Pauling’s First Paper on the Nature of the Chemical Bond

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Linus and Ava Helen Pauling in Munich, with Walter Heitler (left) and Fritz London (right), 1927.

[An examination of Linus Pauling’s first paper on the nature of the chemical bond, published in April 1931. Part 2 of 2.]

In 1928 the German physicists Walter Heitler and Fritz London published a paper that appeared to have beaten Linus Pauling to the punch in its application of quantum mechanics to the theory of chemical bonding. As with Pauling, the duo was interested in Erwin Schrödinger’s wave function, and in their paper they applied it to the simplest bond: that formed by two hydrogen atoms. In so doing, Heitler and London did indeed become the first scientists to publish an application of this type.

The German colleagues also incorporated Werner Heisenberg’s ideas on exchange energy. Heisenberg had theorized that the electrons of two given atoms would find themselves attracted to the positively charged nuclei of their atomic pairs. As such, a chemical bond, according to this theory, consisted simply of two electrons jumping back and forth between two atoms, belonging simultaneously to both and to neither.

Heitler and London extended this idea, proposing that chemical bonds sourced their lengths and strengths from the amount of repulsion extant between two positively charged nuclei. The balance between the electrons’ attraction to these nuclei, coupled with the quantifiable repulsion existing between the two nuclei, ultimately served to create the bond.


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Pauling on the precipice of greatness, 1928.

Invigorated by the promise of competition, Pauling set to work applying Heitler and London’s theory to more complex molecules. In part to motivate himself, but also to ensure that he received recognition for his research, Pauling announced in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that he believed he could solve the tetrahedral binding of carbon using the ideas put forth by quantum mechanics.

This declaration piqued significant interest throughout the scientific community, striking a nerve for chemists and physicists alike, both groups of whom had been puzzling over this specific structure in different ways. On one hand, physicists believed that carbon should have a valence of two because, of its six electrons, four were located in two different subshells. Both sets of two would then be expected to pair off with each other, leaving only two electrons logically available for bonding. On the other hand, chemists found in the laboratory that carbon typically offered four electrons for bonding in nature. In essence, both theory and experiment indicated that neither party was completely right, but so too could neither point of view be completely wrong. Pauling believed that quantum mechanics could illuminate the paradox.

In addition to his theoretical study, Pauling’s extensive graduate training in x-ray crystallography strengthened both his interest in and his flair for atomic structure. By 1928, after a busy year of research, he had established five principles for determining the structure of complex covalent and ionic crystals, later dubbed “Pauling’s Rules.” He used these rules to predict models for particular molecular structures, and then worked backward from the theoretical model to develop a more concrete picture based on x-ray data. When a colleague remarked that this technique resembled the Greek stochastic method – an approach based largely on applied guess work – Pauling offered a correction, stating that

Agreement on a limited number of points cannot be accepted as verification of the hypothesis. In order for the stochastic method to be significant, the principles used in formulating the hypothesis must be restrictive enough to make the hypothesis itself essentially unique.

In other words, Pauling was relying on his knowledge of chemical principles to develop meticulous and educated hypotheses that he could go back and prove. And as he would hasten to add, he placed very little stock in luck or guesswork.


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As work moved forward, Pauling added his rules to three others that had been established by G.N. Lewis – and then expanded and formalized by Heitler and London – concerning the electron pair bond. These rules set parameters for the circumstances in which an electron would be theoretically available to form a chemical bond.

Though equipped with a solid toolkit of his and others’ making, it ultimately took Pauling almost three years to solve the carbon tetrahedron, with his big breakthrough coming in December of 1930. Inspired by the work of MIT physicist John C. Slater, Pauling found a way to reduce the complexity of the radial wave function, a component of bond orbital theory the application of which had been giving him some trouble. With this solution in hand, the math required for solving further steps of the carbon puzzle became significantly more manageable.

Pauling’s subsequent equations led him to develop a model for the structure that consisted of four equal orbitals oriented at the angles of a tetrahedron. Using these equations, Pauling further discerned that the strength of the bonds within the structure increased in accordance with greater degrees of orbital overlap between two atoms. The overlap, Pauling found, produced more exchange energy and this in turn created a stronger bond.

Pauling sent his paper to the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS) in February 1931. In it, Pauling detailed three rules governing eigenfunctions that complemented G.N. Lewis’ rules about electron pairs. Pauling used this collection of guidelines to explain relative bond strength, finding that the strongest bonds occurred on the lowest energy level and where orbitals overlap. He also developed a complete theory of magnetic moments and ended the paper stressing the important role that quantum mechanics had played in his formulation of the rules and theories expressed in the work.

The paper, titled “The Nature of the Chemical Bond: Application of Results Obtained from the Quantum Mechanics and from a Theory of Paramagnetic Susceptibility to the Structure of Molecules,” was accepted and published in record time. The subject matter was so new and the ideas so fresh that Arthur Lamb, the editor of JACS at the time, had trouble finding a group qualified enough to review it. Even so, he scheduled the article for the April issue and in so doing published Pauling’s paper a mere six weeks after he had received it.


