Video: “The Scientist as Celebrity: Pauling, The Media, and the Bomb” Tom Hager
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Chris Petersen: Our first speaker is biographer and science writer Tom Hager. Tom has written or edited five books on medicine and science. After earning master’s degrees in medical microbiology, immunology, and journalism, his professional career has included stops at the National Cancer Institute and the University of Oregon. Don’t hold that against him. He is the founding editor of LC magazine and has contributed over one hundred articles to publications ranging from American Health and the Journal of the American Medical Association to the Wall Street Journal. He’s written three books on Linus Pauling including this one right here, Force of Nature - which for my department is like a user’s manual - published in 1995. Tom has also collaborated closely with the OSU Libraries Special Collections in the development of three major documentary history websites devoted to Pauling’s life and work. His most recent book, titled The Demon Under the Microscope, is an entertaining account of the discovery of sulfa drugs following World War I. His talk today is titled "The Scientist as Celebrity: Linus Pauling and the Media and the Bomb." Please join me in welcoming Tom Hager. [Applause] [1:30]
Tom Hager: Hello. It’s a pleasure to be here today, and I am always happy to see people celebrating the life of Linus Pauling who was for me, as for many people, something of a role model. I was lucky enough to be able to interview him a number of times before his death. I got involved in working with him in the late 1980s on a biography and he was a wonderful person. A number of people in this room knew Linus and knew firsthand, as I did, what it was like to have someone with such an extraordinary intellect be as friendly, and ebullient, and open as Linus Pauling was. I first met him at a medical meeting that I was covering for the Journal of the American Medical Association, and he was delivering a talk on vitamin C. This was in the ‘80s and by then most media people felt that they knew all there was to know about the vitamin C controversy. Linus continued to present information about vitamin C, but he wasn’t getting a lot of media interest at that time. [3:07]
I was eager to meet him, and I was early to the talk that he was going to give. When I arrived, I was the only person in the room, and then Linus came in early as well and he walked right up to me. I grew up in Oregon, Linus grew up in Oregon, and I knew enough about him to know that he was the most eminent chemist of the twentieth century and one of the most important scientific minds of all time. He just breezed right up to me - I was twenty-something - and started talking to me about the binding properties of tin atoms. [Laughter] He went into a five minute little mini lecture with me in which he was thinking out loud about how metal atoms form complexes and molecules. It was completely beyond me, but that friendliness, that openness and ability to communicate were hallmarks of Pauling’s personality and I think that they played an important role not only in his effectiveness in communicating science, which we heard about yesterday, but also in his ability to proselytize for peace and to become an activist against bomb tests and against nuclear proliferation, and later against war in general. [4:35]
I want to talk today from a biographer’s angle about some of what I see as important developmental influences that created a Peace Prize winner out of a research scientist. Now, most research scientists don’t end up winning the peace prize. Pauling did and I think that the reasons for it can be traced back to four important people in his life. I’m going to be neglecting a number of other important people, but I want to focus on four influences that are often overlooked. The first influence took place here on this campus in the early 1920’s when Pauling was an undergraduate student intending to study chemical engineering and then gradually moving toward a more theoretical approach to chemistry. He was the son of a druggist, Herman Pauling. Herman Pauling, his father, died when Linus was nine years old, which threw the family into poverty. Linus and his two sisters had a very stark childhood. His mother, Belle Pauling, did her best to take care of the children, and had a boarding house in Portland in which all the children worked - Pauling hardly had any money at all. A big part of the reason that he came to Oregon State was because it was a school that he could afford at the time. State higher education, in the 1920’s, was still heavily funded by the state. Those were the days. Tuition was low enough that Pauling could come and study. He had his freshman and sophomore years here and was really showing his stuff as a student. He was amazing his professors with the breadth of his knowledge of chemistry, much of which he had learned on his own. After his sophomore year he worked a summer job - he was always working in order to have money to go to school - he worked a summer job and sent his money back to his mother. She announced, before he returned for his junior year, that there wasn’t enough money for him to go to school and that he would have to take a year off. And it was a blow but Pauling was willing to take that year off because he figured his mother needed the money. The first person that I want to credit with putting Pauling on the path toward the peace prize was his mother: a woman who was, by all accounts, chronically ill and just ever so slightly mentally unstable. [7:25]
