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 Biographical Quest: Some Personal Reflections of a Pauling Biographer on the Art and Science of Scientific Biography.” Robert Paradowski

59:04 - Abstract | Biography | More Videos from Session 2: The Biographer's Picture of Linus Pauling

Related Names: Linus Pauling


[Introductory remarks by Cliff Mead]

"Whatever forms biography may assume in the future, it will always be a difficult form of art. We demand of it the scrupulosity of science and the enchantment of art, the perceptible truth of the novel and the learned falsehoods of history. Much prudence and tact are required to concoct this unstable mixture. Carlyle said that a well-written life was almost as rare as a well-spent one, thus showing himself as much an optimist in his criticism as he was a pessimist in his ethics. A well-written life is a much rarer thing than a well-spent one. But, however difficult biography may be, it merits the devotion of our toil and of our emotions. The cult of the hero is as old as mankind. It sets before men examples which are lofty but not inaccessible, astonishing but not incredible, and it is this double quality which makes it the most convincing of art forms and the most human of religions."
André Maurois, Aspects of Biography, 1929. 

Robert Paradowski: The biographical quest of my title might also be called the impossible dream. It is, of course, the attempt of one or more persons to discover the truth about another human being. As the epigraph from Maurois brings out, this task entails nearly insuperable difficulties. Not only are human beings creatures of such layered complexities that no accumulation of detail, however exhaustive, is ever able to comprehend them fully, but these same human beings also interact with other enigmatic individuals in ways that multiply still further these complexities. Therefore, if our quest is for the truth about a human being, it is doomed to be quixotic.

Some analysts of science, for example, Sir Karl Popper, have insisted that the scientist's quest for unreformable truths about the natural world is unrealistic, since every scientific statement must remain forever tentative.1 Nevertheless, Popper saw great advantages, even nobility in scientists' pursuing this quest, as does Maurois for biographical truth, since these truths about nature and about the lives of our fellow human beings help us to transcend the limitations of our evolved state and merit our name as homo sapiens.

In this paper I shall be analyzing a subspecies of biography called scientific biography. I cannot, in the time allotted me, present a systematic examination of this genre in the way that Leon Edel has studied literary biography in his Writing Lives: Principia Biographica.2 What I hope to do, however, is to use my experiences as a scientific biographer to explore some of the problems and the potential of this relatively new type of biography, and I hope that these explorations will clear the way for solving at least some of the problems and helping biographers improve the quality of the lives of scientists they compose.

Welles' Citizen Kane and Edel's "Figure Under the Carpet"

Near the start of Orson Welles' classic American film Citizen Kane (1941), the press tycoon of the title utters the word "rosebud" and dies.3 A reporter is given the job of discovering who this man was and why "rosebud" was his last word. After much interviewing and investigating, the reporter fails in his quest, but, as workmen throw into a furnace some of the discards of the vast treasures Kane has accumulated throughout his life, the audience learns that a sled he had used as a boy has the word and image of a rosebud painted on it.

Welles hoped that viewers would use this image of the burning sled as a key to unlock some of the secrets of Kane's life and career. Film-makers, novelists, and biographers realize that human beings rarely govern themselves by abstractions. Concrete things -- people, possessions, experiences -- give meaning to their lives. Linus Pauling often pointed to his experience of a concrete chemical reaction -- sulfuric acid dropped onto a mixture of sugar and potassium chlorate -- as the origin of his desire to become a chemist.

Leon Edel, the dean of American biographers, has written that the goal of the biographer's quest is the resolution of the tension between "the mask" and "the figure under the carpet."4 The mask is the face that the subject puts on for the world, and the figure under the carpet is the "life-myth" of an individual. Just as the figure under a carpet structures the design in the carpet above, so the person's hidden myth explains the patterns in his statements and actions. If a biographer understands this distinction and what it means for a particular person, he will then ask the right questions and be able to separate the essential in his subject's life from the trivial. To help understand what Edel means by this hidden personal myth, I shall use Ernest Hemingway as an example. The mask was the Ernest Hemingway we all know -- his hunting, fishing, drinking, fighting as well as his boastfulness and his women. As a novelist, he wanted to out-write his competitors, and in his life he strove to follow a code of courage: grace under pressure. This basic, direct, even excessive masculinity is his manifest myth or mask. To get at the hidden myth, Edel asks: What is Hemingway telling us in all his books and other activities? By seeking out situations that tested his perseverance and courage, Hemingway was trying to provide assurance to a troubled and insecure man, and this uncertain creature was Hemingway's hidden myth.

