A Halloween Tale of Ice Cream and Ethanol

Linus Pauling at a Halloween gathering, 1950s?

Linus Pauling at a Halloween gathering, 1950s?

In honor of today’s festivities, we’re passing along one of our favorite Pauling notes to self — a ghoulish tale penned shortly after midnight on November 5, 1974.  While the content of the note is surely atypical, its rigorous attention to detail (complete with metric conversions) and unflagging scientific insta-analysis of the data are pure Linus Pauling.

At about 12:28 AM on 5 November I woke, opened my eyes, and was astonished and frightened by a hallucination. Hovering over me was the head of a man, glaring at me, with a diabolical expression and flashing eyes. The face was a coppery red color, with highlights, as though oily. It seemed to be about a foot (25 cm) in diameter, and about five feet (125 cm) above me – not so far away as the ceiling. After about two seconds, or perhaps somewhat more, its aspect changed to that of another face, not menacing, and then to that of another, and another. I had ceased to be frightened in a few seconds, when I decided that I was experiencing a natural phenomenon.

After about two minutes (estimated) I looked at a clock (with red digits, visible at 12 feet distance); it was 12:30 AM. The room was dimly lit by the clock and light from the edges of the drawn curtains (there were electric lights outside).

The faces were surrounded by darkness, extending uniformly to the periphery of my vision. They were not sharply outlined, but faded into the darkness. The solid angle subtended by the red glow may have been somewhat less than stated above.

Without moving (except to move my head) I observed the phenomenon until 12:52 AM. I found that the face moved as I rotated my head. It seemed to be in the center of my visual field at all times. It remained when I closed my eyes and when I put my hands over my eyes. At times it disappeared, but returned in a few seconds. It was always dimmer than it had seemed when I first wakened.

The eyes seemed to shine, but intermittently – that is, they seemed to flash.

Throughout this period of over twenty minutes the face or other vision changed, usually every two or three seconds.

For a while it seemed to be not a face but a red marine invertebrate, such as a [left blank in Pauling’s manuscript]. A portion here or there would glow, as though fluorescent, or occasionally flash.

I decided that the red color was caused by the excitation of one of the receptors in the fovea. I had attended a cocktail party, and ingested perhaps 50ml of ethanol (as vodka) and eaten some pretzels, at 5 to 6 PM. At 7:30 PM I had eaten a large ice cream sundae, with hot chocolate sauce. At 9:30 PM I went to bed, but had trouble sleeping. At 11:30 PM I noticed that I was unusually warm, and thought that I was oxidizing the sugar of the ice cream at a high rate. I went to sleep, and then wakened, as described above. I had been dreaming, but could not remember the dream.

After seeing the marine invertebrates I again saw faces, perhaps through an effort of will. The color remained red, as though only the red receptors were being stimulated.

The vision that I first saw seemed real enough to frighten me. I remained somewhat apprehensive for perhaps thirty seconds. If the face had not changed its aspect quickly and if I had not had some understanding of physiology I might have attributed supernatural significance to the phenomenon.

I had taken about two grams of ascorbic acid at 9:30 PM.

Linus Pauling, 12:53 AM, Mon 5 Nov. 1974

These and hundreds of additional Biographical Notes to Self are available in subseries 5 of the Pauling Papers Biographical section, Box 5.018.