Celebrating 112 years with the newly-declared Linus Pauling Day
Published: Thursday, February 28, 2013
Updated: Thursday, February 28, 2013 02:02
Ken Hedberg was pursuing a doctorate at Cal Tech. It was the 1940s. He worked hard. He worked weekends. Seventy years later he still recalls one sunny Saturday with particular fondness. A smile came to Hedberg’s face with the recollection of this memory.
Chemistry professor Linus Pauling padded into the lab, still wearing his bedroom slippers. He often stopped by — sometimes to work, other times just to find out what others were doing. Hedberg was in awe of the man. Pauling sat down in Hedberg’s chair and rested his feet on Hedberg’s desk.
“Hello Ken,” Pauling said.
“Hello, Professor Pauling,” Hedberg replied.
No one ever called Pauling by his first name.
Pauling scanned the room. Then he picked up a spyglass key chain attached to Hedberg’s keys. The spyglass contained an image. He put the spyglass to his eye and dropped his head back up into the light.
Hedberg felt uneasy, he remembers so many years later. The image showed a beautiful — and naked — woman smiling from her perch on a boulder. A stream flowed in the background.
Pauling looked at the poster through his small looking glass. Then he looked down and replaced the glass on the desk. He stood up and began walking out. At the door he turned.
“That rock is basalt,” Pauling said, and left.
Friends and colleagues of Pauling remember him not only for his intelligence, but for his curiosity. He was known to have called curiosity “one of the greatest sources of happiness in life.”
The Oregon State University alumnus and native Oregonian is the only person ever to have been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes. He was first honored in 1954 for his research into the nature of the chemical bond, the theory which states how atoms are bound together into molecules and how these molecules are built in various ways depending on their intermolecular forces.
In 1963 he was honored for his work regarding nuclear disarmament and the establishment of a foundation for global peace negotiations.
Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has declared Feb. 28 as Linus Pauling Day. The chemist would have been 112 years old today.
Pauling is by far OSU’s most celebrated and famous graduate. His name can be found in the Valley Library, the Linus Pauling Science Center and there are chairs endowed in his and his wife’s name. The Pauling Papers, archived in the Valley Library, are comprised of 500,000 documents covering the lives, work and legacies of Pauling and his wife.
“In terms of linear feet, the collection is close to a mile long,” said Chris Petersen, faculty research assistant with OSU’s Special Collections & Archives Research Center.
It contains nearly 500 boxes of letters, Pauling’s personal library, manuscripts and awards. It includes 47 honorary doctorates and two Nobel Prizes. The collection also contains newspaper clippings, audio-visual content, scrapbooks and even clothes.
Pauling was born in Portland in 1901. His father was a pharmacist and died when Pauling was 9. The loss left his family in dire financial straits. Young Pauling drew into himself, devoting time to studying minerals. He set up a chemistry lab in the basement of his family’s southeast Portland home.
While his experiments resulted in the occasional explosions, noises, smells and small fires, according to a book on Linus Pauling by biographer Thomas Hager, no one was ever hurt.
Pauling was bright, but disliked the restrictive curriculum offered at Washington High, so he dropped out before graduation. His mother wanted him to stay home and help support his siblings, but Pauling wanted to study, according to Hager.
Pauling defied his mother’s wishes, and in 1917 he came to OSU. The school was then named the Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) and was free for students who attended. Hager wrote that Pauling worked hard at his chemistry courses and read voraciously. The only area in which Pauling didn’t excel was physical fitness, according to report cards maintained as part of the OSU archives.
Pauling studied for two years before being offered a position teaching general chemistry. He is the youngest professor the school has ever hired, according to the Pauling Papers archive.
Students loved his passion, encyclopedic memory and kindness.
Pauling studied German so he could read papers about theoretical physics. He learned quantum mechanics and applied that to chemistry. He cultivated a comprehensive understanding of physics, chemistry, mineralogy and biology.
He encouraged students to be skeptical — even of him.
“When an old and distinguished person speaks to you, listen to him carefully and with respect. But do not believe him. Never put your trust into anything but your own intellect,” he told students in his column “Advice to Students” in a 1955 issue of “Engineering and Science.”
One student loved him as more than a teacher. She fell in love with the man. Ava Helen Miller was smarter than Pauling. The I.Q. tests that prove Ava Helen’s genius can be found within her own archival collection, the Ava Helen Pauling Papers.
While teaching a general chemistry course at OAC for home economics majors, Pauling called on Ms. Miller in class to answer a question. She responded correctly and thoroughly impressed Pauling.
Pauling initially rebuffed the advances of the strong-willed young woman, because he feared placing his teaching job in jeopardy. Despite this, the two fell in love and were married nine months later.
Miller was Pauling’s great love and lifelong best friend, according to Petersen. She admired Pauling’s work and helped him carve out space for research. She encouraged him to devote time to furthering world peace, while she raised the couple’s four children.
Pauling’s students and colleagues saw softness unexpected in a scientist with so many awards to his name.