Scientific biographers have used an approach similar to Edel's. For example, Roger Highfield and Paul Carter, in their Private Lives of Albert Einstein, play on the contrast between the gentle, wise, humanistic physicist and pacifist (Einstein's public mask) and the adulterous, egomaniacal misogynist who probably beat his first wife Mileva Marić (the self that Einstein kept hidden form the world).5 I doubt whether this contrast explains or enlightens us about Einstein's scientific creations. Indeed, biographers searching for their subject's secret self often fall into the traps of dangerous psychologizing or committing the genetic fallacy -- that is, trying to explain a certain behavior of their subject by appealing to its origins in his past. Sometimes a person's statements or actions, when properly interpreted, do disclose a meaning hidden from the subject and from ordinary observers, but other times certain statements and actions must be taken at their face value, as expressions of straightforward aims or desires.

Incidentally, this search for the secret self occasionally entails moral and legal problems. As you are probably aware, Citizen Kane was based, despite Welles' public protestations to the contrary, on the life of William Randolph Hearst, who was deeply offended by how Welles depicted him in the film. Hearst tried all kinds of threats, including blackmail, to stop Welles and RKO from releasing the picture. I am sure that Einstein would have been deeply angered by the Highfield and Carter book, for he once stated that the public had no right to the intimate lives of great scientists. Individuals and families have threatened several biographers with legal action if they published their revelations about a public figure's private life. This question -- how far can a public figure go to prohibit writers from appropriating the facts of his or her life and inserting them into a narrative of their own design? -- remains controversial.

Kurosawa's Rashomon and Kauffmann's Trans-Relativism

Another classic film, Rashomon, by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, involves several narratives.6 In one account a bandit encounters a young married couple in the forest and kills the husband, a samurai, and rapes his wife, but when the wife, the dead husband, the bandit, and a woodcutter recount the events, their stories are vastly different; for example, the samurai's death could be due to a fair fight, suicide, or murder. This variety of accounts raises the question of which version is true. Perhaps these people have slanted their stories so that they appear noble and the others weak and foolish. As Kurosawa portrays them, the characters seem unable to exist without their lies because these lies help create their self-images. Biographers encounter the same epistemological dilemma when they discover several versions of an event and are unable to determine with certainty what actually happened.

In his interpretation of the movie the critic Stanley Kauffmann believes that the human ego plays a major role in motivating the irreconcilable versions of the crime. He claims that the film goes beyond relativism to expose the "element that generates the relativism: the element of ego, of self."7 Therefore Rashomon is about the human selfishness that seduces people into defending their actions, no matter how outrageous. Despite difficulties in determining which version of the events to believe, human beings, in their day-to-day lives, have to make choices and commitments, just as biographers do. In what some critics see as a tacked-on optimistic ending of the film, Kurosawa shows the people who are puzzled by the conflicting stories making a moral choice and revealing their faith in humanity. This choice forges (or imposes) a moral meaning in a world that Kurosawa has depicted as chaotic, enigmatic, and uncertain.

I once mentioned to Linus Pauling the difficulties I was encountering in resolving contradictory accounts of one of the events of his life. He told me that it was all right to investigate these various accounts as long as I realized that his version was the correct one, and then he laughed heartily. He could also be amusingly ironic about the tendency of scientists to slant their stories to the occasion. At his eighty-fifth birthday celebration at the California Institute of Technology, after listening to several highly complimentary versions of his life and work, he began his remarks in response by saying how grateful he was to hear so many delightful lies about himself. On other occasions he communicated his realization that scientists often have different stories about how important discoveries were made. A recent example of this is Herman Branson's and Pauling's incompatible versions of how the α-helix was discovered.

In the early history of biography truth was not the biographer's principal duty. When biographers told the lives of kings and other powerful figures in ancient times, the tone was celebratory and the goal was glorification. Since faults and failings were not part of these portraits, the full truth about these August personages was suppressed. Similarly, hagiographers of the Middle Ages recounted lives of saints to edify the faithful, and they mentioned human flaws because they illustrated how God's grace and human effort could transform these faults into virtues. Modern biographers strive to be accurate in recording the actions and recreating the personality of an individual life, but they, too, have to choose which facts and which interpretations of the facts to use. Since publishers and the public pressure writers not to be boring, biographers may succumb to the temptation to distort or even fabricate events, and idealize or vilify their subjects.

Hagiography and Pathography

Modern biography can be seen as oscillating between the extremes of hagiography and pathography. In its evolution, hagiography developed two meanings: first, and most simply, the biography of a saint; a second (and now dominant) meaning is a worshipful or idealizing biography. Ava Helen Pauling felt that any biography of her husband should be "an edifying one," as she cautioned me at a Linus Pauling Institute picnic. This was not my own view of biography, which I thought should disturb as well as enlighten. When I gave Pauling the first volume of my biography of his life, I assumed that he would also give it to Ava Helen to read, but he did not, because he was "afraid it would upset her."