In 1926, whether he knew it or not, Linus Pauling embarked down a path toward the transformation of chemistry and the way that it would be studied for generations to come. The ideas that he began developing during this time gradually became the standard model for those studying chemistry while simultaneously launching Pauling to dizzying heights. His April 1931 paper, the first in a series of seven, also became the basis for his 1939 book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond, which was almost immediately recognized as a classic of twentieth-century scientific writing.

Largely on the strength of the April JACS article, Pauling also received the 1931 Langmuir Prize from the American Chemical Society, and used the money that came with the prestigious award to further his research. Now that he was interested in molecular structure, he saw it’s promise everywhere within a rapidly expanding research program. In fact, the chemical bond work of the late 1920s and early 1930s laid the foundation for his subsequent program of hemoglobin research, which in turn led to his sickle cell anemia discovery almost twenty years later. In hindsight, it is easy to see how Pauling could have looked back on the achievements of early 1931 as being “the best work I’ve ever done.”

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“The Best Work I’ve Ever Done”

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Linus Pauling, 1931.

[An examination of Linus Pauling’s first paper on the nature of the chemical bond, published in April 1931. This is part 1 of 2.]

“It seems to me that I have introduced into my work on the chemical bond a way of thinking that might not have been introduced by anyone else, at least not for quite a while. I suppose that the complex of ideas that I originated in the period of around 1928 to 1933 – and 1931 was probably my most important paper – has had the greatest impact on chemistry.”

-Linus Pauling, 1977

One of the major film documentaries chronicling Linus Pauling’s life was produced for the long-running NOVA series in 1977. By that point, when asked to look back over the decades of significant work that he had done, Pauling still singled out his insights into the chemical bond as being his most significant contribution to chemistry.

Pauling’s initial 1931 paper in particular marked the first time that he published his revolutionary point of view related to the chemical bond, and reflecting on that period Pauling went so far as to call the article “the best work I’ve ever done.” Indeed, the paper marked the first instance in which Pauling began to spell out the ways in which the burgeoning field of quantum mechanics might be applied to fundamental questions in chemistry. And though first in a lengthy series, Pauling placed major significance on this one paper because it profoundly changed the course of his career and set into motion a period of heavy influenced on the trajectory of an entire discipline.


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G.N. Lewis, ca. 1930.

While an undergraduate at Oregon Agricultural College, Pauling had been taught – and went on to teach his own students – the “hooks and eyes” theory of chemical bonding. In this model, each atom was presumed to have a certain number of hooks or eyes that determined how and to what other atoms it could connect. Though it prevailed at the time, the model was deemed to be outdated and insufficient by many of Pauling’s contemporaries, some of whom were concurrently searching for a more satisfactory replacement.

That said, “hooks and eyes” did serve as a useful precursor to the later concept of valence, because it correctly assumed that each atom possessed a concrete number of electrons to contribute to the formation of bonds with other atoms. The theory also suggested that there were rules governing how chemical bonds worked and how likely it was that two or more atoms might form a bond.

While Pauling was still a student in Oregon, he avidly read G.N. Lewis’ ideas about electron structure and also studied Irving Langmuir’s theory of valence, a tutelage that helped propel his own nascent interest in chemical bonding and atomic structure. Lewis proved to be particularly important. A chemist at the University of California, Berkeley and a future mentor of Pauling’s, Lewis proposed that eight electrons provided a maximally stable environment for a molecule, a tenet known today as the octet rule. Working from this idea, Lewis hypothesized that an atom containing, for example, seven electrons would bond more readily with an atom containing nine electrons, and that the bond that was formed consisted of the electron shared between the two atoms.

Lewis wasn’t the first to chase the nature of the chemical bond. Indeed, the problem had been under attack for a few decades. In 1911, Ernest Rutherford created the first modern atomic model, but ran into trouble because it wasn’t compatible with classical physics. Niels Bohr then updated this model. Less than twenty years after J. J. Thompson had discovered the electron, Bohr suggested that electrons orbited the nucleus in a predictable way, emitting quanta when they moved into lower orbits.

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Arnold Sommerfeld, 1928.

From there, others sought to fill gaps in Bohr’s model. In 1915, Arnold Sommerfeld, a physicist with whom Pauling eventually worked, helped to devise what came to be known as the Sommerfeld-Wilson quantization rules. These guidelines provided an explanation for angular momentum by describing electron orbits as ellipses rather than perfect circles.

At the same time, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Max Planck (among others) were rapidly embracing a new way to look at physics, expanding the theory and mathematics behind involved in this innovative approach. In 1925, a year before Pauling began an influential trip to Europe, Heisenberg had authored his “Quantum Theoretical Reinterpretation of Kinematic and Mechanical Relations,” which many point to as the true beginning of quantum mechanics. Schrödinger then completed his wave function in 1926. By contrast, the Lewis and Langmuir models were part of an old system that – as soon Pauling discovered – was in the process of being discarded.


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Linus Pauling at the Temple of Neptune, Paestum, Italy, during his legendary Guggenheim trip to Europe. This photo was taken by Ava Helen in April 1926.

