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Linus Pauling

Linus Pauling Linus Carl Pauling (February 28, 1901-August 19, 1994), a distinguished American chemist, helped to integrate chemistry with quantum theory and founded the discipline now called molecular biology. From 1945 on much of his time was devoted to antiwar activities and stopping the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. He is the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes, one for chemistry and one for peace.

The Pauling family came from a German Lutheran background, but Linus's parents were not especially active in church affairs. He was born in Portland, Oregon to Herman Pauling, a self-trained pharmacist, and Lucy Darling. His father was very supportive, but died when Linus was nine. He started working to help support his mother and two sisters at twelve. Despite this, he made good grades in school, became an avid reader, and had a pleasant and adventurous childhood.

Linus first expressed his scientific interest in collecting insects and rock mineral samples. He was introduced to the world of chemistry by Lloyd Jeffress, a classmate who became a lifelong friend. Recognizing Linus's unusual abilities and devotion to class work, his high school teachers encouraged him and allowed him to work independently in the school laboratory. He also excelled in the language arts, including public speaking. Like his father he was an extremely hard worker and possessed great self-confidence, but was reserved.

After high school his mother wanted him to take a job as a machinist. Determined to become a research chemist, Linus instead entered nearby Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University). He was considered a genius by his teachers and fellow students. After taking analytical chemistry he was allowed to teach the course. While teaching a chemistry class designed for home economics majors, he was impressed by and attracted to one of his students, Ava Helen Miller, whom he later married. In the summers he worked for the Oregon transportation department testing paving materials on location. Such jobs broadened his outlook on the world, offsetting his tendency to isolate himself in research.

In 1922 Pauling graduated as salutatorian of his class and entered the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) with a generous fellowship. The following year he and Miller were married. For the rest of her life Ava Helen was his only really close companion. She took charge of the rearing of their four children.

At Caltech Pauling became an expert on X-ray diffraction, analyzing the spacing and orientation of atoms in crystalline materials. He produced the first of his many research papers on crystal structure after only three months. He completed his doctorate in 1925 and, with a Guggenheim fellowship, studied in Europe, 1926-27.

At this time physical science was in a state of fundamental change. Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger had developed mathematical approaches—quantum mechanics—to describe the structure of atoms and molecules. The Schrödinger Equation was the key to understanding matter and energy at the atomic and molecular level, but the mathematics was such that it could not be applied in exact form to the situations encountered in a chemistry laboratory. Pauling's breakthrough was to formulate approximate methods for solving the equation that could be applied to compounds such as methane and benzene. His calculated values for the orientation and bond strength of atoms within molecules closely matched the experimental results from X-ray and electron diffraction. Pauling was the first to make quantum theory and chemical experiment work together and, in so doing, added important terms and ideas such as "hydrogen bonding," "resonance," " hybrid bond," and "valence bond theory" to the chemist's repertoire.

Having developed the valence bond method of approximate calculation, Pauling rapidly published a landmark series of research papers. His crowning achievement was to explain the carbon bonding in molecules such as methane.

Shortly thereafter, Pauling returned to the vexing problem of interpreting X-ray diffraction data. With an uncanny ability to see simple solutions to complex problems, he drew up a list of step by step rules—now called Pauling's Rules—for the interpretation of diffraction patterns. England's leading diffraction specialist, Sir William Bragg, declared the rules "a master stroke." Pauling's valence bond method and his rules together simplified and illuminated both the theoretical and experimental sides of structural chemistry.

In 1927 Pauling became assistant professor of theoretical chemistry at Caltech, teaching and doing research in the diffraction laboratory. He was made professor in 1931, a position he held until 1963. In 1939 Pauling gathered and expanded his papers to form a book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond, the most important chemical text of the twentieth century. He also wrote the well-received Introduction to Quantum Mechanics with Applications to Chemistry (with E. Bright Wilson), 1935, and the most popular freshman chemistry text ever, General Chemistry, 1947. The many editions of the latter text made him a wealthy man.

Shortly before the Second World War, Pauling switched his attention to organic molecules—proteins, in particular. These studies led to the identification of the genetic defect in the structure of the hemoglobin molecule that causes sickle cell anemia.