Louis Pasteur, the centenary of whose death will be commemorated this year, has been the subject of several hagiographers. They have represented him as an appealing personality, a chivalrous patriot, and a munificent benefactor of humanity. For them he was an eloquent champion of laboratories as the new temples of humanity, and for many he came to embody the hope that science would solve all problems and that scientists would inspire all people with their ideals of reason, cooperation, and justice. Those biographers who have resisted the temptation to idealize Pasteur have had a difficult time convincing people that he was not a saint, that his numerous polemical publications suggest a quarrelsomeness that belies his idealized image.

Pauling admired Pasteur very much, and in fact saw many similarities between their careers. Pasteur was a chemist who made valuable contributions to medicine, a judgement that Pauling hoped posterity would make about him. Pauling was also very idealistic about science, believing that it was a progressive force and that scientists could bring about a peaceful world ruled by reason. His wife once told me that she was not as idealistic about science and scientists as her husband. In her experience she found scientists who were liars, cheats, and thieves, and she proceeded to give me specific examples of each of these epithets. I recently wrote an essay review of Naturalist, an autobiography by Edward O. Wilson. Though a prominent evolutionary biologist appreciative of science's great achievements, Wilson shares Ava Helen Pauling's pessimism about scientists, who, for Wilson, are arrogant, poorly socialized, and "tricksters of the arcane."8 This Southerner, who claims that scientists lack the civility in discourse that he was raised to practice, calls James Watson "the most unpleasant human being" he has ever met.9

This tendency of emotions to pull biographical interpretations to negative extremes has recently found expression in a new term. In a review of a biography of the writer Jean Stafford, Joyce Carol Oates, the novelist and Princeton professor, defined "pathography" as a mean-spirited biography that focuses on its subject's defects and failings:10

"Its motifs are dysfunction and disaster, illnesses and pratfalls, failed marriages and failed careers, alcoholism and breakdowns and outrageous conduct. Its scenes are sensational, wallowing in squalor and foolishness; its dominant images are physical and deflating; its shrill theme is 'failed promise' if not outright 'tragedy.'"

Pathography has also influenced the writing of scientific biographies. I have already mentioned The Private Lives of Albert Einstein` by Roger Highfield and Paul Carter. In the years after Einstein's death Otto Nathan and Helen Dukas, to whom Einstein had bequeathed control of his entire literary estate, devoted themselves to enhancing his reputation and created an idealized image of the great scientist. Much to the displeasure of Einstein biographers, they suppressed, censored, or controlled crucial documents. When, after the deaths of Nathan and Dukas, information about Einstein's illegitimate daughter, his cruelty and abuse of Mileva Marić , his adulteries, and his neglect of his two sons became public, it made the front pages of newspapers all over the world. These revelations would doubtless have displeased Einstein, but engraved around the marble wall circling the statue of Albert Einstein in front of the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, D.C., are his words: "The right to search for truth implies also a duty. One must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true." Einstein was, of course, thinking about truths of the physical universe, but do not biographers have a similar duty to tell the essential truths about their subjects?

With this tension between biographers and overseers of papers in mind, it is easy to see why some critics have a less than favorable opinion of biographers. They see practitioners of this genre as vultures who feed off the flesh of the dead. Others characterize biographers as parasites, drawing sustenance through the life of their subjects. Perhaps symbiosis would be a more accurate image than parasitism, since subjects use biographers just as biographers use subjects. Sigmund Freud wrote that most biographers were contaminated by infantile needs and wishes. To gratify these needs biographers idealize their subjects into unreality. They obliterate their subject's imperfections, smooth over his life's struggles, and present to their readers a cold, abstract, and idealized figure, instead of a warm, concrete human being to whom his fellow humans might feel some affinity. These idealizing biographers thereby sacrifice truth to an illusion.

Hagiographical and pathographical tendencies affect many of the biographies being written today. Subjects may be sanctified or diabolized, depending on the attitude of the author. In the pathographies the biographer in effect puts his subject on trial and convicts him, with no defense permitted. The pathographers so emphasize the faults of their subjects that they leave unexplained how such an undistinguished life could produce such a distinguished body of work. A malevolence that troubles me infects these pathographies. I am reminded of Pierre Auguste Renoir's criticism of Émile Zola's naturalistic writings. Zola thought that he had successfully depicted human beings when he showed that they smelled. Renoir, many of whose paintings radiate sunniness and optimism, obviously found this view of human nature distasteful. On the other hand, Leo Tolstoy, although revolted by what he saw as the great nastiness, even criminality of his own life, felt that his biographer would have to include all these negative things, for without them the biography would be a lie.

