William Lipscomb, 1919-2011

Bill Lipscomb speaking at the 1995 Pauling memorial symposium, Oregon State University.

When I was growing up and learning science and all through my undergraduate days, I thought the worst thing you could possibly do is publish something that is wrong. It turns out that’s not right. Linus taught me that. It is much worse to work on something that is dull.

– Bill Lipscomb, November 1991.

William N. Lipscomb, Jr. a Nobel laureate with close ties to Linus Pauling, died last month at the age of 91. Several obituaries and remembrances are available online, published by sources as diverse as Chemical & Engineering News, National Public Radio and Harvard University, where he worked for over fifty years.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio and raised in Kentucky, Lipscomb conducted his undergraduate work at the University of Kentucky, which he attended on a music scholarship. In his own words,

I read Dushman’s Quantum Mechanics in my spare time and completed requirements for majors in both Chemistry and Physics. An appointment to graduate study in Physics at Caltech, at $20 per month, allowed me to refuse Northwestern’s offer of $150 as research assistant, and also allowed me to come to terms with a nice letter from Harold Urey rejecting my application to Columbia University.

Lipscomb initially planned to study quantum mechanics at Caltech under the direction of William V. Houston. His path changed, however, upon his first encounters with Linus Pauling.  Lipscomb recalled

I would sit in seminars and Linus Pauling would make comments afterwards, and they were comments that I was thinking about too, pretty much the same, and I decided to switch to chemistry after my first semester. And I went in to see him and he was a little surprised and looked at my record and said very good record, except there was a C in economics. He says, ‘I got an A in economics.’ And I said, ‘yeah, but I didn’t go to the classes at all.’

As a graduate student working under Pauling, Lipscomb conducted research on structural chemistry and also participated in the Institute’s vast program of scientific war work. Following the completion of his time in Pasadena, Lipscomb moved on to the University of Minnesota, where he began investigations into the structure and property of boranes – a program of research which would eventually lead to Lipscomb’s receipt of the 1976 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

It turns out that there was a strong Pauling connection to this research as well. A New York Times feature following the Nobel announcement put it this way.

When William N. Lipscomb was a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, he heard a professor propose a theory of chemical bonding in certain boron compounds. Something about the theory did not seem right, and he set out to prove his professor wrong. In so doing, he won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The professor was Linus Pauling, a Nobel laureate and a strong influence on the career of Dr. Lipscomb. In fact, he used a research technique taught him by Dr. Pauling to identify and study the structure of boranes, the complex compounds combining the element boron with hydrogen.

Time magazine described Lipscomb’s breakthrough in these terms.

He discovered that boranes…were bonded differently from other chemicals. That discovery led to his finding that borane molecules were polyhedral, or many sided, and to a new understanding of how a host of new chemical compounds could be constructed.

Pauling was quite fond of Lipscomb and often wrote glowing recommendations on his behalf. A 1950 letter describes Lipscomb as “thoroughly competent” and “extraordinarily likable.” A year later Pauling upped the ante a bit, using the phrase “one of the most able physical chemists in the country” blessed with “an unusually fine personality.” By 1952 Lipscomb was “one of the leading crystal structure workers in the country – he may be the best one of his age,” and by 1979 Pauling had given his full support to Lipscomb’s nomination for the National Medal of Science.


Lipscomb at a Stanford University symposium honoring Linus Pauling, March 1994.

Lipscomb is as many faceted as his molecules; he is a tennis buff, plays a clarinet in local chamber orchestras, and is a genuine Kentucky colonel. His own concern about his Nobel: ‘I’m afraid everyone will think I’m finished, but I still have so much more to do.’

Time magazine, November 1976.

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections contain a number of resources related to Lipscomb, including a large correspondence file with Pauling and a lengthy interview conducted by Thomas Hager for use in his Pauling biography, Force of Nature. Lipscomb also spoke at the Pauling memorial symposium hosted by OSU in early 1995. Below are Lipscomb’s thoughts on a number of Pauling-related topics, as extracted from these resources.