She had a very difficult life, especially after her husband died, and Pauling’s life as a young man while he was at home and his first year’s here while he was taking care of her, were somewhat difficult. Belle Pauling, by refusing to send him to school, forced Linus to look for work after his sophomore year. He was planning to take the year off and work. He’d done some road building work and he was going to do that for the year. But then chemistry professors at Oregon Agricultural College - as Oregon State was known at the time - knowing how bright he was, approached him and said "Would you teach some classes for us instead? Stay in school, teach some classes, we’ll give you enough money to get by." It was a wonderful opportunity for Pauling. He had just gotten out of taking classes that he was now going to teach. He entered college at age 16 and so he was just 18 years old and he was going to get up in front of groups of students and teach them chemistry. He turned out to be a great teacher. It was a natural ability, this sort of communication ability that he had, that made him so popular that the students in his classes petitioned the chemistry department to have him teach more classes. They thought he was terrific and he grew into the role of a teacher. He had been a shy young man, and somewhat socially inept, kind of geeky as a freshman maybe. When he started teaching, he blossomed. He got this rapport going with classes and I think the warmth that he received back from the students allowed him to blossom; his self-confidence grew and he became a great lecturer. In the 1930’s, when he was a very young professor at Caltech, he was known for lying down while he delivered talks. There were seminar tables and he would lie sideways, Roman style, while he gave lectures. I’ll read you a brief description when, in the early 1930’s, he went to the University of Chicago and delivered a lecture. Pauling was already famous by that time as the guy who knew everything about the chemical bond, so at the University of Chicago one of the students at the time remembered, "Pauling arrived just before noon. We students were charmed, if slightly surprised, to see a bouncy young extrovert wholly informal in dress and appearance. He bounded into the room already crowded with students eager to see and hear the great man, spread himself over the seminar table next to the blackboard and running his hand through an unruly shock of hair, gestured the students to come closer. He noted that there were still some seats vacant at the table and cheerfully invited students pressing in at the door to come forward and occupy them. As these were seats reserved for faculty, the students hung back, but Pauling would have none of that. He insisted, and they nervously edged in, taking the seats. They started talking. The talk started with Pauling leaping off the table and rapidly writing a list of five topics on which he could speak singly or all together. He described each in a few pithy sentences, including racy impressions of the workers involved. The seminar he gave was a brilliant tour de force and made a never-to-be-forgotten impression on all of us students." [11:16]
That was Pauling’s style. He spoke extemporaneously, thought on the fly, and put ideas together. He liked to do drawings and stunts and was a brilliant lecturer. Those were all skills that went into his peace work later on. Those were all critical skills in communicating not just science, but in communicating his ideas about peace and the bomb. I really do credit his mother with forcing him to have that opportunity. He certainly would have taught later, and maybe learned the same things, but he was forced into teaching early.
He was so eager to know how to teach better, by the way, that while he was here at Oregon Agricultural College he got tutoring from an English professor in oratory. He wanted to become an even better speaker. He made a deal with an English professor - this guy had been a former minister and really knew how to deliver a sermon - and Pauling learned from him how to communicate with large groups of people. He entered oratory contests when he was here at Oregon Agricultural College and was very proud of his speaking abilities. Those speaking abilities and that teaching brought him to the attention of the second important person, and that was his future wife, Ava Helen Pauling. A number of you already know the story, but for those of you who don’t, Ava Helen was a student here at Oregon Agricultural College as well and Pauling taught a chemistry class that she took and they met as teacher and student. This young undergraduate dynamite lecturer, and this very attractive, very bright young woman. They met in the classroom and, as their romance blossomed, Ava Helen became a very important force in moving Pauling toward the ideas of social responsibility, peace, and world government. Ava Helen came from a very interesting family that was, more or less a socialist, and came from the countryside outside of Portland. She was politically aware earlier than Pauling himself was and she energized him in terms of his politics. [13:50]
Ava Helen also had another important role to play. It’s important to remember that Pauling wasn’t always a pacifist. Pauling, during World War II, was a gung-ho anti-fascist, anti-Hitler person and worked on a number of war-related projects, including patenting an armor-piercing shell for the government. I think he may be the only Peace Prize winner to have patented a weapon. He ended the war being enormously struck by the explosion of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. That was a stunning experience for him, reading about the obliteration of a city with a single weapon. Pauling had been invited to work on the Manhattan Project by Oppenheimer. He had been invited, Pauling said, to head the chemistry section of the Manhattan Project but had turned Oppenheimer down, not because Pauling was a pacifist, but because he couldn’t feature moving his young family from California to Los Alamos. He told Oppenheimer no. The results of the project were made apparent in August of 1945 with the Hiroshima explosion. When Pauling read about that