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.

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2008: The Year in Pauling

Linus Pauling at his Deer Flat Ranch home, near Big Sur, California. 1987.

Linus Pauling at his Deer Flat Ranch home, near Big Sur, California. 1987.

Notable Projects and Events

This has been a terrifically-productive year for the Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections:

Behind the Numbers

The various websites that we have launched over the years continue to attract a fairly large volume of traffic.   Over the past twelve months, our web domain has been the focus of 11.93 million pageviews. (A pageview being officially defined as “A request to the web server by a visitor’s browser for any web page; this excludes images, javascript, and other generally embedded file types.”)  This total is a marked decrease from the 2007 measurement of 14.7 million pageviews.  However, our new releases this year were more of a niche variety, whereas 2007 marked the launch of “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History,” as well as two additional new years of Day-by-Day content.  The difference in these types of projects help explain the downturn.

The largest source of 2008 traffic (4.48 million pageviews) is an oldie but a goody – Linus Pauling Research Notebooks.   Originally released in 2002 and consisting of well-over 15,000 html files, this cross-indexed digital version of Pauling’s 46 research notebooks has, by our count, generated roughly 39.5 million pageviews over the course of its existence.  The research notebooks site is also the only one of our many Pauling-centric projects to bubble up into the top 10 of Google’s results for the simple Linus Pauling keyword search. (not that we’re complaining, of course…)

Second in popularity is, per usual, the mammoth Linus Pauling Day-by-Day project (3.71 million), which currently provides a daily accounting of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s activities for the years 1930-1954.

Our four Documentary History websites jockey back and forth for third through sixth places.  Having received a big update in February, the Bond site is a clear favorite right now, though Blood will probably move up as well, having also been recently revised.  Here’s a look at how the numbers are shaking out for the major projects under the specialcollections/coll/pauling domain.

stats

Check back on Friday for a few thoughts on search and a peek at 2009.

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.

The Paulings’ Later Peace Activism: Vietnam and the Gulf War

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. San Francisco, California. 1960s

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling. San Francisco, California. 1960s

The peace activism of Linus and Ava Helen Pauling reached its crescendo in the late 1950s and early 1960s, beginning with the submission of their Bomb Test Petition to the United Nations in 1958 and ending with Linus Pauling’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in the 1963. As the turbulent 1960s moved forward, the weary Paulings reduced, however incrementally, their profiles as peace activists. That is not to say, however, that the duo completely exited the public stage — far from it, in fact. Two important events in U.S. history — one before Ava Helen’s death and one after — prompted first the duo, and later Linus alone, to raise their voices anew in support of their beliefs.

Vietnam

I am ashamed of my country, the United States of America. My country is the richest country in the world. It is the most powerful country in the world. My country now leads the world in militarism, and leads the world in immorality.”

-Linus Pauling, Note to Self, May 2, 1967.

The increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the mid-1960s infuriated much of the American public, Linus and Ava Helen included. As a result, the two activists set out on yet another peace campaign, doing their best to gain the attentions of the political world.

As an attempt at mediating the conflict, Linus began to correspond directly with Ho Chi Minh, while simultaneously seeking (with limited success) to involve Lyndon Johnson in the communications. Pauling and seven other Nobel Peace Prize recipients, including Dr. Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer, also drafted an appeal to the U.S. government, advocating a peaceful resolution of the war in Asia. Linus and Ava Helen attended rallies and gave speeches in support of military de-escalation in Asia and U.S.-Soviet peace talks. Unfortunately, the Paulings’ strategies were largely ignored at the administrative level, leading the couple to seek out alternative methods.

In addition to his speaking campaign, Pauling began to publish anti-war articles. He wrote pieces enumerating the need for peace and the possible long term effects of the Vietnam War. Most astonishingly, in May of 1972, the Paulings went so far as to volunteer to become “peace hostages” as a means of mediating the violent situation, agreeing “to spend at least two weeks in Northern Vietnam until all the bombing of that area of the country stops and until all American military personnel and materiel are removed from Indochina.”

The Paulings’ calls for peaceful negotiation were never embraced by the Johnson administration. At the same time, the increasingly-radical American youth instead garnered the attention of both the media and the Oval Office. The petitions and marches of the 1950s and early 1960s had been overtaken by the activities of college-age protesters, in the process moving the Paulings further and further toward the margins of an international peace movement to which they had once been so important.

The Persian Gulf War

Linus Pauling in Corinto, Nicaragua. July 26, 1984

Linus Pauling in Corinto, Nicaragua. July 26, 1984

In a war you have opposing forces that fight and there are deaths on both sides, and finally one side wins. In the old days perhaps this was a demonstration of the democratic process — the side with the biggest number of fighters won. [The Persian Gulf War] wasn’t a war. This you could call a massacre or a slaughter, perhaps even murder.”

-Linus Pauling, “Reflections on the Persian Gulf ‘War,'” April 6, 1991.

After Ava Helen’s death in 1981, Linus Pauling continued the struggle for international peace, in part as a tribute to the ideals of his late wife. An opponent of President Reagan’s policies, he spoke out against the administration’s increasingly militaristic approach to international politics, campaigning in particular against the implementation of weapons systems like the “Star Wars” program, which Pauling viewed to be an utter waste of resources. It was in this vein that Pauling would continue to act, making hundreds of public appearances in support of numerous peace causes.

However, few events in his later years fully galvanized Pauling on the level of the Persian Gulf War, initiated in August 1990. Horrified by reports of extreme carnage, Pauling, nearing his ninetieth birthday, undertook a vigorous protest of Operation Desert Storm as his final stand as a figure for peace.

Paid New York Times advertisement by Linus Pauling.

Paid New York Times advertisement by Linus Pauling.

With the directness that had come to typify his peace work, Pauling sent letters to General Colin Powell and to President George H. W. Bush, demanding an end to the fighting. His letter to President Bush declared “TO KILL AND MAIM PEOPLE IS IMMORAL! WAR IS IMMORAL!” While Pauling may have aged and his body weakened since his fight against the Vietnam War, his convictions remained unchanged.

In 1991 Pauling released “Reflections on the Persian Gulf ‘War’,” a brief yet thorough list of concerns and grievances with both world politics and U.S. leadership. The document discussed the tactics and rationale for the war, the specific problems existing within the Persian Gulf region and, of course, the immorality of war as an institution. As unassuming as this small document was, it embodied the passions of a man who had dedicated more than half a century to the achievement of peace.

Read more about the Paulings’ Vietnam and Gulf War peace activism on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement.”