Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

“The Scientist as Educator and Public Citizen: Linus Pauling and His Era.”

October 29 - 30, 2007

Video: Session Chair, "Scientists and Textbooks” Mary Jo Nye

11:32 - Abstract | Biography | More Videos from Session 1: Scientists and Textbooks


Mary Jo Nye: It’s very nice to see you this morning at this nine o’clock session. My name is Mary Jo Nye. I’m a member of the History Department here at Oregon State University. It’s my great pleasure to welcome you and to welcome all of our guests to this two-day conference on the Scientist as Educator and Public Citizen: Linus Pauling and His Era. We have with us twelve distinguished speakers who have come to us from around the United States, from across the Atlantic and, nearer to home, from the University of Oregon and OSU. I would like to mention that this is the second Pauling Conference that I have had the privilege of co-organizing with Clifford Mead, who is head of Special Collections in the OSU Libraries, where the papers of Ava Helen and Linus Pauling are held and made available to the public. Our last Pauling conference in March of 1995 followed the death of Linus Pauling in the summer of 1994. That conference, like this one, was sponsored by the Horning Endowment in the Humanities, and by the OSU Libraries, now directed by Karyle Butcher, and by the OSU History Department, chaired by Paul Farber. We are grateful too for assistance in today’s conference from Fred Horne, the past dean of the College of Science who was a co-organizer for our 1995 conference. Finally, and beginning this conference this morning, I would like to express appreciation to all of Cliff Mead’s staff in Special Collections who have worked long hours to coordinate details in putting this together, especially Allison Wilsey, Trevor Sandgathe, Maarika Teose, and Ryan Wick. Let me particularly draw your attention to the website for Special Collections in Valley Library for which Ryan Wick is the webmaster. If you have not viewed that website, go back home, go back to your office, and try it out. Go to OSU, go to the Library, and click on Special Collections and you will find something truly marvelous.

Our conference consists of three sessions over one and a half days with a twenty minute or so coffee break in each session. Our speakers’ presentations will be twenty-five minutes in length with a five minute or so question period after each presentation and further discussion which we will be able to have after the last speakers’ presentation in each session. I regret to tell you that two of our speakers have had to cancel their trips in the last few days. John Rudolph, who was scheduled for this morning, suffered a neck injury that has made it impossible for him to travel. Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent was defeated by an Air France airline strike in Paris, and after trying for two days, she could not get here. She has sent us her paper, and in fact I will read it, but not with her wonderful accent, this afternoon. [3:15]

This conference marks the year of the sixtieth anniversary of the publication of Linus Pauling’s revolutionary 1947 textbook on general chemistry and the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s first appeal in 1957 for a ban on nuclear weapons testing. Linus Pauling was a 1922 graduate of Oregon Agricultural College. He received the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize. He generally is regarded in both the United States and abroad as the greatest chemist of the 20th century, the Einstein of Chemistry for his work in quantum chemistry, x-ray crystallography, and electron diffraction, for theories of the chemical bond and structural chemistry and for work in molecular biology and molecular medicine. The sessions in our two day conference register some of the preoccupations and achievements of Pauling and his contemporaries during Pauling’s era, a period which spanned the 20th century, since Pauling lived from 1901 to 1994. In particular, in this conference, we are looking at scientific education and the writing of textbooks, at popular and public science, and at the role of a scientist as public citizen. Let me spend just a few minutes now talking a little bit about the theme of our first session. [4:40]

Linus Pauling was not the first chemistry instructor to believe that introductory chemistry textbooks were in need of radical restructuring, nor was General Chemistry his first or last textbook. Dudley Herschbach will mention, later this afternoon, Pauling’s 1935 co-authored Introduction to Quantum Mechanics and Applications to Chemistry, and Ana Simões this morning will discuss, in part, his 1939 advanced textbook, The Nature of the Chemical Bond. Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent’s paper is a study of Pauling’s 1950 College Chemistry. It was in 1937, however, that Pauling first began to implement ideas for an introductory text. At the age of 36, he assumed responsibility for the freshman chemistry course at Caltech. He later claimed that he had seen as early as 1919 when he was a student here, in Corvallis, that the then brand new electron theory of the chemical bond could be the first step to an entirely new pedagogy of what he called a real systematic study of chemistry. [5:54]