in the newspaper he realized, as many scientists did, that the world had entered a new era. The world had entered an era of mass destruction on a scale that was unimaginable. He also realized, as many scientists did, that this new era had come about because of science. Scientists had made that change happen. He started grappling with that, as many scientists were. Little discussion groups were springing up across the country to talk about what atomic weapons meant and what should be done about them, and the responsibility of the scientists who had created these weapons. Pauling joined in some of those discussion groups in Pasadena at Caltech, and he and his wife talked a lot about it, and he started giving some talks around the Pasadena, Los Angeles area. His first talks were mostly technical talks, because groups like Rotary groups wanted to know, "What makes these bombs work, why are they so powerful?" Pauling would go in and talk about the physics of atomic bombs. He would talk about how the mechanics of the bomb worked. That was his entry into public speaking about bombs, about atomic weaponry. He began adding more and more social comment and, as he learned more from these discussion groups, spoke about the political question of the control of atomic energy and whether these weapons should be under the control of the military or whether they should be under control of civilians. As he learned more about these, he began making more points that way in his talks. Ava Helen, his wife, accompanied him to many of the talks that he gave to little groups around Los Angeles, and she would sit in the audience and watch him giving his talk and then, afterward, she would critique his performance. Now she was accustomed, like everyone was, to Pauling talking about science, and when he talked about science it was the scene that I described earlier: he was very loose, very extemporaneous, brilliant speaker. But when he talked about atomic bombs in those early talks, Ava Helen said that he was stiff, that he acted like he didn’t know what he was talking about; he was always deferring to other authorities when he gave those talks, and she said that basically they were loser talks. She said that he was not doing a good job. With that encouragement, Pauling went back and decided to make himself an expert in matters dealing with atomic weaponry.
He began reading in a way that is reminiscent of how he would have been reading about any other science subject. He was capable of educating himself. He educated himself in geopolitics, the technology of atomic weaponry and political questions regarding its management, and he became an expert. As soon as he felt confident , his talks caught fire and he began giving talks that were just as exciting as his science talks except now they were on political matters. I think that’s a critical development for Pauling too. Two women, his mother and his wife, and two important steps forward in creating someone who would win the Nobel Peace Prize. [18:38]
Now we’ll go to two other influences, both of them are men. The first one is a British crystallographer named Bernal who wrote in the 1930’s a book about the social function of science. J.D. Bernal was a socialist, and he wrote a book in the 30’s that was basically an attack on the practice of science as it was done in Britain and in the United States at the time. It was a withering attack that ended up saying that most scientists are lackeys of the state, that most scientists work for state agencies or for corporations that deal with the government of nations. He argued that scientists tend to be very quiet, mousy retiring civil service types and that they were not taking responsibility for the discoveries that they had made and the effects that those discoveries had on society. This was a time when enormous strides were being made in chemistry and physics and they were having tremendous effects on social structures and governments. No scientists seemed to be willing to take responsibility for that. Bernal was in favor of a more targeted approach in which scientists would devote themselves only to projects that were good for humanity rather than just doing whatever research caught their fancy. Pauling read that book and was very affected by it. I think that he started to develop a strong feeling about his own responsibility as a scientist from reading books like that. Pauling was politically liberal. That would be, I think, an understatement in today’s terms. In my view he was so far toward the left end of the political spectrum that he was right on that borderline with socialism and, at some point, he identified himself as a socialist. In any case, he was a person who believed in world government and in devoting oneself to the betterment of humankind, and in freedom of expression. All of these things crystallized for him after the period when the Hiroshima bomb happened and he started talking about peace widely. He had the background from J.D. Bernal and others who were pointing towards a new way for scientists to behave, in which they took greater note of, and thought more about, the social impact of what they were doing. He applied all that to this new arena of atomic weaponry and atomic war. [21:48]
That brought him to the 4th person who had an influence and that, that person was Albert Einstein. Pauling was asked in the late 40’s to join a group called the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. The Emergency Committee had been set up in order to spread the word about the dangers of atomic weapons and to urge rational oversight of their use. The committee, comprised of a dozen or fewer scientists, had a number of small committees, and was headed by Albert Einstein, who was more than just a figure head. Albert Einstein was not only the most famous scientist in the world at the time but he was also a scientist who was unafraid to speak in a new way.
