A Study of Unidentified Flying Objects



[Part 5 of 6 in a series examining Pauling’s association with the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions]

Linus Pauling is often remembered for his achievements in chemistry and his active involvement in the peace movement. Much of his work stemmed from an interest in further understanding the natural world and using this knowledge to promote the well-being of others.

It therefore comes as something of a surprise that, during his stint at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), he considered taking time to research unidentified flying objects. The phenomenon would seem like an unusual subject for Pauling to study, especially because he joined the CSDI in hopes of focusing on medical chemistry and socio-economic theory. In July 1966, however, Pauling did indeed write a project proposal outlining a program of research on unidentified flying objects.


Pauling’s UFO project proposal, pg. 1. July 1966.


UFO proposal, pg. 2.


In discussing this moment in Pauling’s career, it is important to point out that Pauling viewed the study as a “possibility,” rather than anything close to an immediate priority. One hastens to add as well that the study was not ever conducted.  The proposal document that he crafted, however, is evidence of the approach that Pauling would have taken to explain the phenomenon, and it is an interesting document to explore.

As a scientist and citizen, Pauling believed that it was his duty to inform the public about advances in scientific understanding, but slowly, by dint of his institutional arrangement, he found himself growing gradually more distant from the scientific community. After publishing a few papers on nuclear physics and medical chemistry, and engaging in much discussion on world peace, Pauling found himself in a difficult situation: just a couple years after leaving Caltech, his home base for forty-one years, he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the CSDI.

The center’s lack of capacity to support scientific research, combined with the paucity of conclusions emerging from the center’s peace discussions, gradually increased Pauling’s appetite for new exploration. The scientific research that he could do on his own, without facilities or funding, was very limited. And in terms of politics and peace, the center was mostly engaged in theory; there was no specific cause for which it was fighting. And so it was that Pauling spent some time at his ranch in Big Sur brainstorming ideas on what to do with his time; researching UFOs was perhaps the most unorthodox notion to emerge from this period of reflection.

Linus Pauling, 1966.

Linus Pauling, 1966.

Pauling was quite familiar with reports of unidentified flying objects.  Scattered among the many letters that he received each day were a handful asking questions about strange noises in the night and films of white dust appearing in the hills. He also heard rumors about a UFO landing in Santa Fe. Being a long-running fan of science fiction himself, and feeling a duty to communicate scientific knowledge to the public, it is easy to see how Pauling could find importance in addressing the matter in a formal way.

Pauling’s 1966 research proposal, titled “A Study of Unidentified Flying Objects,” was divided into twelve main points. In each point, Pauling stated his intent to study everything from the authenticity and potential explanations of various reports, to the possibility of an extraterrestrial origin of human life. The proposal’s twelve points are suggestive of an ambitious project that would have required Pauling to tap into the fields of evolutionary biology, psychology and history, among others. But it is clear that Pauling’s intent for his study of UFOs was not to perform a scientific investigation of the phenomenon, but to discern and provide facts regarding reports of sightings and ideas about extraterrestrial interactions with human beings.

Pauling’s interest in the subject was not limited to the 1966 proposal. As late as 1968, Pauling wrote to Stirling Colgate, a physicist who was then President of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, and inquired into an alleged siting of a flying saucer on the school’s campus. The correspondence reveals that the siting was a hoax, perpetrated by a New Mexico Tech student, but Pauling’s interest is indication that UFOs remained on his mind at least a couple of years after he drafted his proposal document.

It can be argued that Pauling’s seemingly abrupt interest in UFOs was an outgrowth of his experience at the CSDI. For much of his time at the center, it is clear that he was engaged in an intellectual quest to discover a way to use his talents for the benefit of the public. To his dissatisfaction, Pauling was unable to find exactly what he was looking for in Santa Barbara, and after three and a half years there, he began actively seeking out a new institutional home.

The time period, however, also stands as evidence of Pauling’s creativity in working in an environment with limited resources.  Though the UFO work never got off the ground, Pauling continued to pick up his pencil and slide rule and to research the natural world to the best of his abilities.  As a result, several publications resulted from this period of quiet investigation spent far afield from the scientific mainstream.


Linus Pauling and the Search for UFOs

Linus Pauling, 1983.

Upon Linus Pauling’s death, the OSU Libraries Special Collections received approximately 500,000 of his and his wife’s personal items. Of this half-million item collection, a significant portion is comprised of his personal books which range from heavily academic texts to science fiction and murder mysteries. Amid the shelves of chemistry texts and genre fiction, however, there is a small subsection of books that has been known to draw attention from the Special Collections staff: the conspiracy texts.

As evidenced by his lifelong devotion to scientific discovery, Linus Pauling possessed a deep interest in mystery and the unknown. It seems that, while most of his research revolved around academically sanctioned scientific problems, he occasionally spent his free time exploring more unorthodox subjects. As he aged and his devotion to pure science was tempered by his growing sense of social responsibility, Pauling began to expand his interests and become engaged in issues he had previously ignored.