At an early stage of the writing of my biography of Pauling, I was having difficulty with what to do about what those close to him saw as his imperfections and failings, but whenever I brought these to his attention, he always defended himself adeptly and managed to mitigate their bite. As time went on, I began to wonder: Did he believe that all these criticisms from family, friends, and colleagues were wrong? So I asked him if he considered himself a saint. He said no, that he was very far from being a saint. I went on to ask what he considered to be his principal faults. He did not want to discuss them, fearing that, because of the subtlety and pervasiveness of human selfishness, the faults he did mention might conceal much deeper ones. I was impressed by his answer, which reminded me of the writings of such great saints as John of the Cross, who saw themselves in a never-ending struggle with their own great selfishness. If Pauling was unwilling to analyze his faults, he nevertheless expected critical analysis from his biographer. As he wrote to me in 1978: "There is no reason why statements critical of me should not be published."11 He certainly did not like having his faults pointed out, but when these criticisms were reasonably and compassionately treated, he seemed to accept them, even finding them helpful at times.

A concrete example of these criticisms is Pauling's egocentrism, which some found charming and others such a pervasive and corrupting part of his personality as to vitiate his worth as a good human being. An example of the first attitude was a member of the Linus Pauling Institute who told me that Pauling had the "knack" of turning whatever anyone said to him into himself in some way. If he could not do this, then he would quickly become bored and uninterested in the conversation. This observer assured me that he did not intend his remarks as a criticism of Pauling; they were simply a matter of objective description. To this person Pauling was, in his vanity, like a child, and no more to be condemned for it than a child would be. It was simply part of his nature, even part of his charm. Another person at the Institute once told me that the reason I got along so well with Pauling was that I was interested in a topic that utterly fascinated Pauling, namely, himself.

On the other hand, Pauling's self-centeredness was not so attractive to other members of his Institute. One person, whom I interviewed after he had left the Institute, had become discouraged with his relationship with Pauling because he could not get Pauling interested in any of his ideas. According to him, Pauling would pay only perfunctory attention to what he was doing. He recalled that the only time Pauling grew animated in a conversation was when he mentioned molybdenite. Then Pauling's interest was whetted, and this was, of course, because Pauling had written his first scientific paper on the crystal structure of molybdenite.

Biography as an Art

Many historians of the genre claim that modern biography began with Lytton Strachey. Before Strachey, British biographies tended to be long, boring, and adulatory. After his Eminent Victorians (1918), in which he composed brief, ironic portraits whose purpose was to reveal his subjects, warts and all, biographies became more pointed, irreverent, and objective. Strachey realized that biography was a demanding discipline, since a good biographer had to combine the narrative skills of the novelist, the investigatory talents of the detective, and the long-suffering compassion of the priest. The biographer also had to overcome the tendency of subjects to clean up their past. Charles Dickens and Henry James destroyed many of their letters. When a historian chided one of the first ladies of our country about the papers of her husband that she was destroying, "Madam, think of posterity," she replied: "That's just what I am thinking about." Furthermore, the modern biographer has a heightened awareness that eminent people are prone to fabrication. Mark Twain could not resist a good story about himself, even if he had to invent it. William Faulkner created a distinguished war record for himself, as did Ernest Hemingway. I remember having had great difficulty in confirming a story that Pauling had told me, and when I brought this up with him, he admitted that the story was not true. When I asked him where he got the names and incidents, he said, "I made them up," and laughed.

Making things up is part of art, and one of the definitions of art is the conscious arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, or, in the case of literary works, words in a way that causes aesthetic emotion. The novelist, for example, can invent facts, characters, and situations to tell a particular story, but the biographer may not invent facts, anecdotes, or anything else. Lives are filled with millions of facts, but the art in writing biography comes in selecting the essential facts and discarding the irrelevant. Paul Claudel said that "nothing unessential" is the first condition of art. In writing a life the biographer has to know all that he can about his subject, but his reader needs to know only what moves the subject's life story forward. The biographer has to deal with actual human beings who are often enigmatic and who lead lives filled with great disorder, but the biographer's task is to find his subject's story amid the chaos of everyday life and make it meaningful by revivifying persons, places, and times that have vanished.