With the experimental assistance of Herman Branson and Robert Corey, Pauling devised the famous alpha helix model for protein structures. Along the way Pauling developed the useful, and now commonplace, method of "tinker-toy" modeling to help himself and others visualize and understand such complicated molecules. This work formed the basis for the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick, which in turn led to the unlocking of the secrets of the genetic code.

During the war Pauling worked on propellants, explosives, an oxygen concentration meter for submarines, and a synthetic blood plasma. In recognition of this service he received the Medal of Merit from President Harry Truman. Towards the end of the war, Pauling restarted his program on molecular biology. In a paper entitled "A Molecular Theory of General Anesthesia," he demonstrated that anesthetics affect the brain in a way chemically similar to extreme cold temperature.

Meanwhile Ava Helen worked at Caltech on the synthetic rubber program, and trained as an emergency air raid warden and fire controller. By nature more inclined to social activism than Linus was, in 1942 she volunteered time to the American Civil Liberties Union to fight the internment of Japanese-Americans. In 1945 when she hired a Japanese-American soon to join the U. S. army for a weekend of gardening, the Pauling house was defaced with racist messages and the Paulings received numerous anonymous phone calls.

The realization that the atomic bomb could end the civilized world turned Pauling into a pacifist. He joined Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell in protesting the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and opposing the development of the hydrogen bomb. He traveled thousands of miles giving speeches and circulating petitions. As a result the FBI compiled a massive file of his earlier activities in support of the union movement and world government; the State Department refused to grant him a passport to attend a science conference in England, fearing that he would use the occasion to promote his peace agenda; and he was brought before a Congressional investigative committee to answer for his loyalty to the United States.

Pauling found much-needed support for his antiwar campaign from Unitarians in the Los Angeles area. He and Ava Helen gave talks at the Unitarian churches in Los Angeles and Pasadena. On April 15, 1954 Pauling addressed a crowd of a thousand listeners at the Los Angeles Unitarian Church, attacking the recent super bomb test in the Bikini atoll and its high level of radioactive fallout and also criticizing the government's treatment of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Pauling developed close relationships with several Unitarian peace activists including the Los Angeles minister, Stephen Fritchman. "My wife and I joined the Los Angeles Unitarian Church," Pauling later wrote, "because it accepts as members people who believe in trying to make the world a better place."

Pauling made it clear on several occasions that he no interest in mystical aspects of religion. In an interview on the Phil Donohue television show he was asked, "Do you believe in God?" He replied, "No, I do not." This response brought forth letters of complaint from some of the wealthy donors to his research programs. Having no tolerance for discussion of the philosophy of science, in seminars Pauling did not hesitate to bring matters to earth with the remark, "I thought chemistry was an experimental science." He took a similar view of religion. He dealt with the world as he perceived it. In an interview in the Fall 1974 issue of the Humanist magazine he said, "my basic philosophy is oriented to the diminution of suffering in the world…a basic ethical principal with me (is) that decisions be made that will increase happiness."

In 1954 Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the chemical bond and the structure of molecules. He thought this award obligated him to take a stand on public issues such as segregation and the Viet Nam war. Snubbed by more conforming faculty members and under pressure from the long-suffering Caltech administration to lower his public profile or resign, he chose to resign.

In 1958, Pauling wrote No More War! to counter the views of physicist Edward Teller, the principal advocate for the development of the hydrogen bomb. Pauling could not or would not, however, rely on the strength of his arguments to make his case. When unfairly attacked he often filed a law suit for defamation or unconstitutionality. In one instance he sued the Eisenhower administration, claiming that it had not been granted the authority by Congress to threaten people's right to life through the release of radiation into the atmosphere. In March 1958 the Soviets surprised the West by calling for an immediate halt to nuclear testing. Although largely a ploy, this indicated that atomic weapons were now widely acknowledged to threaten the continuance of civilization. Slowly public opinion became to shift. On the day after the first nuclear test-ban treaty went into effect in 1963, Pauling learned that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for peace.

