in a sort of daze, with nothing worthwhile. The only thing I can stand to do is to work.

At least in part, it would seem then that it was out of a motivation to suppress his longing to be with his wife and children that Pauling wrote the bulk of The Nature of the Chemical Bond while he was at Cornell.

Pauling’s Cornell correspondence with Ava Helen also chronicles how hard he pushed himself to progress through his writing, to the point where he eventually wore himself out. Handwriting anywhere from ten to forty-plus pages per day of manuscript, Pauling often stayed late at the lab, sometimes until three or four in the morning. This upset his wife, who repeatedly admonished him for working himself too hard. On November 27th she wrote,

You are an awful boy to try to work all night. Your Wednesday (really Thursday) letter came today and I’m mad – hopping mad as Peter says. I told Mrs. Crellin that you worked until 4:10 a.m. (She took us all riding in her electric car this morning for an hour) She said you were shortening your life and that you owed it to your family to take care of yourself. It is wonderful that you were able to get so much done but I do worry about you.

Pauling was indeed able to get a lot done, finishing more than half of the chapters for his first book draft early in December, only a month after Ava Helen had left.


The Molecular Theory of Civilization

(Part 3 of 4 in our series marking the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s delivery of the Messenger Lectures.)

At the heart of Pauling’s Messenger Lectures was his newly established theory which he referred to simply as the “molecular basis of civilization.”  Through his work as a chemist, Pauling had developed a belief that the seeming randomness of life could be traced down to the molecular level where macroscopic problems, like violence and disease, could be explained.

Pauling explained that the first molecules resulted from photo- and electrochemical reactions.  Some of these molecules became autocatalytic, or self-duplicating, while others were broken down and reformed into different molecules, with each molecule competing for atomic particles that would allow for further self-duplication.

As this duplication and competition continued, the newly formed molecules began to evolve according to the abundance of various elements.  Eventually, mutations allowed these molecules to begin manufacturing smaller molecules to be used as “food” for the growing molecular colonies.  These molecules continued to mutate, eventually developing into organisms ranging from bacteria to complex mammals such as humans.  Joints, organs, nervous systems, and brains all appeared following millions of years of molecular evolution.

Pauling claimed that memories, for example, were one of the most significant results of evolution in history.  Pauling explained that when the human brain size doubled – approximately 700,000 years ago – humans developed the ability to create, maintain, and share memories. He described this phenomenon as the first example of “the inheritance of acquired characteristics.”  Ephemeral and long-term memory, he said, are the basis of civilization.  Without them, speech, invention, and the communication of long-term knowledge would all be virtually impossible.

According to Pauling, this increase in human brain size was the last great evolutionary moment in human history, and that the achievement of long-term memory and communication marked a completely new moment for life.  The ability to communicate information, he said, transformed the human race into a single organism connected through our collective knowledge.

From there, Pauling argued that, for the human race to thrive, evolution must continue. In his final lecture at Cornell, he exhorted that “we must now achieve the mutation that will bring sanity to this great organism, the organism that is mankind.”  Pauling admitted that a mutation allowing greater empathy among humans (he suggested extrasensory perception as an example) had the potential to be highly effective.  Unfortunately, in his view, the human race may well not survive long enough to enjoy another highly beneficial mutation along those lines.  Instead, he argued that the next “mutation” must be a mutation of conscience in human thought that would allow for widespread elimination of suffering via cooperation and shared interest in the advancement of human well-being.

Pauling argued that this change in human thought, however far outside our traditional understanding of evolution, is deeply connected with Darwinian theory.  He explained that a mass restructuring of values across the human race would accomplish the ultimate goal of physical evolution by allowing for the survival and even growth of the human race.  What’s more, he explained that this evolution of the mind corresponded directly with the earlier evolution of the brain.

Over the next decade, Pauling continued to refer to this next step – sometimes called conscious evolution – as a means of encouraging a wide variety of practices including nuclear disarmament, the control of hereditary genetic abnormalities, and the development of an international governing body.  In fact, he closed his final Messenger Lecture with a brief talk on the importance of international peace and the need to end human suffering, encouraging his audience to actively seek a heightened sense of communal responsibility.