An admirer of Sommerfeld’s work, Pauling traveled to Europe on a Guggenheim fellowship to learn as much as he could about quantum mechanics, which at the time was referred to as “new physics.” He was especially keen to learn more about Schrödinger’s equation and to dig into the ways in which the wave function might be applied to a more sophisticated understanding of the chemical bond. Though impressed by Heisenberg, Pauling gravitated toward Schrödinger because he saw more potential for practical application of the wave function, as opposed to Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics. In a note penned during his travels, Pauling wrote specifically that

I think that it is very interesting that one can see the [psi] functions of Schrödinger’s wave mechanics by means of the X-ray study of crystals. This work should be continued experimentally. I believe that much information regarding the nature of the chemical bond will result from it.

These thoughts proved prophetic, as we will see in part 2 of this series.


Pauling returned to Pasadena in the fall of 1927, bursting with new ideas. While he was away, Caltech chemistry chief A.A. Noyes had sent word that a unique position had been created for his promising young faculty member, one that lined up nicely with Pauling’s new interests. Upon his re-arrival at Caltech, Pauling was to begin working under the title of Assistant Professor of Theoretical Chemistry and Mathematical Physics.

Although Noyes eventually dropped the physics course from the appointment, Pauling liked the idea of hybridizing his interests into one name. It was at that point that he began referring to himself as a quantum chemist.

The History of the Pauling Blog: An Archivist Reflects

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Red carnations left anonymously in the Valley Library Special Collections and Archives Research Center foyer on February 28, 2018 — Pauling’s 117th birthday.

[Extracts from an interview by Tiah Edmunson-Morton with Chris Petersen, conducted on the occasion of the Pauling Blog’s tenth anniversary. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Part 4 of 4.]

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: Do you see yourself as his biographer?

Chris Petersen: Oh no, definitely not. But here is what I do see myself as. I see myself as a person who, through pure accident, wound up in a very unique position. I was hired as a student assistant in 1996, I was hired as a full-time [faculty member] in 1999, and that was the period of time during which the collection was being processed. And somehow I took charge of that when I was a student. The person who had my job before me left in the spring of my senior year of college, and at that point I began to lead the processing effort of this enormous collection. And that continued.

We published the catalog in 2006, so that’s ten years of work based on my start date as a student. And that’s never going to happen again. Nobody’s ever going to re-process the Pauling Papers. I hope not, at least. [laughs] So I had this opportunity that nobody else will ever have. And when you work with a collection, you don’t necessarily become their biographer, but you do have a level of intimacy with the material that nobody else will ever have, because nobody else is going to process that collection.

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Linus Pauling in the original Special Collections reading room, 1988.

And now when I think about the blog I think about it in multiple ways, but one of the ways that I think about it is it being a resource for future archivists who work at OSU to be able to work with this collection in a more effective way, just because they’re not going to have that same experience of working with it that I had. And part of what continues to motivate me to publish the [Pauling Blog] is that — to leave a little bit of my experience behind after I’m gone. Because the blog will hopefully continue to exist. I doubt it will continue to be published after I stop doing it, whenever that is, but what we’ve done will continue to exist. We’re archiving it with our Archive-It instance, so it’s in the Internet Archive. It gets archived once a quarter.

And I’m happy about that. It’s a very big collection, it’s difficult to provide reference for it because of its size, and it’s unfair for all of the people who work here to be expected to know it on anything more than a surface level. So this is a tool for them to have in the future.

TEM: Is there a post that you thought about writing, because of the depth of knowledge that you have about the collection, that you decided not to write?

CP: Yeah, I thought about writing something [for the tenth anniversary of the Pauling Blog] but we’re doing this instead. [laughs]

There’s a part of me that wants to write a reflection about my engagement with Pauling, a person I never met. He died when I was a senior in high school; actually the summer after my senior year of high school. I was working for the Department of Transportation picking up garbage by the side of the road in Eastern Oregon on the day that he died. So that was my status at the end of his life. But I have come to know him well through strange ways, and I have come to know his oldest son quite well – Linus Jr. – through oral history. And I was in the middle of this department [Special Collections] that doesn’t exist anymore, that was devoted to him. And that’s, again, a unique experience.

Part of my oral history work, in addition to Linus Jr., was to interview Cliff Mead – basically the only head of Special Collections that ever existed – to try to get some of his memories from the chapter before I came along in ’96, because there were nine years of time that elapsed. So I could have a history of Special Collections recorded somewhere.

And anyway, part of me has thought about writing these recollections down, but it seems like a lot of work [laughs] and I have other things to do right now. But maybe someday.

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Ava Helen Miller with Linus Pauling, 1922.

TEM: What about topics that you’ve thought about writing about? I mean, there’s some really personal relationship stuff between he and Ava Helen.

CP: Yep. That’s actually a good example of something that I’ve thought about and haven’t done. So they were separated for a year when he went to Caltech and she was here [at Oregon Agricultural College]. They wanted to get married and their parents wouldn’t let them, so she stayed here in Corvallis for a year and he went for his first year of grad school. And then he came back that next summer, they got married, and they went off together. But they were apart for one year and they wrote to each other basically every single day, and we have all of his letters but none of hers, because he burned them. And I think that there’s probably good stuff in those letters but I just can’t deal with it because there’s also a lot of lovey-dovey stuff, and there’s just a lot of stuff period.