Pauling was professor of sciences at the Center for the Studies of Democratic Institutions, 1963-67, and professor of chemistry at the University of California, San Diego, 1967-69, and at Stanford University, 1969-74. He was made emeritus professor of chemistry at Stanford in 1974.

In 1973 Pauling created the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine to advance a new field he called "orthomolecular medicine." He undertook to convince the medical world that vitamin C helped cure the common cold and could help prevent certain cancers. He had little success convincing the medical profession, but his bestseller, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, 1970, made the public at large more aware of the need for vitamins and good nutrition.

A man of great conviction and inner strength, Pauling became somewhat self-righteous after he received world acclaim. When convinced that he was correct he made his points more aggressively than was necessary. This sometimes cost him friendships. Although he had often been unsparing and harsh in his criticism of premature statements by other scientists, he overstated the case for the data at hand on the usefulness of vitamin C. In this instance the confidence, energy, and persistence that had made him a valuable peace advocate worked against him and dimmed his reputation.

Following Ava Helen's death from stomach cancer in 1981, Pauling continued to produce new ideas on nuclear structure and researched the diet of our Old World ancestors to gain insight into proper nutrition. In 1986, he published his last book, How to Live Longer and Feel Better.

After several years of declining health, Pauling died in 1994 at age 93.

Pauling's many honors, aside from his Nobel prizes, include the Royal Society's Humphrey Davy Medal, 1947; the American Chemical Society's Langmuir Prize, 1931; the ACS's Willard Gibbs Medal, 1946; and the ACS's Theodore William Richards Medal, 1947. In 1933 he was the youngest chemist ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He received honorary degrees from Cambridge, 1947; Oxford, 1948; and London, 1948 (the only chemist to be given this triple honor). In 1975 he received the National Medal of Science from President Gerald Ford. Pauling was elected Rationalist of the Year by the Rationalist Society, 1960, and Humanist of the Year by the Humanist Society, 1961. The World Fellowship of Religions named him Supreme Peace Sponsor in 1966 and he was awarded the International Lenin Peace Prize in 1971.

The primary repository of Pauling papers is the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Collection at Oregon State University. Some other materials of interest are in the archives of the California Institute of Technology. Clifford Mead and Thomas Hager, eds., Linus Pauling: Scientist and Peace Maker (2001) is a collection of short writings by Linus Pauling and others drawn from the Oregon State University collections. Thomas Hager's Force of Nature (1995) contains a list of his major research papers. The indices to the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Journal of Chemical Education, and especially Chemical Abstracts list Pauling's research and review papers. For a comprehensive listing see Clifford Mead, ed. The Pauling Catalogue: Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers (1991). Pauling gave many interviews for various publications, including Barbara Marinacci, ed., Linus Pauling in His Own Words (1995) and Daisaku Ikeda and Linus Pauling, A Lifelong Quest for Peace (1992). Personal views of Pauling and his work are in The Pauling Symposium (1995). Interviews with Pauling's contemporaries are contained in Anthony Serafini, Linus Pauling: A Man and His Science (1989).

The standard biography of Pauling is Thomas Hager's Force of Nature (1995). Another is Ted Goertzel and Ben Goertzel, Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics (1995). Two biographies for younger readers are Thomas Hager, Linus Pauling and the Chemistry of Life (1998) and Florence White, Linus Pauling: Scientist and Crusader (1980). For background on the science see Robert Paradowski, "The Structural Chemistry of Linus Pauling" (1972), a Ph.D dissertation for the University of Michigan.

Useful books on this important period in the development of modern physics include George Gamow, Thirty Years that shook Physics (1966) and Henry Boorse, The Atomic Scientists: a Biographical History (1989). Although the definitive general work on the scientist's obligations to politics and ethics has not yet appeared, Abraham Pais has written solid studies on Bohr and Einstein's personal reactions to events—Niels Bohr's Times: In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity (1991) and Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (1982)—and Silvan S. Schweber's In the Shadow of the Bomb: Bethe, Oppenheimer, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist (2000) is also useful.

Article by Jerry Frazee - posted March 29, 2002


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