Following the lecture series, it was traditional for the guest speaker to partner with Cornell University Press for a print release of the talks.  Though not a requirement of the lectureship, this partnership gave the Press some exposure and allowed the lecturer’s work to be more widely circulate, making it an ideal situation for both parties.  Pauling believed his talks to be suitable for publication and, in late 1959, began to collect his notes and resources accordingly.

Unfortunately, the book never materialized.  In 1960, Pauling was subpoenaed by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and embroiled in a long and unpleasant series of investigations into his patriotism.  From there, his peace work took over, leaving little time for other activities.  It seems that the Messenger publication was simply neglected amidst the press of greater issues.  Nevertheless, Pauling’s papers include a substantial collection of his Messenger notes and manuscripts, affording us a glimpse at the philosophical questions that stimulated and intrigued Pauling during his most politically active years.

Click here for all of our posts on the Messenger Lectures.  For more information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Portal or the OSU Special Collections homepage.

Science and Philosophy

(Part 2 of 4 in our series marking the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s delivery of the Messenger Lectures.)

Above all else, Linus Pauling considered himself to be a man of rational thought. The Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers are filled notebooks and manuscripts detailing Pauling’s ideas on practical manners (such as reflective road signs), matters of legality and morality (including diversity and racism in the United States), and philosophical questions (such as this refutation of solipsism). Over the course of his long life, Pauling trained himself to think critically about every question within his reach, even going so far as to advocate thinking about problems through dreams.

In his first Messenger Lecture, entitled “Science and Philosophy,” Pauling chose to approach philosophy itself through the lens of hard science. In order to do so, however, he first found it necessary to define science. “Science,” he claimed, is the “knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the world.” He argued that appreciation, defined as an “accurate perception, true estimation, [or] evaluation” is a key component of science in that it requires the scientist to be able to both collect and interpret facts and to critically evaluate the value (be it practical, moral, or other) of that interpretation.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Pauling actively engaged in intellectual conversations outside of his own field of expertise. In particular, he found himself drawn to philosophy and became interested in the work of philosophers of science such as Alfred Stern and, later, Karl Popper. The Messenger Lectures allowed him to focus this interest and apply it to a structured, well-developed dialogue with his fellow intellectuals. Rather than building his talks on a foundation of opinions and personal experiences, Pauling chose to rely on the works of established philosophers, approaching their writings and ideas through the lens of his scientific training.

Citing P.W. Bridgman’s The Way Things Are, Pauling argued that philosophy can act to challenge the significance of self and, in some cases, both depress and demean the human spirit. “I myself,” he claimed, “have been depressed by the old philosophical writings. Now I no longer am depressed, because I think that I understand them, and that I can now decide how they should be interpreted, and how much time and effort should be devoted to them.”

Pauling found that, despite his lack of training as a philosopher, he could in fact approach complex philosophical concepts.

He explained that “The basic fact is that philosophy must be based on science – it includes science (the relation of man as subject and the objective world includes the nature of the objective world).” While he did not argue that philosophy is itself a science, he suggested that science – what Pauling referred to as “the study of the world in an objective manner” – necessarily affects our core understanding of philosophy. As such, he claimed that the disciplines of philosophy and science should be merged, allowing the tenets of scientific methodology to guide philosophical thought.

Finally, he concluded that, “Philosophy is the subjective study of the world by man.” Everyone, he said, studies the world in some way, be it through profession, hobby, or simple curiosity. Therefore, anyone who hopes to reach some measure of truth, and is willing to apply their intellect to this search, may call themselves a philosopher, regardless of background or training.

Click here for all of our posts on the Messenger Lectures.  For more information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal or the Special Collections homepage.

The Messenger Lectures

Linus Pauling, 1958

Linus Pauling, 1958

[Ed note: October 2009 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Linus Pauling’s delivery of the Messenger Lectures at Cornell University. This is part one of a four post series discussing participation in the Messenger series.]