But I think that the correspondence between he and Ava Helen is ripe for mining, and Mina Carson did some of that for her Ava Helen biography. Pauling was super formal in his correspondence and pretty much to the point, because he was doing a lot of corresponding and just was a very busy person. The one time where he reveals himself on any deeper level, or reveals any kind of vulnerability, is in his correspondence with his wife. So I think that there’s probably a lot there that could be thought about and teased out, but it would take a lot of time and thinking to try and figure out what exactly is going on here with some of that stuff. But that’s something that I would like somebody to do some day; that’s definitely at least a paper, if not a book.

Something that I would like somebody else to do that definitely is a book is to talk about his relationship with Caltech. He was there for a long time and it would be really interesting to trace his evolution while there and also to trace the Institute’s evolution while he was there, and think about how the two of them were symbiotic on some level. I mean, Caltech was not Caltech when he joined, and it is Caltech today in part because he was there. He helped to build that place. He certainly wasn’t the only person, but he was a significant piece of it.

And on the same token, when he went to Caltech — he came from an extremely humble background and he’s lucky to have made it out of that background. When he went to Caltech he was very smart and ambitious but super green. I mean, his education that he got here was, I think, pretty modest. OAC was a land grant institution, it was focused on practical stuff, and he had far greater aspirations than that.

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Hand-tinted photo of Pauling at the Sutherlin work site, 1922.

And he got into Caltech — one of my favorite stories about Pauling is that, so he’s been accepted to Caltech and the summer before he goes down there he’s working for the Department of Transportation and he’s a pavement inspector. And so he’s out in the middle of nowhere in Oregon, inspecting pavement and living in a tent. But before he embarked upon this job he wrote to A.A. Noyes, who is the head of the Chemistry section of Caltech — there are basically three people who started Caltech and Noyes was one of them — and Pauling says, “I’m coming to grad school, how do I become a grad student?” And Noyes is writing a textbook and he sends him a manuscript version of the textbook and tells him, “Do all the problems in this book.” And so that summer in his tent, with a lantern, Pauling is doing this work and learning how to become a grad student and how to become a scientist.

And so he goes to Caltech and he’s there for a few years and at the end of that he gets this Guggenheim fellowship to go to Europe to learn quantum mechanics as it’s basically being invented. And then he comes back to the United States, applies quantum mechanics to structural chemistry, publishes a series of papers that become The Nature of the Chemical Bond in 1939, and that’s Nobel-quality work at that point. And it’s a very short period of time during which this process is moving forward, but for me it begins in that tent.

In any case, Caltech was hugely important for Pauling and vice-versa, and I think that would be a book that somebody should write; I’d love to see that. That’s not a series of blog posts.

One of the things that we’ve done a lot is to talk about his associations with places. We’ve done a series on his tenure at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, which was rocky at best and short-lived. Same thing with UCSD. We’ve got a series coming out soon about his time at Stanford. We’ve done a lot on his relationship with Oregon Agricultural College too. But it’s harder to wrap yourself around the relationship with Caltech because he was there for so long and so much happened.

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But I think I figured out a way that we can start to engage with that a little bit, and that’s something that’s being worked on right now, and that’s to talk about his work as an administrator. So he was the head of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering for a long time and he was in charge of a lot of grant money and he had an army of grad students who worked for him. And part of his success story is that he was a very able administrator, and obviously a brilliant thinker.

So he’d come up with an idea and give it a grad student, and that might become that grad student’s entire career basically. They would pursue that as a grad student and continue to pursue it for the rest of their career. It was something that would emerge from this yellow piece of paper that he would give to people, saying “you can work on this if you want, you don’t have to.” It was implied that you should. [laughs]

But he published 1,100 papers and you don’t do that without help. And there are plenty of co-authors there and people who went on to win Nobel Prizes — the Pauling tree is vast and significant. So I’m interested in that; I’m interested in his ability to be a leader of men. And it was men, because Caltech didn’t allow women. But I’m interested in his ability to attract grant money and how this all flows into creating this career that is so remarkable. And a lot of it happened at Caltech; a lot of the best stuff happened at Caltech.

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The History of the Pauling Blog: Of White Whales and Other Challenges

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[Extracts from an interview by Tiah Edmunson-Morton with Chris Petersen, conducted on the occasion of the Pauling Blog’s tenth anniversary. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Part 3 of 4.]

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: How many students have worked on the blog?

Chris Petersen: Well, thirty-three people have written for the blog and I would say that probably more than twenty-five of them have been students. It’s mostly students.

So the people that have written for it have been students and me and a sort of random collection of other people. [Pauling biographer] Tom Hager contributed a couple of things he actually had written for something else, but we re-posted them. We also had a guy named John Leavitt, who was an employee of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine when it was in the Bay Area, who has taken an active interest in us for a long time. And he’s been our – I called him our East Coast Bureau Chief for a while because he’s based in Connecticut. He’s sent us quite a bit of stuff and we’ve published him.

Another hat that I wear within the department is Remote Reference Coordinator, and so sometimes somebody will contact us with a fairly in-depth inquiry about Pauling and it’s going to be published in a book or in a paper or whatever. And I’ll invite them to write something for the blog and tell them that it actually has a pretty good audience and it’s going to expose your project to a wider audience than maybe it would otherwise receive. And we’ve gotten guest posts based on that as well.

