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.

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