Pauling himself found it difficult to write even short biographies. He realized that there's was a difference between formulating a coherent interpretation of the subject and pelting the reader with fact after fact. For example, he agreed to write a biographical memoir of Peter Debye for the British Royal Society. While a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology, Pauling had written a paper with Debye, and he had met him again when he was a Guggenheim Fellow in Europe in the middle 1920s. But he did not really know Debye well. Nevertheless, he collected information from what had already been written by and about Debye, and he obtained copies of his correspondence. Despite his efforts, he was unable to satisfy himself that he understood Debye's life and career. So after a year, he wrote to the Royal Society that he wouldn't be able to write the Debye memoir. As he told me in a 1972 interview:12

They were angry with me because they like to get out the biographical memoirs fast. I just find it hard to do. There's so much.... Well, a man's life is so complicated, full of events, too. In general someone else has so little knowledge about what is done.

Pauling found difficulty in the first stage of the art of biography, collecting data, but the next stage is even more difficult -- assessing the information, finding what is relevant and meaningful, and then writing about all this in an interesting way. Perhaps we can learn something from portrait painters, who also try to create a work of art from the complexities of an individual person. John Singer Sargent gave a memorable definition of his craft when he said that a portrait is "a painting with a little something wrong about the mouth." He had obviously experienced problems in pleasing his clients, and, indeed, it at first appears impossible to paint a living face, since its expression constantly changes, as does the light illuminating it. However, as with biography, so with portraiture, selection is the key.

I am particularly fond of Rembrandt van Rijn's series of self-portraits. In more than seventy-five self-portraits, from the outset of his career in the 1620s to a last one in the year of his death, he honestly chronicled his life, from the rebellious young man, impatient with convention, through his years of bourgeois prosperity, to his frank portrayal of the gradual decline of his body and spirit. These portraits reveal his keen eye for detail and his deep religious faith. Because of this faith, he felt a profound artistic responsibility to tell the truth about his subject, even when it was himself. He did not disguise weakness and imperfections, since he believed that these were the raw material for God's grace. His self-portraits penetrate so deeply into what was human about him that these paintings capture the universal: not only is he describing his personal pilgrimage but that of all humanity.

Like the portrait painter, the biographer must pick out the essential qualities in his subject and shape them through an interpretive scheme that captures the subject's personality and behavior. I am not sure if there exists one best interpretation of a particular subject's life and career. Complex lives may support several interpretations, each of which may entail dangers of finding certainty where none exists, of distorting facts and events to make the subject's life fit the procrustean bed of an interpretive hypothesis. The biographer may prune the complexities of his subject's life to fit his model rather than designing a model that will bring out the rich meanings of his subject's life. With all these problems, it is indeed remarkable that at least some biographers occasionally reach the heights of the great novelists and artists.

Biography as a Science

This conference emphasizes the art of biography, but biography shares with science such principles as impartiality, objectivity, and faithfulness to evidence. Science is concerned with discovering the truth about the world, and biography is concerned with discovering the truth about a person. Some of the techniques used by the biographer and scientist are the same. For example, I remember using ultraviolet and infrared light to see more clearly the dates on one of Pauling's old passports. Some scientists go so far as to say that biography will eventually be totally scientific. Edward O. Wilson, for instance, believes that biography will become part of ethology, that is, the study of animal behavior. Others wonder whether studies of the molecular structures of the brain or the internal secretions of the body will ever satisfactorily explain the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a human being.

How closely can biography come to being a science? I have studied Pauling's medical records from various periods of his life, and in the future biographers may well have access to detailed analyses of their subject's DNA. Nevertheless, even assuming that the scientific study of human beings makes great progress and we develop ways of acquiring and interpreting data from the scientific analyses of brains and bodies, will this information help us understand the truth about a human being? Will the science of biography destroy its art? Since biographical truth deals with a kind of totality different from that pursued by the chemist and physicist, I think not.

Scientific Biography

As Derek de Solla Price has shown, we live in an age of science, since more than half the total number of scientists who ever lived are alive today.13 With this heightened importance of science in the twentieth century, it would seem that there would be an equally intense need for scientific biographies, but, as Colin Russell pointed out a few years ago in his Dexter Award Address, the public and the scientific profession have dealt unfairly with the scientist, especially the chemist. Russell believes that far too little attention has been paid to the lives and insights of scientists. Only a few scientific biographies have been widely read, for example, Ronald Clark's Einstein, the Life and Times and James Gleick's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.14 The public's lack of interest might be explained by the traditional anti-intellectualism in American life or by the recent disenchantment with science that several critics have noticed. Jacob Bronowski attributed scientists' disinterest in the past to their habit of living in the future, but I suppose some of it might be explained by the great demands on the time of most scientists.

People have been writing lives of scientists since the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As several scholars have noted, most of these biographies have serious limitations.15 Some were written to meet particular needs of family, profession, or country; others were written by retired scientists, and this perhaps explains why their quality tended to be low, since scientists have not usually been well trained in writing, history, and biography. Twentieth century scientific biography has been an improvement over what was written in previous centuries, but the genre still does not rival its competitors in literary and political biography. In the long history of the Pulitzer Prizes, no award has ever been given to a scientific biography.

