Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

“The Life and Work of Linus Pauling (1901-1994): A Discourse on the Art of Biography.”

February 28 - March 2, 1995

Video: “The Bootlegger's Son: Or the Stochastic Method in Biography.” Tom Hager

36:45 - Abstract | Biography | More Videos from Session 2: The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling

Related Names: Linus Pauling


[Introductory remarks by Cliff Mead]

Tom Hager: Although our topic is "The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling," I am going to talk less about the picture that I have formed in the course of writing my book than I am about how I formed it -- how one creates a biography -- and how, in this endeavor, I was helped by Pauling himself.

I will start by outlining three pitfalls that await any biographer rash enough to attempt a life of someone as productive, brilliant, and long-lived as Linus Pauling.

The first comes from a story Pauling told me during one of my interviews. When he was a small boy in Condon, Pauling said, just after the turn of the century he was exploring a building under construction when he was caught by a workman and whipped for trespassing. Pauling remembered that he went home crying, and that his father, incensed when he heard the story, marched down to the local restaurant, found the workman, exchanged words with him, and knocked him down. For disturbing the peace, Pauling remembered, his father was arrested and thrown into jail.

Linus Pauling was a good story-teller, as many of you know, and generally his stories are reliable. Pauling had a phenomenal memory -- this was one of the great tools he had at his disposal as a researcher -- and most often I found his recollections both accurate and surprisingly detailed.

But this particular story is wrong, at least in part. Pauling may have been whipped for trespassing -- trespassing, after all, would be perfectly in character for Pauling, who was punished in various ways for transgressing scientific and political boundaries many times during his life. And his father was arrested around this time, as I found in the court records in Condon. But not for defending his son. Pauling's father was arrested for bootlegging whiskey from his drugstore during a time when a local version of Prohibition was in effect. He was later found innocent.

The disparity between fond memory and fact is one pitfall that awaits all biographers, and I will come back to it later.

The second has to do with fame and faces.

In the early 1960s the physicist Richard Feynman took a trip to Las Vegas, primarily I think to conduct field research into the private lives of showgirls. But on this particular trip, very early one morning he found himself sharing a car ride through the desert with a trio of local prostitutes -- one reason why biographies of Feynman are popular. Small talk in the car turned to the subject of where he worked, and when Feynman told the group that he was a researcher at Caltech, he was surprised to hear one of the women reply, "Oh, isn't that the place where that scientist Pauling comes from?"

Feynman asked them how they knew about Pauling. The women answered that they had read about him in a recent issue of TIME magazine, in a cover story about U.S. science that they had combed through for pictures of the youngest and handsomest researchers. I guess that even at age sixty or so, Pauling stood out in the group.

But the important point here is that a theoretical chemist whose name is known to Las Vegas hookers is a very famous theoretical chemist.

And Pauling was famous, in the way that celebrities are famous: he had a very public life. From the 1950s until now, both because of his scientific and peace work, the public knew Pauling's face and name as they did very few other scientists of this century -- Einstein and Millikan come to mind immediately, and perhaps Teller or Oppenheimer, and a few others.

But Pauling, perhaps more than any other scientist, enjoyed being a public figure, enjoyed the applause and acclaim and attention. He sought it in many cases.

This makes him an interesting biographical figure -- but it also digs the second pitfall for biographers. Public figures have public faces, public personas, that can hide and distort the person beneath. A biographer has to peel through the public layers, and this was difficult with Pauling, because so much of his life was lived publicly.

I have seen Pauling's public face in scores of photos: he had a wide grin; you can see in him an infectious optimism, a self-confidence and joy in people and events. This is all an honest part of Pauling's personality -- but only a part. In one photo from the early 1930s at Caltech, and another from the 1950s with George Beadle, we can see what I call the grin. The grin also appears when he is the happy warrior in the early 1960s giving a message to President Kennedy, and again in the 1990s. Pauling was keenly aware of the camera, and when he knew it was on him, he played to it. I have seen dozens of pictures of that grin; most of them I filed away.

I kept one shot on my desk while I wrote the section of the book dealing with the 1930s and 1940s -- it appears that he is at the Athenaeum at Caltech in the 40's. I looked at it often. It is an interesting sociological document of the time, with the uniformly white, male scientists gathered around a festive table tended by an Asian-American servant.

But I like it because it catches Pauling unawares, and it shows another side of his personality, something of Pauling's private face. This is a penetrating, competitive, critical intellect, someone who is keenly aware of his situation, someone who is watching everyone around him. I think of a bird of prey when I look at that shot, an eagle perhaps, sharp-eyed, ready to do battle; a predator.