But those are few and far between, relatively speaking. It’s been mostly students, and a full gamut of students too – undergraduates, master’s-seeking, and Ph.D. students. We’ve had good luck with the [Oregon State University] Honors College; we’ve recruited a lot out of the Honors College here. We’ve had good luck with the History of Science program, we’ve had good luck with the English program. But not necessarily just those three – again, there’s a bit of word of mouth from time to time, and just good luck as well happens from time to time too.

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TEM: What is the most memorable thing that a student found or researched or asked you about?

CP: Yeah, that’s an easy answer for me. I don’t know what the year was, it’s been a few years ago, but there’s a controversy – a very weird scientific controversy – on something called quasicrystals. Quasicrystals, I would not pretend to be an expert on them, but I can say that they are exotic and they are related to structural chemstry and there’s a lot of math involved.

And so I knew that Pauling had done a lot of writing and speaking about quasicrystals in the ’80s, and he got into basically a dispute with another guy named Dan Shechtman about – I think Shechtman was pro-quasicrystals and Pauling was anti, I’m honestly not even sure at this point. But there was a dispute and Shechtman was right and, as it turned out, Shechtman won the Nobel Prize in 2011 for this work on quasicrystals. And this stands as a piece of evidence about Pauling’s stubbornness and about his inflexibility at times, which was very much a part of his personality, especially as he got older.

I wanted to do something with this, but I knew that I didn’t have the ability to do it and I didn’t figure many students would either. But we finally had somebody who came across my desk who I thought, “she might be able to pull this off.” And she did.

So she devoted a lot of time to this. She was married and her husband created animated gifs to use as illustrations because she felt like that was necessary to provide context for what she was writing. And she worked from home for a while because I think she was having some health issues, and she finally emailed it to me. And she emailed it as a full package and in the email she quoted Moby Dick. And part of the quote – I don’t know the whole thing – but “from hell’s heart I stabbeth thee” was part of what she said because she had slayed this white whale of this set of posts about quasicrystals.

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And it was terrific, it really was. She was an extraordinary talent. And that was, I think, pretty much the end of her time with us; I don’t know what happened to her since, I hope that she’s done well. But she was exceptional and that really stands out in memory as just being a terrific accomplishment; something that I couldn’t have done. I think that most of what we publish is good to pretty good to excellent, and most of it I could do if I had the time and wherewithal. But I don’t know if I could have done that. She did and it was great. So, “from hell’s heart I stabbeth thee.” [laughs]

TEM: I was sort of thinking that the answer to that would not be quasicrystals but that it would be something more controversial. So Pauling also had other controversial aspects of his life and his career and I’m curious about how you’ve dealt with that?

CP: Yeah. I think that the blog is mostly friendly to Pauling and I think that’s valid. We are not an exercise in hagiography though, and we have written things that are not necessarily flattering. I think the quasicrystals instance is one of them, in fact.

The topic du jour these days is whether or not Pauling was a eugenicist, and we’ve written on that. It’s tricky, for sure, but I think we’ve taken a pretty balanced approach to that. And the last bit that we did was actually a summary of a talk that was given here by somebody from our Resident Scholar Program. So that’s been another thing that we’ve done is writing profiles on the different people who have come here as Resident Scholars to do work on Pauling; there have been several of them. And this guy gave a nice talk that, I think, presented the nuance pretty well, and I wrote that post. I was there for his presentation, I re-watched it, I wrote up the notes, and I thought a lot about how to present this. And I think that stands as a nice statement on Pauling’s point of view related to eugenics, which I’m not going to get into here. But that is one instance.

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Another instance that I think is valid is his relationship with his children. We’ve done two sets of posts on his two sons that are no longer living – Crellin was the youngest one and was actually the first one to die, and then Peter was the second oldest of the kids who had a tough life on a lot of levels. And we took a deep dive on both of them and engaged with their life stories in a way that, I’m sure, nobody else has.

Pauling, I think, he was of a different generation of parent than I am. He was very focused on his career and he had a wife who saw it as her role – early on, at least – to care for the children and to create a scenario in which he could do his work most effectively.

And he did a lot of very effective work, but I think it also had an impact on his kids on some level. I think that he loved them, I think that he certainly provided for them well after they were out of the home – most of them. But that warmth was not always necessarily there and the time was not there for sure, and that’s a criticism. And I think that comes through in the writing on some level.

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So those are a couple bits. Another thing we’ve done is written extensively about lawsuits. And he was involved in a lot of lawsuits. The ones that we’ve engaged with are well in the past and they’re libel lawsuits – mostly papers or magazines calling him a communist, and him being very litigious about it. And, so there was a Supreme Court verdict that came through that basically shot his point of view down and that was the end of him being successful with these lawsuits, but he pursued them doggedly and a sort of persnickety side of his personality arises.

He could be a little cranky at times and he probably had a right to be as far as that was concerned, but in my reading of the documents and just in his interactions with people as a writer of letters, he was always very formal and he sometimes could be pretty terse and not especially warm. So we dug into the lawsuits in significant depth and I think that showed pieces of his personality as far as that’s concerned.