Beginning in 1963, Pauling took a position as fellow of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a think tank founded by Robert M. Hutchins as a part of the Fund for the Republic. The Center was known for its unusual and sometimes controversial activities, including proposing a new constitution for the United States and promoting radical political movements among students. For the first time in forty years, Pauling’s primary work had stepped out of the bounds of research-based science. The atmosphere at the Center allowed him to explore problems that his fellow scientists might have considered, at best, unorthodox.

His interest in cover-ups and clandestine activity appears to have begun in the same way it did for many other Americans–with the assassination of President John. F. Kennedy. During the Cold War, Pauling had met and corresponded with Kennedy regarding peace and nuclear disarmament. While the two men did not always agree on matters of foreign policy, Pauling had a great deal of respect for the President and was shaken by his death. Following Kennedy’s assassination, Pauling began reading accounts of the event, taking a marked interest in the numerous conspiracy theories of the day. He followed the subject with some interest through the 1980s, building up a small collection of materials on the “magic bullet” and “multiple shooters” theories. [For more on Pauling’s interactions with President Kennedy, see our earlier blog post on the subject.]

The JFK assassination had introduced Pauling to a whole new series of problems, where scientific fact could only go so far and the pitfalls of hoax and disinformation had to be carefully navigated. For years, he had played the role of the armchair gumshoe, reading countless murder mysteries, picking out clues and racing the protagonist to the revelation. As tragic as it was, the assassination had given Pauling a chance to apply his talents as an investigator to a problem beyond the sciences. The world of conspiracy and intrigue held an allure for Pauling that he could not deny.

In the mid-1960s, Pauling began to take an interest in UFOs and extraterrestrial life forms. Between his longtime love of science fiction and the public focus on the development of the U.S. and Soviet space programs, spaceships and aliens seemed to be a logical point of focus for him. He quickly found that, for once, he was not at the forefront of a field of study. While he had been synthesizing proteins and teaching future chemists, the American public had become obsessed with the potential for life in space. The American UFO craze had begun in 1947 with an upswing in reported “flying saucer” sightings which resulted in a series of U.S. Air Force investigations (Projects Blue Book, Sign, and Grudge). In 1952, the term “Unidentified Flying Object” was coined and, by 1956, several civilian research groups had formed, including the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization and the National investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena.

A Study of Unidentified Flying Objects

In order to understand what was going on in the world of UFO studies, Pauling did what came naturally. He began to read. While the ‘flying saucer’ section of the Pauling personal library is very small, it’s clear he was interested in the big picture, pulling from both scholarly and popular sources. One text, entitled NASA’s Space Science and Applications Program, is a well-worn report on NASA’s long term goals in space exploration and bioscience. Another, The Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects, is billed as “The complete report commissioned by the U.S. Air Force.” This volume, though lacking Pauling’s typical marginalia, sports heavy wear suggesting that it was a favorite.

A Study of Unidentified Flying Objects - 02

For more sensational reading, Pauling settled on the likes of Brinsley Trench’s The Flying Saucer Story and John G. Fuller’s Incident at Exeter. Pauling’s copy of Trench’s work is speckled with hastily scribbled questions, the word “check” next to underlined passages, and notes to contact a variety of scientists and officials. His margin comments belie a heavy skepticism suggesting that, despite his willingness to explore the unorthodox, Pauling maintained a strict logical outlook. As can be expected, claims that defied conventional science readily drew Pauling’s criticism. At one point, Trench claims “It [a UFO] could easily withstand temperatures at 15,000 degrees Fahrenheit, without showing any traces of melting.” A large question mark sits in the margin next to it as a testament to Pauling’s disbelief.

It’s easy to imagine an aging Linus Pauling reading books about outer space and aliens in his free time, much as others read romance novels or tabloid newspapers. And certainly, his interest in the topic was primarily recreational, but it appears to have evolved over time. Pauling’s interest in UFOs peaked in 1966. He began preparing to formalize his research, going so far as to create a research proposal enumerating the requirements of an in-depth study on UFOs. As he became increasingly involved in the question of extraterrestrial sentience, his research became more and more intensive. When he had exhausted the available literature, he began contacting other academics for aid. Set into his copy of Frank Edward’s Flying Saucers: Serious Business is a 1968 letter from Pauling to Sterling A. Colgate, president of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. In the letter, Pauling queries Colgate regarding a recent siting near the New Mexico campus, asking for information on the Institute’s official position regarding UFOs. By involving other researchers in his work, Pauling was taking a big step. He had announced that, despite public and scientific skepticism, he was willing to approach UFOs as a viable research topic and, more importantly, associate his name and reputation with that research.

Unfortunately, Pauling’s UFO work never went very far. Following his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, he increased his efforts for nuclear disarmament, eventually pushing aside many of his lesser interests. By the 1970s, he was heavily involved in the promotion of orthomolecular medicine and the movement against the Vietnam War. Though we might imagine his interest in extraterrestrials continued, evidence suggests that his activist lifestyle left no room for further inquiry.

For more information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal or the OSU Special Collections website.


This letter, posted by request, was written from Linus Pauling to Stirling A. Colgate on June 19, 1968.

Letter from LP to Colgate 6-19-1968