LINUS PAULING: Force of Nature

Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling, Thomas Hager; Simon & Schuster, 1995, New York, New York, 721 pages.

This well-researched biography of one of the most energetic and creative scientists of the 20th century provides a comprehensive portrait of a complex man.  Born in 1901, in Portland, Ore., Pauling’s long life spanned almost a century.  He died in 1994 in Big Sur, Calif. Pauling won two Nobel prizes: one for chemistry, in 1954, the other for peace, in 1963. Pauling’s scientific interests included: the nature of the chemical bond, the structure of protein; sickle cell anemia; the structure of DNA;  x-ray crystallography; quantum mechanics; orthomolecular psychiatry; and nutrition and immunology. He wrote more than 500 journal and magazine articles and 11 books.

He was also a political activist who supported a nuclear test ban and advocated for world government and peace. Though he favored bi-lateral arms reduction, his activities drew the attention of the FBI, which engaged in surveillance activities for 24 years and amassed a 2,500-page file on Pauling during the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. The FBI regarded Pauling a communist, or a member of communist-front organizations. On a number of occasions he was called upon to testify to defend himself or defend fellow scientists.  On numerous occasions his requests for passports were denied or were granted only after extended efforts.  While Hollywood blacklisting during the McCarthy years is well known, an extensive and pernicious witch hunt also was conducted within the science community.

Pauling’s abilities came to full flower despite the death of his pharmacist father when Linus was nine and the subsequent financial instability.  But Pauling’s spirit, unlike that of other gifted scientists, most notably J. Robert Oppenheimer, did not break under the extended stress of being branded a communist for more than 20 years.

Author Hager tells a fascinating tale.  Besides detailing the goings on in Pauling’s laboratories and the cross-currents and –fertilization of scientists around the world, Hagarskillfully intertwines the many facets of Pauling’s life: early life, marriage and family, educator, and activist.

Hager fleshes out the arc of Pauling’s life in fascinating detail.  The young Pauling had read The Origin of Species before he was nine.  Pauling once burned off the skin inside his mouth by accidently sucking in ammonia while preparing lab solutions for undergraduates at Oregon Agricultural College.  He and his wife, Ava Helen, were fabulous dancers and wowed the Europeans while visiting in the mid-1920s.  Oppenheimer once suggested to Ava Helen that they run off to Mexico together.  Ava Helen refused, and the deep friendship between Pauling and Oppenheimer cooled for many years.  When Pauling failed to crack the structure of DNA and kept complaining to his wife about his failure to do so, she told him:  “If that was such an important problem, why didn’t you work harder on it.”  When Pauling was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry, the chemistry department put on a skit entitled “The Road to Stockholm,” which showed the love and admiration for Pauling but also expressed a certain irreverence.  One of the parodies, sung to the tune of “Tavern in the Town,” displayed some of the irreverence:

Pauling’s courses can’t be beat, can’t be beat,

Pauling’s courses are a treat, are a treat.

They will teach you all the facts you need to know,

And maybe some that are not so.

Pauling was brilliant and robust and had great instincts.  He had many successes and failures in his laboratory.  He was an exciting instructor and an inspiring orator.  He was fearless in the face of political intimidation.  He was known to be egotistical but was also beloved by many for his generosity and admired for his true greatness.  Hager’s detailed documentation of the long period of FBI surveillance, suggests that the time and energy Pauling spent on defending himself probably did siphon off valuable energy that Pauling might have put into scientific endeavors.  This period caused problems at his beloved Caltech, and there were many faculty and board members who wanted  Pauling dismissed.  Pauling did not fare well after his resignation from Caltech.  One wonders if his career had not been clouded by fallout from the political extremism of the McCarthy days, if Pauling would have enjoyed more stability and continued to make important discoveries within the confines of mainstream science. Instead, after leaving Caltech, Pauling became a vagabond scientist who had difficulties keeping the Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine afloat and had the misfortune of being looked upon as an elderly crank because of his overblown claims concerning vitamin C. The Force of Nature, however, tells the story of an unbroken man, whose life was inexorably intertwined with the promises and pitfalls of a nation finding its way in the 20th century.

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