On their working relationship

I was always doing some outlandish thing, and he would correct me, but that is the way it worked with Linus; he would come in once every two months, or three months, and ask what you have been doing, and suddenly he would toss up five ideas that you haven’t thought of, that would keep you busy for the next five months. And he’d leave you alone, which was the best thing in the world for me. Being left alone, and left with good ideas.

On Pauling the teacher

One of the most interesting things about those five years [1941-1946], is that Linus continued to lecture and gave only one course. It was his chemical bond course, and you could listen to it year after year, because every year, the lectures were different…. The first third of the lecture someone off the street could understand. The next third was what every graduate student could understand, and the last third was the research socket, which was new…. Also on seminars, when he would listen to a seminar, he would wait until everybody was finished asking questions. Then he would ask the best questions of anybody. A marvelous teaching method but, I regarded him as one of the finest teachers in the world.

On Vitamin C

You have to remember that sometimes Linus exaggerates his case. And if he takes twenty grams of vitamin C, well, I believe him, I take three; something like that. I think that is a good way to put it. Dorothy Hodgkin said that the best indication that Linus’s vitamin therapy…is right is his age and activity. I mean you can’t disbelieve that.

[But] one case doesn’t prove anything. He has one good solid point going for him, and that is most mammals don’t make…vitamin C – for 5 million years [they] didn’t need it because they ate so much fruit, and it is only in the last forty-thousand years since civilization that we really need it. And I think that the gene might have been lost much earlier in evolution if it hadn’t been needed. So, he translates what other animals make into humans and comes out with some large number of grams a day of vitamin C. He is probably right. There are hazards associated with it; I think that when people really look carefully, and they are beginning to look carefully, they will find that it won’t cure a common cold, and it won’t cure cancer, but it may help to alleviate symptoms, and help to scavenge free radicles that start cancer; it may be that statistically people will live longer than they have after taking some large dosage of vitamin C, provided they don’t generate kidney stones or gall. You know, you have to do some selection, or some careful testing before prescription.

On Pauling away from work

Pauling also was interested in reviewing books. He used to read review books, novels, things like that. We’d come in and he’d have a stack of books this high, and said he’d read them over the weekend. He is very, very good about reading. And he used to build chairs and furniture just as relaxation.

On Pauling the showman

At my request, Pauling visited the University of Minnesota in about 1952. In the middle of his lecture he stopped suddenly and began banging the doors of the lecture desk, asking, ‘Bill, don’t you have any structure models here?’ He found it:  a model of the new alpha-helix that he had placed there earlier in the day so that he could put on this moment of performance.

Big News

We are very excited to announce the release of our latest website, The Scientific War Work of Linus C. Pauling:  A Documentary History.  The fifth in our documentary history series, the project took us nearly thirteen months to complete.

As with the previous four documentary histories, the war site is comprised of a Narrative, a Documents and Media repository (nearly 300 documents and audio clips were used), and a link to Linus Pauling Day-by-Day.  One crucial difference between this project and its predecessors, however, is that our staff researched and wrote the Narrative in-house. (Past Narratives were written either by biographer Tom Hager or historian of science Dr. Melinda Gormley.)  This was largely necessitated by the fact that no author had, to this point, rigorously delved into Pauling’s vast program of scientific war research, as conducted for the United States government during World War II.

The primary thrust of the war site narrative is a detailed review of the many specific projects that Pauling either directly investigated or oversaw as an administrator during the war years.  Our research indicates that these were the main projects with which Pauling was involved:

Amidst the project descriptions, the narrative also features an interlude that recounts the Pauling family’s experience of life during wartime, including Linus Pauling, Jr.’s stint in the United States Army.   The project likewise details the elder Pauling’s early interactions with a host of the era’s pivotal figures, including Vannevar Bush and the National Defense Research Committee, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, and W.W. Palmer’s committee, which was charged with charting the course of post-war scientific research funding in the United States.