The Messenger Lectures on the Evolution of Civilization, better know simply as the Messenger Lectures, is a prestigious lectureship hosted by Cornell University.  Upon the 1924 death of Hiram Messenger, a Travelers’ Insurance Company actuary and graduate of Cornell University, a portion of his fortune was bequeathed to Cornell, his alma mater.  The following year, Cornell began its now famous Messenger Lecture series, defining it as “a course of lectures on the evolution of civilization, for the special purpose of raising the moral standards of our political, business, and social life.”

In 1925, James Henry Breasted, a historian-archaeologist made famous by his work in the Middle East, delivered the first Messenger lecture.  In his talk, he explored the implications of moral growth in the human race through a study of ancient European and Egyptian societies.  His scholarly, introspective lectures which married the history of science and philosophy, set the tone for future speakers.

Since 1925, a great number of intellectuals have served as Messenger lecturers.  Over the course of the lectureship’s history, the likes of Noam Chomsky, Robert A. Millikan, and J. Robert Oppenheimer have all taken the position.  Perhaps the most famous of the Messenger Lectures are those by Richard Feynman, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech.  In 1964, Feynman gave a series of lectures on “The Character of Physical Law.”  In 2009, Bill Gates purchased the rights to the BBC recordings of Feynman’s seven talks and made them available to the public as part of Project Tuva, giving Feynman, Microsoft, and the Messenger Lectures a great deal of publicity.

The lectureship has been particularly famous among academicians because it allows researchers and scholars to approach the human experience through the lens of their own field of study.  The series encourages scientists, historians, writers, political theorists, etc. to meaningfully apply their life’s work to problems of philosophical thought, resulting in unique and often striking conclusions about the human condition.

Because of their prestige, only the best known intellectuals of the day were invited to serve as Messenger lecturers.  In fact, it took Pauling more than twenty years of work as an internationally-known chemist to be given the honor.

In 1936, Linus spent four months in Ithaca as the George Fischer Baker Lecturer.  During his stay, he established lasting friendships with the Cornell chemistry department faculty and became something of a campus celebrity.  At that time, however, he was deeply immersed in the sciences and was of only minimal interest to the non-scientific community at Cornell.

Two decades later, however, Pauling was much more than just a chemist; he was a Nobel Prize winner, a peace advocate, and a household name.  What’s more, by the late 1950s, Pauling’s interests had fallen in line with the core focus of the Messenger Lectures.  Pauling was deeply concerned with the molecular basis of individuality, community, free will and, of course, peace and violence.  Where sociologists, anthropologists, and biologists were all looking at human civilization on a macroscopic scale, Pauling was examining the very particles of life and extracting astounding theories from the molecules of the human body.

When the Cornell faculty was asked to nominate a speaker for the 1959 Messenger Lectures, chemistry department members remembered the success of Pauling’s previous stay at Cornell.  In April 1957, Linus Pauling received a letter from A. W. Laubengayer, the acting chairman for Cornell’s chemistry department.  Laubengayer asked that Pauling hold six lectures in the Fall Term of 1959.  As was traditional, the university would provide only the broad topic, the evolution of civilization, leaving Pauling to interpret as he wished.

Pauling readily accepted the appointment, citing his fond memories of serving as Baker Lecturer.  His topic, he declared, would be “The Molecular Basis of Life.”  The concept was one that Pauling had lectured on several times before.  For a lectureship as significant and the Messenger series, Pauling needed to introduce a new and unique concept rather than rehash established ideas.

Over the course of the next two years, Pauling set about refining his theories on the influence of molecular evolution in individual and group behavior.  In February of 1959, he began his work on the lectures themselves.  The series was to be divided into six parts: Science and Philosophy, Molecules and Life, The Molecular Basis of Disease, Molecules and Heredity, Molecules and Evolution, and The World of the Future.  Lectures three, four, and five relied heavily on the material Pauling had presented in various publications and talks over the past five years.  Lectures one, two, and six, however, were unique.  It is on these three lectures, the focus of which were Pauling’s philosophical interests, that we will discuss over the course of our series Pauling and the Messenger Lectures.

Click here for all of our posts on the Messenger Lectures.  For more information on Linus Pauling, visit the Pauling Online Portal or the OSU Special Collections homepage.