March 2, 2013
In his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From” Steven Johnson concludes his story of John Snow with this blindingly penetrating observation: “Chance favors the connected mind.”
Linus Pauling is one of the great examples. Linus Pauling was born in Portland Oregon on Feb. 28, 1901, the first year that the Nobel Prize committees selected its first recipients; he is the only person to have been awarded two unshared Nobel prizes, for Chemistry in 1954, and the Peace Prize in 1962 (only three other individuals have won two Nobel prizes).
Pauling’s father was a drug salesman and pharmacist, who encouraged his son’s curiosity, but died when Linus was nine. His mother was not nearly the encouraging parent his father was, but Pauling found mentors where he could. When his friend Lloyd Jeffress showed off his chemistry set, Pauling had found his passion. Years later, Pauling said, “As I think back, what struck me was the realization that substances are not immutable. He had sugar and a few chemicals and ended up with a little pile of black carbon. … In chemistry, things happen. Very striking things happen.”
He was accepted to Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) when he was 16, even though he did not have a high school diploma (he never took American History).
When he graduated in 1922, Pauling was recruited to the graduate school of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he studied under Roscoe Dickinson, a pioneer in X-ray crystallography, which enabled scientists to see the structure of simple molecules for the first time. Pauling received his doctorate in physical chemistry and mathematical physics in 1925.
In 1926, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study with physicist Arnold Sommerfield in Munich. It was a heady time in Europe as physicists were re-defining the concepts of our reality; he also studied with physicists Niels Bohr in Copenhagen and Erwin Schrödinger in Zurich. While in Europe, Pauling began knitting together the theories of quantum physics and the structure of molecules.
He returned to Caltech as an assistant professor in theoretical chemistry, and was very prolific, publishing 50 papers in his first five years on the faculty, mostly on molecular structure.
Though he turned down Robert Oppenheimer’s invitation to join the Manhattan Project, he won a Presidential Medal of Merit for his work during World War II on a variety of projects. After the war, Pauling joined with other scientists to voice their concerns about nuclear weapons. His activism caused the U.S. State Department to deny his passport in 1952.
He won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954 for his work on the nature of chemical bonds and molecular structure, work that was inspired by his exposure to the pioneers of quantum physics. His passport was restored shortly before the award ceremony.
He was a leader in the movement to ban above ground nuclear weapons testing because of its health risks. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his work against nuclear war.
In his acceptance speech Pauling said, “I believe … [we are] mov[ing] into a new period in the history of the world, a period of peace and reason, when world problems are not solved by war or by force, but are solved in accordance with world law, in a way that does justice to all nations and that benefits all people.”
Pauling’s work against nuclear weapons was controversial and cost him his relationship with Caltech. Many people saw Pauling as a pawn for Soviet communism. He won the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union in 1970, and the Senate Internal Subcommittee called him "the number one scientific name in virtually every major activity of the Communist peace offensive in this country."
As Thomas Hager wrote in the preface to “Force of Nature:”
“I was interested in seeing the man himself, the legendary genius who had variously been described as the century's most important chemist, the greatest living American scientist, and a crackpot.”