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.

The Pauling Point

Linus Pauling, in lecture at the California Institute of Technology. 1935

Linus Pauling, in lecture at the California Institute of Technology. 1935

[Pauling] has a speculative mind of the first order, great analytical ability, and the genius to keep in close and inspiring touch with experimental work…. He…is nearly universally rated as the leading theoretical chemist of the world.
– Warren Weaver. Weaver diary notes, October 1933, as referenced in Force of Nature, by Tom Hager, p. 187.

Linus Pauling was known for what his students referred to as the “Pauling Point” – the notion that a problem is best analyzed and solved by examining the broadest possible picture without distorting the details.

Pauling, in other words, believed that by looking too closely at a problem, one could become lost in a mass of variables. On the other hand, should an investigator fail to examine a problem closely enough, its unique properties would fade from view. The intersection then, of “too close” and “not close enough” is “The Pauling Point.”

What follows is a philosophical discussion, written by Pauling, that demonstrates his unique – not to mention long-held – approach to problem solving.

I remember when I was 11 years old that I asked myself what evidence I had that the rest of the world existed anywhere except in my consciousness. I could not think of any convincing evidence to the contrary. I was in danger of becoming a solipsist – I am not sure that I should say that I was in danger, but there was the possibility that I might have accepted this as a philosophy.

As I continued to think about the problem, however, I recognized that the world as it presented itself to my senses seemed to be essentially symmetrical in its relation to me and to other young human beings, such as other students in the grammar school I was attending. This symmetry involves so many facets as to cause me to conclude that, despite the special relationship that my own consciousness had with me (in my interactions with the rest of the universe, as it presented itself to my senses), it was highly probable that I myself did not occupy a unique position in the universe. The actions of individual human beings influence the history of the world.

This fact is especially clearly recognized when we think about the influence that rulers and politicians have had on the history of the world – such people as Julius Caesar, Hitler, Abraham Lincoln. A writer such as William Shakespeare and a discoverer such as Christopher Columbus have clearly changed the world in such a way as to have influenced in a striking manner a tremendous number of people who have lived since their times. Actions taken by what might be called ordinary people have no doubt also had a large effect on the history of the world, even though we are not able to document such effects.

On thinking about this whole question, I recognize that my questioner probably was correct in formulating the basis of his question to me; that is, in saying essentially that I had changed the lives of millions of people. This thought gives me satisfaction, but I do not feel that I should claim special credit for my actions. I have acted in response to my education, my environment, and other factors, especially the influence on my thinking of ideas and convictions expressed by my wife. I have never had the feeling of being a martyr or of sacrificing myself, nor have I had the feeling of being ordained or selected in any way to assume a special position among the billions of people who have lived on earth.

There is one question, however, that raises itself in my mind from time to time, and to which I do not know the answer. This question deals with the theory of probability. My career has been unique. In a sense, the life of every human being is unique, but it seems clear to me that I have had the good fortune to lead a life that is significantly different in quality from that of most other human beings. Perhaps one person in a million, or one person in a hundred thousand, or one person in ten million can be said to have led a life that differs as much from that of most other human beings as mine. Yet I myself – my consciousness, my ego – am associated with this unique life that I have led.

The question that I ask myself is why this consciousness, which is I, should be associated with this life, rather than with one of the hundred thousand or million or ten million other lives that would have provided less satisfaction to me. If I were a solipsist, and able to determine the nature of the imagined universe about me, I might well have determined I in just the way that I have in fact experienced it.

But I am not a solipsist – I believe that I am a human being, like other human beings. Accordingly the problem of my identity remains, to puzzle me.

(Linus Pauling, 1981. As referenced in Mead, Clifford and Thomas Hager. Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2001. 236-37.)

While Pauling most often applied his trademark technique to the sciences, as seen above, he could apply it to virtually any subject, even as a child. Where others might have become lost in the paradoxes imbued within concepts like “reality” and “self-awareness,” Pauling was able to remove himself from the equation to the point where he could arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. This technique would characterize his life’s work, resulting in some of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century.

“One could say that Pauling’s ‘failure’ was to plant a lot of seeds, basic ideas, without working them out fully…. As soon as Slater gets an idea he works it out to the end before he gets a new one. But that is also dangerous, of course, because you look at the trees and you don’t see the forest…[Pauling] looks at the forest and lets other people…work out the specific individual things in detail; he has a terrifically lively intellect, reading [Pauling’s] paper, the information here is just tremendous, the ideas flow out of the pen, and there are several lifetimes of work…to be done.”

(Sten Samson. Interviewed by Anthony Serafini for Linus Pauling: A Man and His Science. 1984.)

More “facets of Linus Pauling” are available in Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker, now available in paperback from Oregon State University Press.

Facets of Linus Pauling: “Of What Cult are You the Swami?”

[Ed Note: This is the first in an occasional series drawing on the “Facets” section of Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peacemaker, now available in paperback from the Oregon State University Press.]

Linus Pauling, 1935

Linus Pauling, 1935.

“Pauling became Chairman of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech in 1936. He looked so young that Ava Helen suggested that he grow a beard. One day Pauling was walking in Los Angeles when a distinguished elderly gentleman stopped him to ask, ‘Of what cult are you the Swami?’ Linus and the man discovered a mutual interest in polyhedra.

“It was on a transcontinental train that Linus and Ava Helen were riding when he decided to visit the train’s barber for a haircut and to have the beard shaved off.

Ever conscious of his image as seen by others, he returned to his seat by Ava Helen and pretended to make advances which sprained the eyebrows of several other passengers who were saying ‘Just wait ’til the guy with the beard comes back.'”

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling. 1933.

Ava Helen and Linus Pauling. 1933.

(William Lipscomb, 1995. Extracted from a talk titled “Reflections,” the video of which is available on the OSU Libraries Special Collections website.)

It is worth noting that Pauling saved a sample of his beard clippings and that they remain preserved today, cataloged as item 2.010.53g in the Pauling Personal Safe.