Li­nus Paul­ing

Li­nus Paul­ing was a tow­er­ing fig­ure in chem­istry, quan­tum me­chan­ics, peace ac­tivism – and, um, vi­ta­min ther­apy.

Cosmos - - Contents - — AN­DREW MASTER­SON

TECH­NI­CALLY SPEAK­ING, Li­nus Carl Paul­ing failed high school, even though he was fe­ro­ciously smart.

By the age of 15 – this would have been in 1916 – he had earned enough high school cred­its to win ad­mis­sion to Oregon State Univer­sity. How­ever, be­cause he had not com­pleted two manda­tory Amer­i­can his­tory cour­ses the school re­fused to give him a diploma.

He was fi­nally pre­sented with the all-im­por­tant piece of pa­per 45 years later, by which point it was ar­guably a re­dun­dant ges­ture. Af­ter all, by then Paul­ing had won two No­bel Prizes, and was gen­er­ally re­garded as one of the most im­por­tant sci­en­tists of all time.

Paul­ing – born in the US city of Port­land, Oregon, in 1901 – is one of only four peo­ple to be awarded two No­bels, and one of only two to achieve the feat in com­pletely dif­fer­ent fields.*

His first award, in 1954, was in chem­istry. His sec­ond, eight years later, was the Peace Prize, recog­nis­ing an en­er­getic com­mit­ment to nu­clear dis­ar­ma­ment that be­gan in 1946 when he joined an or­gan­i­sa­tion called the Emer­gency Com­mit­tee of Atomic Sci­en­tists, along­side Al­bert Ein­stein, Ber­trand Rus­sell and a small group of other prom­i­nent re­searchers.

As a chemist, Paul­ing’s work was truly foun­da­tional in fields as dis­tant as or­ganic chem­istry and molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy. For in­stance, his re­search served as the ba­sis of later in­ves­ti­ga­tions by Fran­cis Crick, Ros­alind Franklin and James Wat­son that re­sulted in the dis­cov­ery of the struc­ture of DNA.

He is reg­u­larly in­cluded in lists of the all-time great sci­en­tists, but if it wasn’t for a chance experience dur­ing his child­hood his life may have taken an en­tirely dif­fer­ent shape.

Fol­low­ing the birth of his sister, Pauline, Li­nus Paul­ing’s par­ents up­rooted the fam­ily and, af­ter a cou­ple of in­ter­me­di­ate stops, re­lo­cated to the Oregon town of Con­don. By then a sec­ond sister, Lu­cile, had joined the fam­ily.

His fa­ther, Her­man, was a trav­el­ling sales­man and later drug­store owner, who died from a per­fo­rated ul­cer when Li­nus was just nine, leav­ing his mother, Lucy, to raise the fam­ily.

One day, when he was about 10, he vis­ited a friend, who hap­pened to be play­ing with small chem­istry kit. Paul­ing was im­me­di­ately en­tranced, and from that mo­ment dreamed of noth­ing but be­com­ing a chemist. (The friend, Lloyd Jef­fress, went on to be­come a pro­fes­sor of ex­per­i­men­tal psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Texas.)

Spurred into ac­tion, and while still at school, Paul­ing and an­other mate set up a lab­o­ra­tory in a base­ment and of­fered to run qual­ity tests on but­ter­fat for lo­cal dairy farm­ers. It was not a suc­cess­ful ven­ture.

In or­der to put him­self through univer­sity, Li­nus took a va­ri­ety of jobs, in­clud­ing work­ing as a gro­cery re­tailer, a ma­chin­ist and a pho­to­graphic de­vel­oper. On cam­pus, he quickly dis­tin­guished him­self, and was of­fered teach­ing po­si­tions be­fore even earn­ing his first de­gree. Af­ter leav­ing Oregon State he went to Cal­tech and re­ceived his PHD in phys­i­cal chem­istry and math­e­mat­i­cal physics.

By the time he died in 1994, Paul­ing had pub­lished more than 1,200 books and pa­pers. De­spite his suc­cess, and his will­ing­ness to cam­paign hard for the causes in which he be­lieved, he was not with­out his crit­ics.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween ge­nius and ec­cen­tric­ity is some­times dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish and in his later years, fol­low­ing a bout of kid­ney dis­ease, he be­came in­creas­ingly ob­sessed with the role of vi­ta­mins in treat­ing ill­ness.

It is al­most en­tirely be­cause of his ad­vo­cacy that today vi­ta­min C is firmly as­so­ci­ated with good health. Some­times that ad­vo­cacy crossed the bound­ary be­tween science and ob­ses­sion. Through­out the sec­ond half of his life he continued to sug­gest that high doses of vi­ta­min C could cure can­cer, de­spite many stud­ies find­ing no ev­i­dence to sup­port the con­tention.

De­spite this, how­ever, today he is re­mem­bered pri­mar­ily as a bril­liant re­searcher who made very real and sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tions to ar­eas as di­verse as quan­tum me­chan­ics and medicine. His mem­ory is hon­oured across the US and beyond. Oregon has a pub­lic hol­i­day bear­ing his name, which also adorns sev­eral streets in var­i­ous states, a re­search cen­tre at Ox­ford Univer­sity in the UK – and an as­ter­oid that or­bits the sun ev­ery 926 days.

*Marie Curie was the other one, in case you were won­der­ing.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION – Jef­frey Phillips

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