Like literary and political biography, scientific biography has passed through phases, though these are not well-defined enough to be termed "biographical paradigms." These changes become obvious when one compares biographies from different periods, for example, David Brewster's two-volume nineteenth century work on Newton with Richard Westfall's Never at Rest, published in 1980.16 Data dismissed in one period as obscure and uninteresting become in a later period the source of probing new studies and insights. During the Victorian age in England, the self-help biography was popular. The lives of scientists and engineers provided models for how people could use scientific and technical education to advance economically and socially. After the psychological work of Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalytic biography became influential, first outside of science (e.g., Erik Erikson's studies of Luther and Gandhi), but then for scientific figures (e.g., Frank E. Manuel's A Portrait of Isaac Newton).17 Manuel's psychoanalytic approach helped readers understand Newton's deep insecurities, but he failed to integrate satisfactorily Newton's scientific and mathematical work into his psychological portrayal.

Horace Freeland Judson, who interviewed Pauling for his Eighth Day of Creation, felt that "writing the life of a great scientist presents the most difficult challenge a biographer can encounter."18 This was because a biographer has to master the personal development of the scientist, the evolution of his work, and the complex intellectual, historical, and social environment within which the life and work occurred. Furthermore, any reasonably complete account of a great scientist's life has to have organizing themes powerful enough to unify widely disparate material. In his review of Richard Westfall's biography of Isaac Newton, Judson admired the massive amount of research that went into the composition of this gigantic book, but he still considered it a failure because he felt that Westfall had not found a theme to unify the multifarious materials he had collected.19

One of the principal problems besetting scientific biographers is what to do with the science. Some biographers solve this problem the way J.R.R. Tolkien thought that literary biographers should manage the works of their subjects -- just leave them out (Tolkien felt strongly that "investigation of an author's biography is an entirely vain and false approach to his works").20 Hence the life is best handled in a biography whereas the work is best handled in a separate treatise. If biographers include analyses of the scientific work in their scientific biographies, the sine qua non is that they should know what they are talking about. They must understand the facts and theories and be able to communicate these things clearly and accurately to their intended audience. The Pauling biographer is confronted with an especially difficult task since Pauling made important contributions to such a wide variety of fields, including X-ray crystallography, quantum mechanics, the chemical bond, immunology, and molecular medicine. It has been said that to write properly the life of Linus Pauling would require another Linus Pauling, but we have seen that this would not solve the problem since Pauling himself was not adept at biographical analysis. Another possible way around this difficulty has been dual authorship as seen, for example, in two recent biographies of Albert Einstein. In Einstein: A Life in Science, a scientist, John Gribbin, and a biographer of Mozart and John Lennon, Michael White, divided their task in half, with Gribbin writing the science chapters and White the strictly biographical chapters.21 Unfortunately their approach fails because their book, which is really two books interleaved together, lacks a unified theme and coherent tone and design. In The Private Lives of Albert Einstein Paul Carter, a journalist, and Roger Highfield, a science editor, combine their efforts to give a general audience the first detailed analysis of new documents uncovered in the early published volumes of the Einstein Papers Project. As mentioned earlier, this book suffers from a tendency toward pathography and has the further difficulty of the Einstein Papers Project being incomplete (only five volumes of a work that will have more than twenty). Thus any account of Einstein's life and work at this stage is bound to be preliminary. Since many Pauling papers are not yet here in the Pauling archives at Oregon State University, the same could be said for any Pauling biography.

Besides the science, another problem confronting the scientific biographer is how to relate his subject to the social, economic, and cultural currents of his time. In the recent Darwin biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore the social and political analyses become the interpretive framework for unifying Darwin's life and work.22 Although Pauling was not as socially embedded a scientist as Darwin, he was still affected by the social and political climate of his times. McCarthyism, anti-Semitism, and sexism are just some of the social concerns that had a significant influence on the course of his life. I only have time to discuss briefly one specific example, anti-Semitism. I was surprised to read letters here in the archives at Oregon State in which Pauling went along with the practice of not suggesting his Jewish doctoral and postdoctoral students to the universities that did not want Jews on their faculty. When I asked him about this, Pauling said he was not proud of what he had done. He also told me that for many years he experienced deep guilt about not doing more to help Jewish crystallographers get out of Europe in the period just before the start of World War II.

