• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Odd Man In

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.1 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.

1.

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.”2

The career of Linus Pauling, in which he rose by his own efforts from a childhood of emotional and economic deprivation, is a peculiarly American story of success, although from the time of the Second World War almost to his death Pauling was absurdly accused of being “un-American.” He was persecuted by the FBI. His passport was confiscated and, in 1951, the House Un-American Activities Committee named him one of the foremost Americans involved in a “Campaign to Disarm and Defeat the United States.”

Pauling’s father, Herman Henry William Pauling, whose parents were German immigrants, had come by stage coach to Condon, Oregon, in 1899. A year later, he married Belle, the beautiful daughter of the town’s founding father, Linus Wilson Darling. Pauling’s maternal grandmother, Alcy Delilah Neal, could trace her roots back to the Revolutionary War.

Pauling’s father was a pharmacist, but after the pharmacy he tended was sold, he moved to Portland to find work, and it was there that Pauling was born on February 28, 1901. His father, who appears to have realized that his young son had special intellectual gifts, died suddenly when Pauling was nine. By this time, Pauling had two younger sisters, and his mother became desperate, both financially and emotionally. Pauling seems to have had two reactions. He simply blocked out any overt emotional response to the loss of his father, and he apparently decided that his distraught and demanding mother would have no further relevance to his life. One can understand why Pauling, at least as Hager describes him, had difficulty dealing with emotional situations for the rest of his life and why he seemed so single-minded about any subject he concentrated on. From his childhood on, Pauling tried to shut out anything that threatened to upset his equilibrium.

Science became the refuge from the emotional chaos that surrounded him. First he collected insects and read about them; then a former business acquaintance of his father supplied chemicals, including potassium cyanide, for killing and preserving them. Next he turned to the study of minerals. When he was twelve he visited a friend who had a homemade chemistry set in his basement; after seeing how two substances could be turned into a third in a chemical reaction, he decided that chemistry was going to be his life’s work.

He also realized that somehow he had to go to college, although his family had no money to spend on tuition and his mother wanted him to take a job and help support her and her two other children. Pauling simply ignored her and, by working at all sorts of menial jobs and living on next to nothing, he managed, in the fall of 1917, to enter the only college he could possibly afford, the Oregon Agricultural College—now Oregon State University—in Corvallis.

Fortunately for Pauling, the school had just expanded its chemistry program, and before long perhaps the most knowledgeable instructor in the program was Pauling himself. When he was eighteen, in his junior year, Pauling accepted a job as a part-time instructor in courses he had taken the previous year. By this time, he was reading more in the contemporary chemistry journal literature than any one else on the faculty. The teaching job made it possible for Pauling to earn his way through college and also to meet his future wife, Ava Helen Miller, who was a freshman taking his chemistry class. In addition to being beautiful she was, Pauling later recalled, “in some ways more intelligent than I—as a test we both took, early in our marriage, proved her to be. Not only was she quicker, but she had more correct answers.” Both their parents objected to their getting married, so they put it off while Pauling went to graduate school—something also opposed by his mother. He borrowed a thousand dollars from an uncle to give to his mother so that he would not have to support her.

Pauling was accepted at Harvard but was told that if he also accepted the chemistry department’s offer of a half-time instructorship, it would take him six years to get his Ph.D. For Pauling, that left Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, which had recently changed its name from the Throop Institute. Each had a great chemist on its faculty: G. N. Lewis at Berkeley and A.A. Noyes at Cal Tech. Many years later Pauling explained why he didn’t go to Berkeley. He wrote,

I heard a story—probably it’s apocryphal—that when Lewis had looked over the several dozen graduate applications to the Berkeley chemistry department in early 1922, he came to one, looked at it, and said, “Linus Pauling, Oregon Agricultural College. I have never heard of that place.” So my application went into the discard pile.

