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Linus Pauling's Notebooks Now Available on the Web

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 7, 2002
 
How does the mind of a great scientist work? If you've ever wanted to
know, here's your chance: The working notebooks of two-time Nobel
Laureate Linus Pauling are now available online.

After six months
of concentrated effort, Oregon State University's Special Collections
unveiled the digitized notebooks on its Web site February 28, which was
Pauling's birthday.

Pauling, a biologist and theoretical chemist who died in 1994, specialized in the structure and composition of atoms and molecules. He was also well known as a humanitarian who campaigned to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and he became familiar to many people in the 1970s when he publicly championed the use of high doses of vitamin C.



In a diverse career that stretched from 1922 to 1994, Pauling filled 7,500 pages—46 separate notebooks—with laboratory calculations and data, scientific conclusions, groundbreaking ideas, and personal comments. Together, the writings offer remarkable insight into the thoughts of an exceptional mind pursuing a wide range of scientific endeavors, according to the scholars who completed the project.

"It's not all hard science," noted Chris Petersen of Oregon State University Special Collections. "There is a lot of autobiographical stuff for people who are interested in the man himself, or in science in general."

Alongside the development of his scientific thought are descriptions of joyous events such as his golden wedding anniversary and the construction of his beloved Big Sur ranch.

Not all occasions were so happy. Describing a 1939 lab explosion, Pauling wrote: "He had 40 liters of ether there, the explosion blew out all the windows and wrecked the hoods and chemical desks in the room and caused some damage in adjoining rooms." He went on to note that a $40-a-month summer assistant had caused $14,000 worth of damage in the blast, which was heard nearly a mile away. (The assistant escaped with slight burns).

Other personal entries show the touching struggle of a man of science confronting the anguish of his wife's cancer diagnosis and, eventually, his own battle with rectal and prostate cancer.

Wide Record of Achievement

In groundbreaking research on quantum mechanics, Pauling helped explain the chemical bonds at work within molecules and the electronegativity of atoms. His research in this field, conducted in the 1930s, is still central to contemporary theories of molecular composition.

Knowledge of how molecules and atoms are built is important in understanding chemical processes and the basic workings of proteins and biological functions. Drug design, for example, is heavily dependent on this field, and scientists also can use knowledge of molecular structure to create substances with specific properties, such as plastics that are stretchy, super-strong, or heat resistant.

In the 1940s, Pauling's research focused on an essential component of life: blood. The work he and chemist Robert Corey did on amino acids and proteins paved the way for James Watson and Francis Crick's famous discovery of DNA's double-helix structure.

Not all of Pauling's achievements occurred in the lab.

By the 1950s, the accomplished scientist was alarmed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He gathered the signatures of 11,000 scientists around the world on a petition calling for nuclear testing to stop, then presented it to the United Nations.

His campaign, supplemented by a book titled No More War, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. He previously had received a Nobel Prize for chemistry, in 1954.

Pauling remained politically active throughout his life. His notebooks include drafts of his "open letter" to President Bush opposing the Gulf War, in which he wrote: WAR IS IMMORAL! As human beings, we have the duty to strive to decrease the amount of human suffering. WAR CAUSES HUMAN SUFFERING!

Public health was another arena of interest. In the 1970s, Pauling became an enthusiastic advocate of vitamin C. He felt strongly that large doses of it could fight the common cold and even help battle cancer, a treatment he advocated for his own wife after she was diagnosed with cancer in 1976.

Wealth of Material

Before his death, Pauling wrote: "I made the decision to place my personal papers, medals, and other materials, and my wife's papers, in the OSU libraries. I did so because I had confidence in OSU's ability to preserve these materials and to make them available to scholars around the world for generations to come."

The online availability of the papers—a vast array of primary and uncensored material—"represents a milestone in archival accessibility and a great boon for scientists, historians, teachers, and students," said Tom Hager, the author of Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling.

The huge amount of material in the scientist's notebooks is enough to keep scientists and other interested readers busy for quite a while. But there may be even more to come, Petersen said.

In addition to his research notebooks, Pauling created an extensive collection of pocket diaries, carrying them with him at all times to record sudden ideas, instant impressions of places and people, and even a favorite joke.

Peterson hopes the pocket diaries will eventually supplement the wealth of archival information now available in the form of the scientist's research notebooks.

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