In 1937 when he was teaching this course at Caltech he began distributing to his undergraduates, though he did charge them, a lithographed and bound book of lecture notes which he titled “General Chemistry.” This informal text became the core of the 1947 General Chemistry: An Introduction to Descriptive Chemistry and Modern Chemical Theory which was published by William Freeman, and Freeman is a very well known science publisher now. Pauling’s book was his first interest, his entry actually into the publication field. Within three years of 1947 Pauling’s textbook was selling nine thousand copies and it was regarded by people in the know as a revolutionary textbook teaching students about the most current development of chemistry. For Pauling this book was not only a triumph of pedagogy, but a means of indulging in some California luxuries. Pauling and his wife Ava Helen, along with their four children, enjoyed the fruits of textbook royalties in the construction of a large in-ground swimming pool outside their mountainside home in Pasadena. It was, his children said, the pool that General Chemistry built. [Audience laughter] [7:10]

At the time many chemistry textbooks of the 20’s and 30’s introduced students to chemical principles and laws in the historical order in which they had been developed, inspiring students with the names of chemical heroes and demonstrating the slow and sure accumulation of scientific knowledge. Textbooks often began with the calculation of combining weights of chemical elements and discussions of gas laws, gas theory, equilibrium, etcetera. Pauling favored what he called the more direct modern attack, with history, I am sorry to say as a historian of science, taking a back seat. In the bound lithographed volume that Pauling began making available to his students, images and illustrations of electrons, atoms, and molecules were used in abundance ranging from x-ray and electron diffraction photographs, to graphical constructions of atoms and molecules, to cartoon-like pictures of electron densities drawn as fuzzy orbital clouds around atoms. The pictures were designed by a professional artist, Roger Hayward, who began making illustrations as well for Pauling’s lectures at Caltech. In his General Chemistry textbook, Pauling explained elements, isotopes and compounds in terms of what’s now familiar to most of you - electron shells and the atomic nucleus - but it was he who began doing this. He discussed how atomic weights might be determined both by chemical methods and by physical methods such as mass spectroscopy, as well as how the physical and chemical properties of elements in the periodic table were related to electron structure of elements. [9:00]

He also did stress the descriptive part of chemistry, warning students that a great part of chemical knowledge and practice, however, could not be subordinated to general theories but really had to be learned by chemical experience and by memorization. Pauling’s aim in introductory chemistry, as he stated it, was for students to learn what the science is and what its uses are, and second, to learn the scientific method of logical thinking. Within the next decades, introductory college chemistry textbooks worldwide began with Pauling’s point of view, although not necessarily invoking his name in the textbooks. The view, Pauling’s view, was that chemistry is one of the physical sciences; very broadly it deals with the arrangement of atoms in molecules and with the types of bonds which can be formed between atoms. It is an experimental science yet it embraces a wide and elegant structure of theory. [10:03]

In giving pride of place to the most recent chemical theories, including prominently his own theories of the chemical bond and electronic molecular structure, Pauling displayed a certain hubris. As the papers in this session will demonstrate, he was among many great chemists such as Dmitri Mendeleev and Lothar Meyer, whose practice of teaching drove him to reject old textbooks and write his own. In Pauling’s case, he based his textbook on his own recent work: on quantum mechanics of the chemical bond and researches in molecular structure. In contrast Mendeleev - as Michael Gordin will discuss - and Meyer arrived at their greatest chemical theories, the periodicity of the elements, as a result of setting out to write textbooks. The epistemology underlying a textbook is an important choice for the scientist, as demonstrated in the way that Charles Coulson’s book, Valence, as we will see in Ana Simoes’s talk, is a response to Pauling’s book The Nature of the Chemical Bond, a dialogue between two scientists. We also will see in David Kaiser’s paper that the practice of quantum mechanics engendered new approaches in physics textbooks, and we will find in Ken Krane’s presentation that the decision to write a textbook is not a commitment to be taken lightly. [11:33]


Watch Other Videos

Session 1: Scientists and Textbooks

Session 2: Popular and Public Science

Session 3: The Scientist as Public Citizen

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