I faced the third pitfall more than four years ago when I first entered Cliff Mead's domain in the Pauling Collection here at Oregon State. This pitfall had nothing to do with the facility itself -- one of the nation's most accommodating and the most enjoyable archive in which I have had the pleasure to work but was due to the material it held.

At that time, as I was starting my research for the Pauling book, the collection included more than one hundred twenty-five thousand items -- letters, manuscripts, speeches, transcripts, videos, audio tapes, medals, old schoolbooks, photos -- a number that has now increased significantly.

Naively, I threw myself into this mass of data with the intention of seeing everything. I should have known better. I could have done a quick calculation showing that if I spent only two minutes examining each item, it would take me forty-one hundred hours to see everything -- about two solid years of labor. And that would simply cover this one resource.

Much of Pauling's life was elsewhere. Tens of thousands more documents were stored in filing cabinets and boxes at the Pauling Institute and Pauling's Big Sur ranch and Stanford apartment; Pauling's FBI file alone included twenty-five hundred pages -- a stack about two feet thick -- and there are hundreds of more documents related to Pauling that I retrieved through the Freedom of Information Act from the Department of State, the Army, the CIA, the Air Force, and from Congressional files kept at the National Archives. There were the holdings at Caltech, the Rockefeller Archives, Harvard, MIT, the American Physical Society. There were the hundreds of papers, letters and other published documents and eleven books he wrote. There were hours and hours of interviews with Pauling, and scores of hours of more interviews with colleagues, friends, students and relatives. There were hundreds of background books to read. And so on.

I quickly realized that Pauling accomplished too much over too long a period of time in too many arenas of endeavor. His life can bury a biographer under an avalanche of information.

How does a biographer solve these problems: memory versus fact, public face versus private persona, sculpting a life from a mountain of raw data?

The first approach I took -- one I followed for two years -- was entirely wrong. It came from my academic and writing background, which is rooted in science, particularly microbiology and immunology, and in science journalism.

Journalism itself is the most self-consciously "scientific" of writing forms, a profession that prides itself on objectivity and the dispassionate search for the truth. Many people, from Newt Gingrich on down, realize that this is a sham, that journalists are not all that objective, but many journalists themselves like to think they are.

When I started this project, I intended my biography to be journalistic in its detachment, its calm and complete accounting of the facts. My major model was Daniel Kevles' outstanding book The Physicists, part social history of a discipline, part group biography, masterful in its recounting of the development of physics in America set in context as part of larger American life, an enterprise rooted in and affected by a particular political, economic and social environment.

Pauling's life, too, reflected and was affected by the context of this century. I figured that if I set that context, and then without preconceptions went diligently through every written piece that Linus produced and talked to as many of his friends and colleagues as I could, that the essential man would emerge by itself, like one of those optical illusions that are so popular now, those works of art you see in variety stores that look like meaningless dots of color until you unfocus your eyes and are surprised to see a three-dimensional picture suddenly pop up. That is how Pauling's life would take shape; I thought, if I do a good job of presenting these letters and papers, photos and memories, it would form itself from the raw data.

That was the wrong approach I took, wrong precisely because it involved a lack of preconception; it had no guide. It provided no way to discriminate between the trivial and the vital in that mountain of data; it offered no clue to discriminating between the public and private faces of its subject; in weighing memory versus fact, it provided no scale.

A biographer, I found, can no more expect to recreate a life out of a simple ordering of facts than a scientist can expect to create life from tossing together dry chemicals.

Pauling himself provided a solution.

I was doing my research chronologically, for the most part, wading through everything from birth on, year by year, wanting to see for myself his personality unfold as I learned about his life. I had gotten to the period of the late 1920s, when Pauling returned to Caltech from his first fellowship in Europe, and turned to the problem of the crystal structure of silicates. These were very complex inorganic crystals, far too complex to be solved directly by the crystallographic methods of the day; the X-ray patterns that they provided had too much information in them; they could be interpreted too many different ways.

The way in which Pauling succeeded in solving the structure of the silicates is a wonderful episode in his early scientific career -- for one thing, it marks the start of his long competition with Sir Lawrence Bragg, the final act of which would involve the structure of DNA a quarter-century later -- but an important point for me was what it taught me about Pauling's methodology.

Faced with a confusing welter of information about silicate structure, Pauling found an elegant way to simplify things. He added to the direct method of solving X-ray patterns some new tools. Most important, he used his knowledge of inorganic chemistry to create a set of rules that could be used to predict likely arrangements of atoms, and then created paper models that he folded, and which were sewn together by his wife Ava Helen, to test his structural ideas. Using "Pauling's Rules," as they became known, and his model-building, he cracked the structure of a number of silicates, and became, in his twenties, a rising star of science.