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We’ve done a lot of work on vitamin C, especially vitamin C and cancer, and to a lesser degree vitamin C and the common cold, and vitamin C and heart disease. And Pauling was obsessed with vitamin C – I think that’s a fair statement – and was not necessarily willing to hear contradictory points of view very much, or perhaps pursued lines of inquiry that were not super scientific but were favorable to his perspective or were overly favorable.

And so some of that has emerged in the writing. But I also think, there seems to be a trend now – a rising trend – of scientists who are starting to think that he was on to something, and that’s been fun to document as well. So the idea basically is that if you take vitamin C orally you are not able to absorb most of it, you excrete most of it in your urine. So there’s a threshold of absorption. And he knew that, I think, but tried to suggest different ways of taking it, kind of a steady dose over the course of an entire day that would increase the concentration in the blood. But some of the things that he said were going to happen concerning the promise of vitamin C to heal in various ways were lost because you just couldn’t absorb the ascorbic acid into your body.

But in more recent time, scientists seem to be coming to the understanding that if you take it intravenously it’s a different transport mechanism and you’re able to absorb a lot more and, in fact, some of what he thought was going to happen may actually be true. And this is of, like, last Fall – there was a seminar at the Linus Pauling Institute for their Diet and Optimum Health Conference that was devoted entirely to that. So I sent one of our students to cover it and it was great. It’s really fun for me to be able to follow that a little bit and to convey that a little bit, because he took a real beating for his point of view on that. And his tactics were not the best tactics, but it’s pretty interesting to me that, these many years later, he actually may have been right about some of that stuff.

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The History of the Pauling Blog: An Expanding Purview

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[Extracts from an interview by Tiah Edmunson-Morton with Chris Petersen, conducted on the occasion of the Pauling Blog’s tenth anniversary. This is part 2 of 4.]

Chris Petersen: [Once the Pauling Blog had been launched in Spring 2008] it took us a little while to figure out what we were doing. The early posts are short, they’re link-heavy, they traverse familiar ground related to Pauling, and they were twice a week. So that was a thing that we were doing. And it took us a little while to figure out what kind of resources one needs to operate a blog that publishes x number of times. And eventually we settled on once a week and the posts started getting longer.

So we started out from the origin story [described in part 1 of this series] to the next phase. And that, as I recall, was – once we had sort of done all the search engine optimization that we could think of – was to use the documentary histories themselves as a data source, or as a set of information that a student would be restricted to in telling a different story. So perhaps they are expanding upon something that was mentioned in the narrative of the documentary history or going down a different line of inquiry that could be supported by the documents that had been digitized into that resource. And that was the next step.

So we went from re-telling the same stories that had already been told to telling somewhat new stories that were not reliant upon the full collection for the research. Instead, it was an artificially constrained collection that the students were using to write. And part of that was just me not being totally sure if a student could handle the whole collection in terms of research and writing. But that was, I guess, the next phase of us branching out in terms of using the blog as a platform for something that was different from the original idea.

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: How did you decide what to write about? Or what to have students write about?

CP: Well, I’d been working with the papers for twelve years at that point, so I was pretty familiar with the mythology and the canon. And it was easier earlier on because, again, we weren’t really trying to do something new and original, we were trying to steer traffic.

And then beyond that, when we started to use the documentary histories as our source, it was, again, fairly straightforward for me to analyze that and think about, “well, this might be interesting to expand upon.” It’s basically thinking about, “here’s our [documentary history] website, it’s structured with a narrative and has supporting documents, and the narrative tells the story in a particular way. But Pauling’s life is so vast and sprawling in a million different directions that there are lots of ways that you can tease out small details.” So it was just sort of using my imagination as far as that was concerned.

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And I often knew what the outcome was going to be from that piece of research, just from my exposure to the collection. But it had not been written up or documented very well, at least on the web. It might have shown up in a biography somewhere. So I guess that’s how it happened.

TEM: Were there things that you carried forth from the time that you had actually worked with the papers, that you wanted to know more about?

CP: Later. I mean, that’s sort of where we’re at now actually. That’s become something that’s probably driven the blog more than anything else over the last two or three years, is me being interested in something and having a student go research it for me so I can learn something new. [laughs]

TEM: Did you imagine, in this second phase, that the blog would become a research resource in and of itself? That you would be pointing people in that direction who wanted to know more about Pauling?

CP: That’s a good question; I’m not sure. I think that it probably gradually happened over time. A lot of it was in the context of the department as well. For [the Special Collections department] – Pauling was the dominant presence in Special Collections for the whole time that it existed and the Pauling Blog was a piece of that ecosystem. So we had all the websites that we created, we had all the outreach that we were doing, and the blog was a part of both of those. But we were also in the middle of a project to document every single day of his life, which we got from 1930 to 1969, Linus Pauling Day-by-Day. And so that was the level of thinking in terms of resources available to researchers.

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That situation has changed significantly and the connection to Special Collections that exists now is the Pauling Blog. And it’s a significant connection. But it’s become more valuable, I think, in that context, in the sense that the work that we’re doing related to Pauling now is the blog, and has been since 2011. So it’s not quite seven years now yet, but it’s a good amount of time in which that’s been the case. So it’s become more of a point of emphasis as a result of institutional change, I would say.