Einstein was so famous and so brilliant, and he had seen such terrible things in Germany during the 1920’s and 1930’s before he came to the U.S. He had seen the rise of Hitler and Hitlerism, and had been visiting the United States in the 30’s when Hitler came to power and Einstein just never went home again. He stayed in the United States after that time, but he started talking about Hitler in amazingly forthright ways. Einstein spoke from the heart. He talked about politics in almost poetic terms. He would talk about the poison of militarism (Einstein was a pacifist) and, after World War II, he talked about a United States drunk on victory; that was the kind of phrasing that he used. After Pauling got into the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, he had a chance to talk privately with Einstein. It was a great opportunity. Pauling and Einstein talked a number of times and Pauling picked up from that the ability to ratchet up his own rhetoric to a more Einsteinian level. Scientists often feel compelled to hue extremely closely to the facts, as they should, but what that does is in political discourse is it robs you of some power. Einstein was unafraid to speak at this different level, to call a spade a spade in very direct terms, and Pauling picked up some of that ability from his time spent with Einstein. After the Emergency Committee years, he began speaking more from the heart. You can see his speeches change a little bit toward a more overtly political and emotional rhetoric. That, I think, he picked up from Einstein. [25:08]
Those four people, those four factors, all had a critical role in preparing a research scientist to become a peace activist and a spokesperson for peace and against bomb testing in particular. I now want to talk just briefly about the mechanism by which Pauling achieved a number of things that no one else could achieve. It wasn’t just because he was a good speaker - there were a lot of good speakers - and it wasn’t just because he was committed to the cause - there were a number of scientists who were somewhat committed to the cause as well. Pauling became the most important anti bomb activist in the 50’s in the United States (Bertrand Russell may have been in Great Britain at the time), because - and for the purpose of my talk today I’ll just say it right out - he was like a one man PR firm. He understood how to make things happen in the public sphere in a way that giving a speech just doesn’t do. In addition to all of his other skills, I think that Pauling knew how to work the media. I’m speaking a little bit from experience here because I did public relations for awhile myself and I’m interested in how people get their message across in the media. Pauling turned out to be a natural at it. He did it in a number of different ways. The first was by never stopping giving speeches. He and Ava Helen both gave speeches, during certain periods, at a rate that was just stunning to me. You look at their appointment books and its just speech after speech after speech after speech and they were talking to all kinds of groups: church groups, labor groups, school groups, women’s groups, scientific groups, etc. As Chris pointed out, Pauling said that he was going to talk about issues of peace in every talk he gave including scientific talks. [27:23]
He had this enormous output, but speeches are given to relatively small groups and, once the message has been seen by the media, they don’t pay that much attention again. Pauling not only gave all these speeches, but he figured out how to keep himself in the news pages. You want to get into the news section of the newspaper or the news section of the TV news. You want to make news because, if you make news, that’s free publicity for your cause - that’s some very basic PR. Pauling figured out pretty early on how to keep himself in the newspapers. I’m not saying that this was all his doing. A lot of it was sort of the result of his stature as a left wing peace activist. He became a target for a lot of government repression. Pauling had his passport revoked and that made news. He had some grants pulled back because of his anti-government activism and that made news. He would go to communist-inspired peace conferences and that made would make news. A lot of this came about because he was a celebrity. He became a celebrity. Daniel Boorstin paraphrased it, "A celebrity is someone who is famous for being famous." Well, Pauling was famous and he became the most notable and prominent peace activist in the late 50’s and the news reporters watched him. They kept in eye on what he was doing and they noted it. [29:18]
He got in the newspapers not only because he was doing interesting things and controversial things, but also because he knew how to hold press conferences and he did that. He wrote press releases, or press statements for himself; he knew how to do that. He would sometimes organize and hold a conference and could get news coverage for that. When he couldn’t get enough news coverage he would start writing letters to the editor and he tried to write mainstream articles for magazines. When they got turned down, he would publish them in smaller magazines. He submitted articles to the Ladies Home Journal and Saturday Evening Post, and other big circulation magazines. When those didn’t run because they didn’t want to get into it, he would give them to The Nation or I.F. Stone’s Weekly, smaller circulation, leftist magazines. When all that was done, he wrote a book and then made a recording of the book. He was non-stop. He worked every angle and that served to create momentum. Finally, he also made some outrageous statements. There’s nothing like outrageous statements to get news coverage and during the fallout debate, he had a way of manipulating data that was not incorrect but was dramatic. He would take questions on low level radiation from fallout and the health effects. He focused on health because he knew people in the public were mostly interested in the effects on their own health and the health of their children. Instead of saying, as the Atomic Energy Commission was saying, that fallout raises every persons individual risk a tiny amount - I think one of their statements was that the fallout risk was equivalent to moving from sea level to Denver and getting more radiation from the sun and that was pretty close to right.. Pauling took that little individual risk and he multiplied it over a lifetime of a generation and then he could say things like "Fallout will shorten the life of people in Nevada by a thousand years." [audience laughter] That got headlines. He was brilliant and he was unafraid. He was stubborn, he knew how to use the media and he was an enormously committed man. I can think of few people who deserved the peace prize more.