From the examples of scientific biography that I have discussed, it should be clear that no single ideal type of the genre exists. Some critically successful scientific biographies were intended for specialists, for example, the first volume of Martin Klein's biography of Paul Ehrenfest. Many other scientific biographies have been written with a general audience in mind. Even though relatively few of these reach their intended readers, they continue to be written. Biographers seem to want to inform as many people as possible about what a small group of their fellow human beings -- the great scientists -- are doing. Some want to share the struggles and satisfactions that scientists experience in their lives and discoveries. The joy of a great insight may not give as much pleasure when experienced secondhand as it did for the scientist who first created it, but vicarious scientific creativity can still be quite exhilarating. The job of the scientific biographer can therefore be rewarding. A large part of life continues to take place in secret, in the minds and hearts of creative people, and one of the gratifications in composing the lives of our species' great creators is that we cannot always predict, given an initial state, what will happen, or why.


In my account of the state of scientific biography and my analysis of biography as an art and science, I have so emphasized the difficulties of the genre that some may wonder if I believe that it is worth pursuing. I do, because I am convinced that biographies satisfy deep needs in human beings. We are naturally curious about our fellow human beings, and we want to know what their lives were and are like, particularly those lives that achieved a level of greatness. I suppose we hope that the personalities and life experiences of great scientists will be just as admirable as their scientific works which we have grown to esteem.

Besides this idealistic motivation, we have to confess that another impelling force is at work. The biographer also wants to bring his subject nearer to himself and his readers. But how can the distance separating the hero or heroine from us be reduced? One way is to depose the great scientist from his exalted state. It is probably unavoidable that as we discover more about a great scientist's life, we shall also learn of times during which he has done no better than we, has in fact done worse. Despite these revelations of weakness, the efforts of the biographer should be compassionate. We are all sinners, to use a theological category. Our attitude toward fathers, mothers, political leaders, and heroes is, after all, ambivalent, since our veneration of them often contains an element of rebellion. Albert Camus wrote of human beings as rebels, and they cannot change this characteristic without forcibly suppressing some basic truth about themselves.

When a reader enters the world of a biographer, he or she becomes involved in the writer's imagination, and thus part of two lives. A biographer and his subject become twins who will remain together until the story he has told vanishes from libraries, computers, or human memory. In my dissertation I stated that biography is ultimately one life filtered through the life and experiences of another.23 How curious, enjoyable, and sometimes terrifying it is that as one writes or reads a person's life, those experiences become part of the writer or reader, to treasure, to contemplate, sometimes to live, or perhaps to use in the search for his or her own fate. If the biographer does his job right, he will balance empathy and objectivity. He will get close enough to his subject to understand his thoughts and feelings, but he will remain far enough away to render facts and events clearly and without distortion. When a biographer makes a step too far toward self-justifying patronage of his subject or toward a bloodless detachment, he may lose his balance and irredeemably destroy the story he is telling. If he manages to avoid extremes and keep his balance throughout the treacherous difficulties plaguing the writing of biography, then he will be able to convey to his fellow humans that most precious of gifts understanding and the reader will have an examined life worth experiencing again and again.

This examination of selves that the biographer is engaged in is a never-ending process. New evidence, new attitudes, a new way of looking at things in a new historical period often justify reconsiderations of portraits composed in the past. But these redrawn portraits are still not the last word, since future generations will have the right, even the duty, to reconsider the lives of what has become their past. This process of continual assessment and reassessment is part of science as well. I have seen papers of Pauling in which he is assessing well-known scientists in terms of the quantity and quality of their publications, with the view to ranking them for a particular award. This type of evaluation helps generate the system of stratification within science. Historians of science have a similar task of ranking scientists of the past, for example, for their inclusion in reference works (when the length of their articles also becomes an issue). I have received lists of scientists from encyclopedia publishers, asking if I would object if particular past scientists were dropped from a new edition. Science is not a democracy, and neither scientists nor historians of science send out ballots to decide who is a great scientist and whose work is deemed significant. Pauling was a defender of the "great-man" theory of history and the intellectual elitism of science. For him, and others like him, a third-rate scientist simply does not have as much right to an opinion as Einstein. Just as there is a pecking order in contemporary science, so, too, historians of science are the overseers of this order for past scientists. Sometimes this order is relatively stable, but revisionists have occasionally caused a dramatic reordering or the insertion of new members into this scientific hierarchy.

Biography therefore shares with the rest of human knowledge a characteristic incompleteness. The world of knowledge cannot provide us with an unchangeably firm foundation, since it shifts from moment to moment. One of the traits of our humanity is that we constantly change our collective mind. Even the imposing edifice of modern science, which has been erected over the past four centuries can change radically in a short period of time, as Thomas S. Kuhn has analyzed in his work on scientific revolutions. Human knowledge does not stay put, and neither does scientific or biographical knowledge.