Group photograph of the National Defense Research Committee membership. approx. 1940.

One of the real pleasures of working on this project has been the discovery of several small details that have added flavor to the overall story of Pauling’s war experience.  Users of the site will learn, for instance, of the following anecdote, as recorded in a 1967 letter written by Arne Haagen-Smit.

During the year 1944 Mrs. Ava Helen Pauling worked for several months in my laboratory at the California Institute of Technology. Her task consisted in the separation by chromatography of various colored derivatives of plant products and the determination of their physical constants. I remember with a great deal of pleasure her participation in our research which she carried out to my full satisfaction. I have no hesitation in recommending her for an appointment which would enable her to return to the laboratory.

In a later interview, Linus Pauling would further reveal that his wife had “worked for a couple of years as a chemist on a war job making rubber out of plants that would grow in the Mojave.”

The website incorporates twenty-five audio clips extracted from interviews conducted by Tom Hager in the early 1990s for use in his standard-bearing biography of Linus Pauling, Force of Nature. Here too we find many amusing anecdotes, including this great bit from Nobel laureate William Lipscomb.

In a similar vein, included among the nearly three-hundred documents used to provide deeper context for the narrative are a series of drawings created by David Shoemaker, who was at that time a Caltech Ph. D. candidate working under Pauling’s direction.   One of Shoemaker’s primary charges seems to have been the visual conceptualization of specific German instruments of war, as described in various internal documents.  Our favorite of these conceptualizations has to be the incredible “Die Walze” rocket, which apparently was designed to operate not unlike a stone skipped across a pond.

At this point in time, most of Linus Pauling’s biography has been combed over pretty thoroughly and analyzed by any number of authors.  It is a rare opportunity, then, to be able to present a large volume of new information on Pauling’s life and work.  This is a project that should prove to be of interest to many different types of users.

Linus Pauling baseball!

As the Phillies and Rays prepare for another rendition of the Fall Classic, we thought it appropriate to share with you one of our favorite pieces of video:  Linus Pauling playing beach baseball at a Caltech chemistry department picnic in 1938.

Author of more than 1,100 published articles and inarguably one of history’s great minds, Pauling’s knowledge of the strike zone was, evidently, a little less authoritative.  And while coaches around the world would surely appreciate Pauling’s hustle on the basepaths, one does fear for the safety of those enlisted to play third for any team opposing the two-time Nobel prizewinner.

The Linus Pauling baseball clip is just a small segment of “The Edward W. Hughes Tapes,” a series of home movies recorded by Hughes, for twenty-five years a colleague of Pauling’s at Caltech.  The Hughes tapes, which run to just under an hour, offer fascinating glimpses of Caltech social gatherings and Pasadena life over the course of five decades.  Along with Linus and Ava Helen Pauling, careful viewers will note the presence of multiple scientific luminaries in the films — Albert Szent-Györgyi, Dorothy Hodgkin, Jerry Donohue, James Watson and Francis Crick, to name a few.

It is worth noting that the tapes also include footage from additional baseball outings at later department picnics.  Pauling — whose general disinclination toward sports was covered here — doesn’t take part in these match-ups.  One who was a bit more interested in tossing it around the diamond was 1976 Nobel chemistry laureate William Lipscomb, who, in 1995, recounted that

[Pauling’s] illness from nephritis and his frequent trips meant that we did not see him very often, but he and his family did occasionally attend the Caltech Chemists games of (intermediate) baseball in the local league.

In a footnote, Lipscomb adds a few memorable details of his time roaming the outfield with The Chemists:

Seventy-five feet between bases, softball, but hardball rules and overhand pitching from 57.5 feet. I made the local newspaper for an unassisted triple play while playing center field.

Oregon State University, of course, has become something of a baseball powerhouse, given the Beavers’ back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007.  Our colleagues in the University Archives have created a terrific website documenting the evolution of this program through its centenary: Oregon State Baseball: 100 Years to a National Championship, 1907-2006.

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.

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.