Thank you very much. [Applause] [32:10]
Chris Petersen: Any questions?
Audience Member: Bernal was also a spectacularly good scientist, whose theory and notions about blood were closest to Pauling’s of anyone’s. Did they know each other on those grounds as well?
Tom Hager: I would have to defer to others on correspondence between Bernal and Pauling. Their research interests overlapped. They were both interested in the structure of proteins at the same time. Bernal was also a great critic of the work of Dorothy Wrinch as was Pauling. I think that, they undoubtedly communicated, but the on the political side it think it was Bernal’s book that was important. [33:10]
Audience member: I loved your talk, it was a lot of fun, it was great. I had a question though. I always thought that the access that Linus and Ava had to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom had a huge influence on their success because she was national vice president and it’s a huge organization. That was just my interpretation. I was just wondering what you thought about that - how much that contributed to his success.
Tom Hager: There’s so much that I wasn’t able to say within the scope of the talk. I was focusing on Ava Helen’s early influence and she got into WILPF a little bit later. That happened in the later 50’s. They became a tag team of anti-bomb activism later in the 50’s. Her speaking role increased and I think WILPF became more important in the late 50’s. It was certainly important. [34:16]
Chris Petersen: Jane?
Jane Lubchenco: What was the reaction in the scientific community to Pauling’s becoming a more and more popular celebrity and activist?
Tom Hager: Well that’s a tough question to summarize very quickly, but I will say this. There were reactions on any number of levels. I think Pauling suffered tremendous professional damage from his work for peace. The most overt example of that from my research happened at Caltech. The rhetoric of the time was if you criticized the government, you’re in favor of the communists. Therefore, because Pauling was criticizing government nuclear policy, it was assumed that he was a communist. He was pigeon-holed and named a communist by Joe McCarthy, a senator from Wisconsin, and he was vilified in the press. This had a direct effect at Caltech because Caltech is a private institute dependent to a great degree to the largess of wealthy donors, in addition to research funds. Several board members at Caltech were incensed about this loud mouth professor who is out there being a peace activist, so they wanted the administration to do something about it. There’s a whole bunch of background chatter that goes on through the 50’s. Pauling was never fired but he was demoted. That’s my reading of that experience, when in the late 50’s he’s more or less relieved of his chairmanship of the chemistry division at Caltech. I think that that was a direct result. In addition, some of his research grants were pulled, a consultantship with Eli Lily was pulled, and some speaking engagements were revoked. [36:20]
Jane Lubchenco: I’m trying to sort out the reactions of the business community of whom there may have been members of the board as opposed to other scientists. Did that make other scientists less willing to be public? Did they rally to his defense?
Tom Hager: My reading of the period from 1947 to about 1960, over that decade plus in the late 40’s, you had a large movement of scientists in favor of civilian control of atomic weaponry. The Federation of American Scientists, the FAS, was, to a great degree, a political action group of scientists. I’ve never seen anything like it in history. I can’t think of another political action group of that size.I In the late 40’s they were an extremely active membership. As the 50’s went on, the government cracked down on all kinds of criticism and people began to fall away, people began to fall silent. The FAS membership dropped and fewer and fewer scientists were willing to go out and speak the way Pauling spoke. He may have started out in a crowd, but by process of erosion, he ended up being the most prominent. He got a lot of support from some scientists and certainly his petition work, which was vital as another way to get in the newspaper. The petition work was central in gathering support by getting signatures of scientists on a petition saying nuclear testing was bad. They got thousands of signatures. A number of people wrote him and said, "Forget it" as well. Scientists come in all stripes. [38:04]
Chris Petersen: One more quick one, Robert.
Robert Anderson: I wanted to ask about the pre-bomb period. In Britain in the 1930’s, there was an informal group that had been written about in The Visible College by Gary Werskey. This group included Haldane, Needham, Bernal. To some extent, they were obviously influenced by what was going on in the Soviet Union at the time. Was Pauling in that stage, did he develop socialist ideas and was he part of a similar sort of group within the United States or was he an isolated figure?
Tom Hager: I think his political work was often done on his own. He was not much of a joiner but he did join some groups. Pierre Joliet Curie formed an international group that was in line with Bernal’s ideas and Pauling was a member of that briefly. He also joined a group in Hollywood called the ICCASP. It was a left-wing political action group for artists that believed in what was, at the time, of Rooseveltian New Deal politics. Well Rooseveltian New Deal politics became the left wing later on in, my view. He joined a few groups, but he wasn’t a joiner.
Chris Petersen: Thanks, Tom. [Applause] [39:27]
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