Toward the end of one of our conversations, I mentioned to Pauling how difficult it was to come to the final truth about someone's life. One discovery always seems to lead to so many others that the process appears endless. Pauling responded that "since so much depends on the memories" of himself and others, "one may never get at the complete truth."24 Humility seems to be the proper stance, since many biographical facts and events exist that are inaccessible to the biographer. Some of these may be temporarily inaccessible, and a new biographer may be clever or persistent enough to uncover them, but we have to be reconciled to the situation that many of them are permanently inaccessible. The biographer is therefore reduced to using only parts of a real past in the construction of his story.

Some existentialists have distinguished between problem and mystery. For them, a problem is something for the intellect to solve, such as finding the solution to a mathematical puzzle, but before the ultimate mystery of the human being, they hold that the proper attitude is one of reverence, so overwhelming is the object of their inquiry. Biographers can solve some problems related to their subjects' lives, but I doubt that they will ever solve the basic mystery of human existence. The best that the biographer can do is convey to the reader that someone lived a life before him, accomplished some things, failed at others, was happy, sad, did foolish and wise things, endured, suffered, and died. As long as people remain interested in other people, biographies will be written and read, and the biographical quest will continue.


  1. See Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (New York, Toronto, and London: Harper and Row, 1959). This is an English translation by Popper, with the assistance of Julius Freed and Lan Freed, of the German work Logik der Forschung, originally published in Vienna in 1935. Return to text ↑
  2. Leon Edel, Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (New York and London: Norton, 1984). Return to text ↑
  3. The literature on Orson Welles and Citizen Kane is immense. I have read Barbara Leaming, Orson Welles: A Biography (New York: Penguin, 1986) and Pauline Kael, Raising Kane: The Citizen Kane Book (Boston: Little Brown, 1971). I have also used the article on Welles in John Wakeman, ed., World Film Directors, Volume One, 1890-1945 (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), 1168-1185. Return to text ↑
  4. Leon Edel, "The Figure Under the Carpet" in Marc Pachter, ed., Telling Lives: The Biographer's Art (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), 16ff. Return to text ↑
  5. Roger Highfield and Paul Carter, The Private Lives of Albert Einstein (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993). Return to text ↑
  6. A considerable literature exists about Rashomon. I have used Donald Richie, The Films of Akira Kurosawa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984) and the same author's Focus on Rashomon (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972). Return to text ↑
  7. Stanley Kauffmann, Living Images (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 319. Return to text ↑
  8. Edward O. Wilson, Naturalist (Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 1994), 27. Return to text ↑
  9. Ibid, 219. Return to text ↑
  10. Joyce Carol Oates, Book Review of Jean Stafford: A Biography by David Roberts, The New York Times Book Review, Vol. XCIII, No. 25 (August 28, 1988): 3. Return to text ↑
  11. Letter, Linus C. Pauling to Robert J. Paradowski, November 6, 1978. Return to text ↑
  12. Interview of Linus C. Pauling by Robert J. Paradowski at Stanford University on April 5, 1972. This interview was taped and transcribed. Return to text ↑
  13. Derek de Solla Price, Little Science, Big Science, and Beyond (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986). Return to text ↑
  14. Ronald Clark, Einstein, the Life and Times (New York: World Publishing, 1971) and James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992). Return to text ↑
  15. J.Z. Fullmer, "Davy's Biographers: Notes on Scientific Biography" in Science, Vol. 155 (January 20, 1967), 285-291. Return to text ↑
  16. Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980). Return to text ↑
  17. Frank E. Manuel, A Portrait of Isaac Newton (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968). Return to text ↑
  18. Horace Freeland Judson, "On the Shoulders of Giants" (Book Reviews of I. Bernard Cohen, The Newtonian Revolution: With Illustrations of the Transformation of Scientific Ideas and Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton) in The Sciences (January 1982): 21. Return to text ↑
  19. Ibid., 22. Return to text ↑
  20. "John Ronald Reuel Tolkien" in Marshall B. Tymn, Roger C. Schlobin, and L.W. Currey, eds., A Research Guide to Science Fiction Studies: An Annotated Checklist of Primary and Secondary Sources for Fantasy and Science Fiction (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1977), 97. Return to text ↑
  21. Michael White and John Gribbin, Einstein: A Life in Science (New York: Dutton, 1993). Return to text ↑
  22. Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist (New York and London: Norton, 1991). Return to text ↑
  23. Robert J. Paradowski, The Structural Chemistry of Linus Pauling (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1972), iv. Return to text ↑
  24. Interview of Linus C. Pauling by Robert J. Paradowski on January 19, 1982. Interview is recorded in a journal kept by R.J. Paradowski at the Linus Pauling Institute. Return to text ↑


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