What he had found was that he could eliminate a lot of extraneous work by predicting a single likely structure based on chemical principles and model-building, and then see if his prediction fit the available data. If it did, he could confidently -- for Pauling was always confident -- proclaim it the actual structure and demand that anyone thinking otherwise would have to prove it wrong. It was a wonderful method, for it eliminated the need to study all possible structures and eliminate them one by one, as Bragg's team was in the habit of doing. Pauling instead leaped to the one most likely.

This was an early example of what he would later call his "stochastic" approach to science, from a Greek root meaning "to divine the truth by conjecture."

A better definition of the stochastic method was offered by Pauling's long-time colleague Dick Marsh, who told me, "You get what you think the structure ought to be, and then you see if it is."

Pauling's approach succeeded in expanding the reach of X-ray crystallography, making it possible later to solve the α-helix and the structure of DNA, as Professor Crick has generously pointed out.

And Pauling used it for much more than crystallography. The stochastic approach typified his career in and out of science. He became accustomed to reviewing the facts in a field widely, then forming an overarching theory to accommodate and explain those facts and sticking with it until proven wrong. This was high-wire work without a net, for the stochastic approach requires deep knowledge, wide understanding, and a great deal of bravery -- more bravery than most scientists have, I think.

Pauling's critics called the method nothing more than trial-and-error, guesswork, and Pauling himself sometimes failed with it, most dramatically and publicly with his mistaken model for DNA.

But he succeeded more often.

I am no Linus Pauling. Certainly, very few of us are. But I knew when I read about the silicates that here was a tool I could use as well. I became, as much as I was able, a stochastic biographer.

Faced with the overwhelming amount of available information, I formed a few underlying rules to guide my research. The rules were often those of human nature: scientists, I theorized, perhaps rashly, are like other people; their actions are motivated by the same things that motivate others, a need for physical comfort, love, praise, and professional satisfaction.

In Pauling's case, certain guiding principles appeared prominent to me: he was ambitious -- perhaps more ambitious than most other scientists; he loved public attention; he was impressively stubborn; he had a deep need to explain how things worked, an overriding need to make sense of life; and he believed deeply in the nineteenth century idea that scientists were obligated to serve their fellow humans, to make life better.

And he was, above all, self-confident and prideful in his own abilities.

By using these life-principles in conjunction with my journalistic attempt to paint an accurate, if broader brush picture of Pauling's professional life, I was able to winnow the raw data, playing down offhand, if well-known discoveries in favor of concentrating on perhaps lesser-known areas of interest that show more about Pauling's personal development. I spent relatively less time on the sickle-cell anemia work, for instance, than I did on Pauling's immunological work during World War II, which was vital in developing his ideas about biochemistry.

And a more stochastic approach also gave me a tool for interpretation.

Pauling's memory about his father's arrest, for instance, may have arisen from a white lie his family told him -- it is likely that his mother, who was very concerned about her social position in Condon, might not have wanted Pauling to know his father was an accused bootlegger -- but it was lovingly memorized because it was one of the few examples Pauling had of his father paying much attention to him at all. Pauling's father worked twelve hours a day as a druggist, teaching his son the value of both hard work and the importance of giving a good face to the public, and then died when Pauling was nine. The death of his father was a traumatic and defining event in Pauling's life, one to which can be traced many of his emotional and intellectual characteristics. He spent a good deal of his life looking for surrogate fathers, father-figures that he at first found among his neighbors -- one of whom got him interested in Greek; then his teachers -- his high-school chemistry teacher was one; and later among men like Einstein, who served as Pauling's political father.

It is this nine-year-old boy, bereft of a father, left in the care of a sickly and unloving mother, a mother who did not understand education or science, who constantly nagged her son, and who died in an insane asylum, who became Linus Pauling. It is this boy who developed a steely confidence in himself because no one around him had any. It is this boy, faced with a confusing and heartless world, who would spend his life trying to make sense of things, working to bring order and rationality into the world. It is this suffering boy whose guiding ethical principle was that of lessening suffering.

Linus Pauling is a fascinating and wonderful person, and I am deeply grateful to have had the chance to have known him a little and to have written a biography of him.


Watch Other Videos

Session 1: Linus C. Pauling Day Lecture

Session 2: The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling

Session 3: The Personal View of Linus Pauling and His Work

Session 4: Historians and Contemporary Scientific Biography

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