Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling
by Thomas Hager
Simon and Schuster, 721 pp., $35.00
Sometime in the 1970s I began wondering whether Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel Prizes, for chemistry in 1954 and for peace in 1962, had become a crank. In 1970 he had published a best-selling monograph entitled Vitamin C and the Common Cold, whose thesis was that daily megadoses of vitamin C could prevent or help to cure many diseases—the common cold being the prime example. But Pauling was not content simply to publish his views, which were seen as unsound by many authorities. One could often find him on television with his somewhat high-pitched voice, his aureole of white hair, and his faintly rictal grin, promoting the virtues of vitamin C. He was also giving interviews to publications like the National Enquirer and Midnight, and he was suing various other publications that disagreed with him. In short, he appeared to many people to have become unhinged.
It was at about this time that I began an odd correspondence with Pauling. He started sending me reprints of his papers and monographs along with requests for commentaries. I invariably responded that I had none, since I did not know enough about the subject—the simple truth. This lasted until close to the time of his death, when I received yet another packet of papers having to do with his conviction that a state of matter which had recently been discovered—it was called “quasi-crystals”—did not really exist. The scientists who claimed to discover it had, he said, misread the data. Here, at least, I was able to ask the opinion of physicists who were working in the field. They assured me that, in this instance, Pauling was simply wrong.
I found this behavior of Pauling’s puzzling. Why was so brilliant a scientist acting in this way? I had never met Pauling and, indeed, had never seen a serious biographical study of him. I’m glad now to have read Force of Nature by Thomas Hager, an Oregon-based journalist who first met Pauling in 1984 when he was a correspondent for the Journal of the American Medical Association. From then on, until Pauling’s death a decade later, he interviewed him extensively, keeping a certain distance from him at the same time. Pauling was a great man and a great scientist, but he also had flaws both personally and scientifically and Mr. Hager describes them candidly and perceptively. Although, Mr. Hager tells us, Pauling read just the first third of the book before his death, and apparently approved of it, I doubt that he would have been happy about the rest.
“When I was eleven, with no outside inspiration—just library books—I started collecting insects. Not only did I collect insects, I also read about insects….At the time, I was interested only in insects! Which is why, before I got interested in chemistry itself, I began to need chemicals.”
The career of Linus Pauling, in which he rose by his own efforts from a childhood …