A great man sadly reduced

Linus Pauling
July 19, 1996

I remember how Linus Pauling drew huge crowds during the Vietnam protest movement in the late 1960s, on the University of California San Diego campus, as everywhere else. His message was peace, freedom from war, from political persecution and oppression, just as it had been in the antinuclear campaign of the postwar years, and in the McCarthy era, in opposition to the United States government's persecution of suspected communists and communist sympathisers. Pauling was a tireless political campaigner, honoured with the Nobel peace prize in 1956 for his role in mobilising American and world opinion against nuclear tests that eventually resulted in the test-ban treaty.

He was also a brilliant scientist, who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1954 for his theory of the chemical bond and for working out the a-helical secondary structure of proteins.

It was thus with considerable expectation that I opened the first biography of Pauling, published barely a year after his death. So, why am I repelled by it?

The book has its own telling history. The parents of the authors, Mildred and Victor Goertzel, began the project with Pauling's approval and cooperation in 1962, as a continuation of their work on the childhood of eminent people. They interviewed relatives, teachers and neighbours and produced the early chapters, which Pauling edited. Pauling also authorised the psychologist Anne Roe to provide them the record of the Rorschach test that he had taken as one of the subjects in her book.

Victor Goertzel had used the Rorschach test for a PhD dissertation. With such rich psychological pickings, Mildred and Victor wanted to emphasise the personality of their subject in the biography, but Pauling wanted the emphasis, instead, on his scientific work. This divergence of attitude led the elder Goertzels to put aside the project, particularly as they later became troubled over Pauling's crusade on vitamin C, and distressed by his treatment of his last scientific partner. By then, their initial admiration had been replaced by a more critical stance. They handed the project over to their sons, Ted Goertzel, also a psychologist, and Ben Goertzel, a mathematician and cognitivist.

With a background like this, the authors unavoidably invite the reader to take part in a postmortem that promises to lay bare the anatomy of the subject's genius as well as his badness. It is a clinical documentary, told largely without spark or imagination, except, mercifully, in the three chapters describing Pauling's scientific achievements.

Pauling's theory of the chemical bond (1931) is generally considered his most important work, representing a synthesis of practical and theoretical chemistry with quantum physics. He proposed that the orbitals of the outermost electron shells of the atom, which largely determine its chemical properties, can change shape so as to create better bonds with other atoms.

His role in working out the a-helical structure of proteins seems less clear. His own account gave little credit to his student, Herman Branson, to whom he had suggested the problem. Pauling's first insight was to propose a quantum resonance between the peptide bond and the neighbouring carboxyl group that prohibited rotation around the bond. This arose directly from his theory of the hybridisation of orbitals and greatly simplified the problem of deducing protein structure by X-ray diffraction. The next step was to propose a helical structure. But it was Branson who first derived two particular helical structures that fitted all the data, one of which was the a-helix.

Pauling's insistence that his biographers must detail the scientific discoveries has been handsomely fulfilled in three outstanding chapters. The electron orbitals come alive as three-dimensional standing waves. One learns that "a spherical electron wave is an s orbital ... [while] the p orbitals and d orbitals [are] 'figure-eight waves' and 'clover-leaf waves' I these give the electrons more space to move about and allow a greater variety of atomic structures". The carbon atom has three figure-eight waves and one spherical wave. But, as Pauling proposed, "by the hybridisation of orbitals, it can produce four petal-shaped waves that point in four different directions. The petals, each consisting of a small trough and a large crest, mark out the corners of a four-faced pyramid or tetrahedron. This shape is not observed in the isolated carbon atom, but it becomes apparent when the carbon atom is surrounded by other atoms - say by hydrogen atoms."

Pauling's contributions to science are by no means limited to the chemical bond and the a-helix. He began his scientific career with a major piece of work in solving the structure of inorganic crystals by X-ray diffraction. That, too, is treated in absorbing detail so that the general reader learns enough about crystal structure to appreciate the significance of the work, and the intuitive rules for solving the crystalline structure of molecules that Pauling subsequently proposed. These rules have been extremely useful, especially in the days before computer routines were available. They reduced the possible solutions to a small number, one of which could almost always be verified in the laboratory. Among his other contributions are the identification of sickle cell anaemia as a molecular defect in haemoglobin.

Though Pauling himself never comes alive in this biography, one can still get a sense of the interaction between the scientist and the unique political figure. More than any scientist before or since, he championed the causes of ordinary men and women, of oppressed minorities and students against the establishment.

