Friday, July 31, 2015

Linus Pauling, one Nobel too many

Linus Pauling: "If you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas. Most of them will be wrong, and what you have to learn is which ones to throw away."

The double Nobel Prize winner had many good ideas and many bad ones. I believe he was rewarded for both.

Born on February 28, 1901, in Portland, Oregon, Linus Carl Pauling was the son of a druggist who died when Pauling was 9. He grew up to be a founder in both quantum chemistry and molecular biology.

"Linus Pauling was not always right in his ideas. But my belief is that, in most cases, if somebody is always right in his ideas you find that he does not have much to say. It is an expression of somebody's fertility that he does produce quite a number of ideas, and I think Linus Pauling's score is pretty high. I do not think, as I said earlier, that it is right to discuss the impact of Linus Pauling on molecular biology. Rather, he was one of the founders of molecular biology. It was not that it existed in some way, and he simply made a contribution. He was one of the founders who got the whole discipline going," wrote Francis Crick, himself a 1962 Nobel laureate for his work in unlocking the double helix secret of DNA.

But Pauling also advocated one world government, the end of nuclear testing, and the use of Vitamin C in mega-doses to cure cancer and the common cold.

"Although Pauling's megavitamin claims lacked the evidence needed for acceptance by the scientific community, they have been accepted by large numbers of people who lack the scientific expertise to evaluate them. Thanks largely to Pauling's prestige, annual vitamin C sales in the United States have been in the hundreds of millions of dollars for many years. Pauling also played a role in the health food industry's successful campaign to weaken FDA consumer protections laws. The Linus Pauling Institute that bears his name has evolved into a respectable organization. But Pauling's irrational advice about supplements continues to lead people astray," Dr. Stephen Barrett wrote.

At 15, he had enough high school credits to enter Oregon Agricultural College (Oregon State University) but he needed two history credits to get a high school diploma. He decided to go to college anyway. It would be another 45 years before the high school gave him that diploma. After his first year, the college offered him $100 a month to teach quantitative analysis. He accepted. He was 16. By his senior year, he was teaching chemistry to home economics majors. He got a wife out of the deal as one of his students was Ava Helen Miller, whom he married on June 17, 1923. This is more evidence of the stupidity of bans on professors dating their students. They had four children and remained married until her death on December 7, 1981.

In 1926, a Guggenheim Fellowship allowed him to study under German physicist Arnold Sommerfeld in Munich, Danish physicist Niels Bohr in Copenhagen and Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger in Zürich. He was one of seven of Sommerfield's students over the years who went on to win Nobels, as did Bohr and Schrödinger.

In 1927, Pauling began a 36-year career at Cal Tech, taking a year off in 1937-38 to lecture at Cornell. Those lecture resulted in "The Nature of the Chemical Bond," a textbook that was the basis of his Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954. In its first 30 years, the book was cite 16,000 time in scientific literature. He had helped found molecular biology.

But there was far more to Linus Pauling. He declined an invitation from Robert Oppenheimer to join the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer had made a pass at Ava Pauling, his wife, which ended Pauling's friendship with Oppenheimer years ago. Instead Pauling worked on radar and on an oxygen meter for submarines. He also worked on plasma, explosives, and even patented an armor-piercing shell.

The war also began his political career. His wife protested the interment of Japanese-Americans. Her pacificism -- an outgrowth of her socialistic politics -- influenced him as did his very real fear of a nuclear war. After the war, he joined the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, chaired by Albert Einstein. His political activism led the Democratic Truman administration to deny him a passport to London -- four years after President Truman presented Pauling a medal for his efforts in World War II. However, Republican Senator Wayne Morse took to the Senate floor and embarrassed the White House into allowing Pauling to make his presentation at a scientific convention.

Pauling unknowingly was part of the early politicization of science. One study contended that the baby teeth of American children were radioactive because cows ate grass that was contaminated with radioactive fallout from above ground nuclear tests. No follow-up studies verified that report, but it became accepted by all.

However, many people in Washington believed that Pauling wittingly or unwittingly was helping the Communists. At the time, the allies -- the United States -- had one advantage over the Soviet tanks and manpower: nuclear superiority. Pauling's efforts to get 11,021 scientists (his number and his definition) to sign a petition in 1958 demanding an end to nuclear testing drew criticism in the Senate, which was controlled by the Democrats. he was haled before a committee in 1960, which labeled him "the number one scientific name in virtually every major activity of the Communist peace offensive in this country."

But in October 1963, the United States and Soviet Union signed a nuclear test ban treaty. Norway reacted by immediately awarding Pauling the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize, 11 months late. Life magazine, in a headline, called it: "A Weird Insult from Norway." Many observers saw no connection between his work and the agreement.

The first Nobel made his career, the second almost ended it. His activism had cost him his position as department chairman in 1958 and despite his tenure, the university froze his salary. Pauling left Cal tech in 1963 and resigned from the American Chemical Society.

He would emerge more than a decade later as an advocate of mega doses of Vitamin C. It was quite a fall for one of the most brilliant and learned men in American history. He died at 93 at Big Sur, California, on August 18, 1994, after his prostate cancer spread to his liver. He left behind two sciences -- quantum chemistry and molecular biology.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. I got to attend a lecture of his sometime around 1960 on biology.

  2. I remember the Strontium-90 scare.