TEM: So rewinding to 2009 say, so you’ve been doing the blog for a year, what were some of the challenges that you were facing in those early year or two years?

CP: Well, I don’t really remember there being a lot of challenges because, at that point, we were still mining low-hanging fruit and we were filled with possibility and we had as many resources as we possibly could have wanted. It was mostly an issue of channeling energy and recruiting good people. And that is a continuing challenge, but we’ve been pretty fortunate as far as our success rate in that sense.

So the first writers for the blog were me and [SCARC Public Services Archivist Trevor Sandgathe]. Trevor was a student then and he and I basically co-founded this resource. At some point I realized that I wasn’t going to have as much time to do research and writing for the project, so I asked him if he knew anybody that was good and he did: his buddy. [laughs] And so I hired him. And they basically took over the research and writing at that point, and things just sort of evolved from there.

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Early on we also had a graduate student who worked for us who, I don’t remember her circumstance but she was in Corvallis for a summer somehow, and I came into contact with her, and she had her own points of view and interests. And again, we hadn’t done a whole lot of writing at that point, so she could kind of dip into the collection and talk about the things that she was interested in. And the things that she wrote about were interesting and wouldn’t have occurred to me at that point. They were mostly about Pauling’s research methodology, so she wrote posts about electrophoresis and x-ray crystallography and that sort of thing, and it was great. So that’s how things evolved earlier on.

But in terms of challenges, I don’t think that there have ever been really significant challenges. We’ve been fortunate to have administrative support for the project from the beginning. I figured out at some point that it needs two students. The students who work for us usually work about ten hours per week, roughly. So about twenty hours a week of student assistance is required to keep the blog operating at its current level, which is posting once a week and the posts are usually about 1,000 words. And now we’re doing almost all original research, so it takes time, it takes talent.

And there’s never been any push-back on that. I mean, that’s 0.5 FTE for students and that’s significant. I think that there are probably plenty of archives where that is their whole student staff or maybe it’s more than their whole student staff. So I think the big challenge would arise if and when it was impressed upon me that we couldn’t afford it anymore, and that would probably be the end of the project. But it’s never even been introduced and I’m very grateful for that.

But beyond that, the other challenges would be finding good people to write – we’ve had good luck there. Also making sure that I have the time to devote to it, and I’ve gotten pretty efficient at this point so that’s not been an issue. And continuing to come up with ideas, and there’s a lot in that collection to write about, so that also has not been a huge challenge.

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The History of the Pauling Blog: Origin Story

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[Over the next four weeks, the Pauling Blog will celebrate its tenth anniversary by sharing extracts from an oral history interview conducted with Chris Petersen, the founder, editor and publisher of the blog. This interview was led by Tiah Edmunson-Morton, who is an archivist and instructor, and also the curator of the Oregon Hops and Brewing Archives, a component of the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at Oregon State University Libraries, which is likewise home to the Pauling Papers and the Pauling Blog. The transcript extracts presented here have been lightly edited for clarity. Click here to view the full interview.]

Tiah Edmunson-Morton: Tell me the story of how the Pauling Blog started.

Chris Petersen: Well, the origin story of the Pauling Blog would precede the blog itself by several years.

So I started working in Special Collections in 1996 and, at that point, there was a strong interest in digitization already. The Pauling Papers had been at OSU for about ten years, kind of/sort of. Pauling made his donation in 1986, he lived until 1994. Over the course of that time, maybe twenty percent of the collection showed up and a smaller portion of that was jammed into a very small space in the old Kerr Library – a space that doesn’t exist anymore. But the part that we had mostly was not in that space; it was in a couple of other places outside of the library and was basically just in storage. And then Pauling died in ’94, it took about two years to resolve the estate, so around ’96 is when most of the stuff came. And then ’98 is when the facility that we’re in now was completed, and that’s when things came under one roof for the first time.

During that period of time, from ’86 to ’98, we had the stuff that we had and we were processing it as well as we could. And during that time, the library was very interested in doing some sort of digitization project. And so they settled on something called LaserFiche, which was a database-driven piece of software that was fairly slick. It allowed you to create a folder structure online that looked similar to what we might see in Windows Explorer now, and then digitize stuff into those folders and make it available. It could be password-protected if you wanted. And that’s how people would access the content online.

So that was something that was being pursued with gusto and press announcements went out, “we’re digitizing this, isn’t it great?” And it was, sort of. But there were a couple of problems. Number one, we started digitizing before the collection was here – never a good thing. So the collection was being processed and re-processed as time was moving forward, and this directory structure that we were creating was no longer relevant. So things got pretty messy in a hurry.

The other thing that happened was copyright: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed and put us in a situation where we could provide access to everything that we held the copyright for, which was all of Pauling’s writings, but not all the other things in the collection that weren’t his writings which, there’s a lot of that. So that project kind of fell apart as a result of that.

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There was still an interest in digitizing though, and so from there we switched into thematic websites, which is what is represented now — particular aspects of Pauling’s life and career represented through these documentary history websites mostly, but also through some more traditional kinds of digital collections that were created over time as well. So that was a big point of emphasis for Special Collections from really the beginning of my association in ’96 to, well, for the entire duration of the department, which ended in 2011.