In any event, before he heard from Berkeley he got an offer of a fellowship from the California Institute that would pay his tuition, plus $350 a month as a teaching assistant. He accepted it and remained, in one form or another, at Cal Tech until he resigned, under rather unhappy circumstances, in 1964.

For Pauling, the California Institute turned out to be an excellent choice. He was able to rapidly fill the gaps in his education in mathematics and physics. Moreover, Noyes had brought to the United States from Europe the new experimental subject of x-ray crystallography—the use of x-rays to study the structure of crystals. Noyes assigned Pauling to a newly created x-ray laboratory run by Roscoe Dickinson, one of the younger professors. The two of them used x-rays to determine the structure of molybdenite, the first of Pauling’s many scientific discoveries. He must have made a considerable impression on Noyes since Noyes began a campaign to keep Pauling out of the clutches of G. N. Lewis at Berkeley. One of the strings that he pulled was to arrange for a Guggenheim Fellowship to allow Pauling, and Ava Helen, now Pauling’s wife, to go to Europe to learn about the newly developing quantum theory. They departed Portland by train for the east coast and Europe in 1926. One of the curious things about their departure is that they left behind their not-quite-one-year-old son, Linus Jr., in the care of Pauling’s maternal grandmother. They would not see him for a year and a half. Ava Helen felt that bringing the boy to Europe might, in Mr. Hager’s words, be a “strain” and Pauling felt that caring for his son might take time away from his work.

2.

In the 1860s, about fifty years before I went away to college, chemists in Germany, England, and France had decided that the atoms in substances generally can be described as forming bonds with one another. It was accepted that the hydrogen atom can form one bond, the oxygen atom can form two bonds, the carbon atom can form four bonds, and the silicon atom can form four bonds. For fifty years after 1865 chemists had made great progress in understanding the properties of substances by discussing various ways in which atoms can be attached to one another by these chemical bonds.”

While chemists had made progress in discovering and classifying chemical compounds, until the first decades of this century they had made essentially no progress in learning about the nature of the chemical bond—what actually held the components of a molecule together. Until Ernest Rutherford and his students discovered the atomic nucleus in 1911, it was not clear that the atomic electrons were located on the outside of the atom and thus could participate in the chemical bonding process. In 1913, after a stay with Rutherford in Manchester, Niels Bohr returned to Copenhagen where he created his own model of the atom in which the electrons are assigned special orbits—“Bohr orbits”—around the positively charged nucleus. Scientists could now begin to build up the periodic table of elements by filling up the possible orbits with electrons.

The electrons in the orbits farthest away from the nucleus—the so-called valence electrons—are the ones that are responsible for chemical bonding. For example, the valence electrons can be shared—see the diagram above—by the various component parts of the molecule, something that is called covalent bonding. In the “old quantum theory” these electrons were supposed to follow Bohr orbits, which in Bohr’s original work were taken to be circular. The distinguished German theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld, who was the director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Munich, showed how to extend this model to include orbits of more complicated shapes which, in fact, could interpenetrate each other.

  1. 1

    Another recent biography, Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics, published by BasicBooks, covers much of the same material as Mr. Hager although in considerably less detail and with somewhat less objectivity. The book is by Ted and Ben Goertzel, father and son, who write that they are carrying out a project started, with Pauling’s cooperation, by Ted Goertzel’s parents in 1962. Pauling, they write, authorized them to see the text of his reactions to Rorschach inkblots, and some of his interpretations are published in an appendix. The reader will have to judge whether they are insightful or funny.

  2. 2

    All the quotations that follow are taken from a new collection entitled Linus Pauling in His Own Words: Selected Writings, Speeches, and Interviews (Touchstone, 1995). The collection is edited by Barbara Marinacci, who knew Pauling for several decades. She reports that her brother married Pauling’s daughter Linda. As one might imagine, the commentaries she offers on the various quotations are pretty elegiac. This is not the place to get a balanced view of Pauling’s life. Moreover, the quotations, taken one after another, are fairly turgid. Whatever else he was, Pauling was not a great writer.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print