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.

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Pauling and Chomsky

Noam Chomsky in the original Special Collections reading room, Kerr Library, 1995.

Noam Chomsky in the original Special Collections reading room, Kerr Library, 1995.

The latest addition to the rapidly-expanding volume of transcribed video on the Special Collections website is a two-hour presentation by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Dr. Noam Chomsky. Titled “Prospects for World Order,” Chomsky’s talk was delivered on the Oregon State University campus on the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, October 24, 1995.

As is typical of the prolific and highly-controversial social critic, Chomsky’s presentation is a sprawling discourse filled with historical data points that jump all over the map (both figuratively and literally) in support of his central thesis – namely (in simplest terms) that the wealthy and powerful have become so largely by way of the often-ruthless exploitation of most of the world’s inhabitants. While many may object to various aspects of what Chomsky has to say, the talk undeniably provides a great deal of food for thought.

So what is the connection to Linus Pauling? Well, for starters, Chomsky was speaking as the fourteenth Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Lecturer for World Peace. Initiated in 1982 as a joint effort by Linus Pauling and the OSU College of Liberal Arts, the annual lecture was founded in memory of Ava Helen Pauling, whose peace work is well-documented on this blog and elsewhere. In 1995, the year of Chomsky’s presentation, the lecture was renamed to include Linus Pauling, who had died a little over one year before the event.

Flyer for a joint Chomsky-Pauling presentation, Montreal, 1967

Flyer for a joint Chomsky-Pauling presentation, Montreal, 1967.

Pauling and Chomsky also knew one another, if not particularly well. The Pauling Papers contain one letter from Chomsky and, as can be seen here, the two presented together at least once during the Vietnam War era.

Over twenty hours of fully-transcribed events videos – featuring, among others, Nobel Prize-winners Francis Crick, William Lipscomb, Dudley Herschbach and Roderick MacKinnon – have been released on the OSU Libraries Special Collections website since the beginning of 2008. Click here to access all of this intriguing content.

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.”