TEM: At that point was it pretty standard or traditional for archives that focused so much on one person to digitize that much content? Or have that robust of a website, period?

CP: I doubt it. I think that we were different in a lot of ways. I think that probably there weren’t that many archives that focused on one person. We technically didn’t, we had about a dozen other collections, but they were all quite a bit smaller than the Pauling Papers.

But the library was very invested in innovation and developing a digital presence – that was a very big part of our identity as a library – and Special Collections was a big part of making that come to fruition. So there was an emphasis on that administratively, and we wanted to do it too within the department. We also were well-equipped to do it. I mean, I didn’t have a whole lot of technical skill when I started working, but [Analyst Programmer] Ryan Wick definitely did. He’s still with us and he was the driving force on the technical end. And I was a useful helper as far as that’s concerned and learned things, and he and I have been a good partnership over the years in that regard.

Anyway, this is a very long way of getting to the Pauling Blog, but… So we did all these websites and they were what they were, and they got used and we were proud of them. We were pretty obsessed with our Google ranking for a while and so that was one piece of how the Pauling Blog came about – I’ll tell that story in a second. We also had a need to tell people about events that we were participating in or hosting. And the solution we had was basically a little spot on our website and an RSS feed that would shoot out, that maybe people would use, probably not a lot of them. And that was our “something’s happening,” if you happened across our website you might find out about it, if you subscribed to our RSS feed you might find out about it.

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So we wanted something better for a particular event and that was the release of a postage stamp. In March 2008, the Postal Service released a series of stamps celebrating American scientists, and Pauling was one of them. And they had an event in the basement of the Memorial Union, they had a cake, and Linus Pauling Jr. came, and students from Linus Pauling Middle School came, and all the local stamps geeks showed up, and it was great. It was actually fun – it was great.

But anyway, this was happening and we wanted to let people know it was going to happen, and we wanted a better way to do it than what we had from our website and our RSS feed. We also wanted to be able to follow up; we wanted to take pictures, we wanted to make them available somehow. And this was pretty early on in terms of photo sharing, etc. We definitely didn’t have a Flickr account or anything like that.

So I was thinking about this and I talked about it with a student of ours – Trevor Sandgathe, whom you and I know well, he’s still on staff [as Public Services Archivist] – and we talked about creating a blog. And the blog would be a place where we could be more flexible with telling stories about Pauling, but also raising awareness about events like this. That’s really how that piece of it got motivated.

But the other bit was the Google ranking. And so we would do a lot of searching for “Linus Pauling” and we got frustrated because we learned pretty quickly that, at that time – I’m sure things have changed since – but at that time, Google would lump everything that we had ever made about Linus Pauling into one pot, basically. And so you would search for “Linus Pauling” and you would get the documentary history website that was the most popular, which was Nature of the Chemical Bond, and you wouldn’t have any indication that all this other stuff existed. If you did the “Linus Pauling” search, you wouldn’t have Nature of the Chemical Bond, International Peace Movement, Proteins website, etc. All you’d have is Nature of the Chemical Bond. And if you clicked on “more results within domain,” then that’s when that other stuff would start to appear.

So essentially we were burying ourselves within our domain; we were getting this one return. The only way you would ever find anything else was if you did “Linus Pauling” plus some other word to get into that other chunk of stuff that we had put up online.

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So we started to think about that, the fact that we were burying ourselves in our own domain, and we thought, “wouldn’t it be interesting if we had a different domain that we controlled that we could use to funnel traffic into these other resources?” So essentially what we were trying was a very rudimentary approach to search engine optimization. That was another goal of the blog – unstated, but certainly it was.

So if you look at those early blog posts, we have the stamp announcement and the follow-up. But we also have a series of short posts that are very link-heavy, that essentially are retelling stories that had already been told on the documentary history websites. But the thought process was that eventually the Pauling Blog would raise up in rank in Google and that people would come across this content in the Pauling Blog, and they would click on the links, and that would get them into the stuff that was within the Special Collections domain. And that – I don’t know if it ever actually worked, but those were the two reasons why the Pauling Blog came into being. That’s the origin story.

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Ten Years of the Pauling Blog

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It’s hard to believe and even a bit overwhelming for us to think about, but ten years ago this week the Pauling Blog came into being. In the decade that followed, thirty-three people authored posts for the project, in the process compiling a body of work that now consists of over 664,000 words. Later this year we will publish our 700th post and, probably come Fall, we will record our one-millionth view. Heady stuff for a resource that, as we’re fond of recalling, was originally created to document the issuing of a postage stamp.

Nearly all of the content that has been released on this blog was written by a student enrolled at Oregon State University. It would seem fitting then that the commemorative poster that you see above was also created by an OSU undergrad. To download your own copy of the poster, please click on the image or follow this link. (11×17 in. PDF; 1.8 MB)

We will have more reflections to share soon, but for now let us sign off with an expression of gratitude. Were we Linus Pauling, in all his characteristic formality, we might “judge that it is surely fine” that you continue to read our work and find it useful. As is, we’ll simply say thank you and ask that you please keep checking back — there is much more to come.