He himself was summoned to court on more than one occasion, on unsubstantiated charges of being a communist, or communist sympathiser. His passport was withdrawn by the US authorities, which denied him access to the crucial X-ray diffraction data belonging to Rosalind Franklin at King's College, London, that might well have led him to work out the double-helical structure of DNA - thereby costing him another Nobel prize that went, instead, to James Watson and Francis Crick, who had access to the data.

But the Great Man was put on the scales and found wanting. He was cool to his mother, uncaring of his sisters. He left the care of his children entirely in the hands of his doting wife, Ava Helen, who accompanied him on all but one of his frequent trips abroad. He was slow to give credit to his collaborators.

Some saw him as an egomaniac. In his later years, with two Nobel prizes and a string of honours behind him, he could not admit to being wrong about massive doses of vitamin C.

Finally, he betrayed his last young collaborator, Arthur Robinson, who left a promising academic career to help him set up the Orthomolecular Medicine Institute to research into the putative anticancer effects of vitamin C. The unfortunate episode was triggered by Robinson's findings that a special strain of nude mice, prone to carcinomas, developed more cancerous lesions when given the human equivalent of 10g of vitamin C a day while maintained on ordinary mouse-feed. That seemed to contradict results they had obtained up to then, indicating that vitamin C did have a protective effect when the mice were fed on fresh fruits and vegetables. Such apparently conflicting results are not surprising; there might be interactions between diet and vitamin C.

Instead of accepting the results, Pauling dismissed Robinson from the institute and confiscated his experimental records. There followed a long legal battle that did much to damage the reputation of the Great Man. Pauling's biographers suggest that he was unable to grant recognition and independence to his younger colleague, and wanted to maintain control.

An appendix to the book reports the results of Pauling's Rorschach test, which, we are told, suggest that Pauling was emotionally repressed and schizophrenic, and fitted rather well into a personality pattern of "successful scientists". I find the analysis tedious, offensive, misguided and sexist - if you are not a man with a wife to look after home and children while you do your creative science, then forget about being a "successful scientist".The analysis reduces scientists to stereotypes and completely ignores the social relationships involved in the practice of science.

There are both good and bad sides to these social relationships. The scientific community, as a community, is guided by ideals of honesty, of openness and cooperation. Any one scientist's success depends on the work of countless others, and most scientists are scrupulous in acknowledging their predecessors and giving credit to others' contributions in their own work. But individual scientists often do not live up to these ideals, and, more importantly, the community becomes an establishment with recognised leaders and high priests, who can dominate their disciplines in an insidious patriarchal manner, to exclude anybody that does not conform to mainstream opinion.

So, why did Pauling, a great scientist, who ought to have been a model of scientific objectivity and rationality, behave in such an irrational manner? Was he, as some suggest, a victim of his own success in that his public, having put him on the pedestal, led him to believe in his own infallibility in claiming vitamin C as a panacea against all diseases from the common cold to cancer? (It should be said that much research since has supported the anti-oxidant effects of vitamin C that protect against those harmful processes in the body that generate the free radicals implicated in degenerative diseases and ageing.) My view is that Pauling became a victim, both of the hostility of the scientific establishment to alternative points of view, and of his own intellectual schizophrenia with regard to the reductionist, mechanistic approach of that establishment. He promoted orthomolecular medicine in opposition to conventional biomedicine and the numerous iatrogenic illnesses caused by prescription drugs. (According to the 1990 Harvard medical practice study, up to two million Americans are hospitalised each year and as many as 180,000 die as the result of adverse reactions to prescription drugs.) Yet, Pauling was unable to extricate himself from the same mechanistic thinking behind his idea of prescribing vitamin C against all ills, regardless of differences in genetic constitution, the complexities of lifestyles and diet.

He had no time for what he believed to be metaphysical thinking on the foundations of quantum physics or the nature of ultimate physical reality. He aligned himself with reductionism in science, probably throughout his life. Summing up the situation in 1977, he wrote: "We have a tremendous amount of understanding of the universe and there are many striking phenomena that occur and that can be explained. The reductionists say that as time goes by, more and more of the world will become explicable in terms of the parts that we do understand, and I believe that theory."

Pauling, together with other mainstream scientists, was extremely critical of Erwin Schrodinger's influential speculations on the nature of life, which were openly sympathetic to eastern mysticism. Pauling judged Schrodinger to have made no useful contribution to understanding life, indeed, to have made a negative contribution by his discussion of "negative entropy" in relation to life.

In my view, Schrodinger pointed to a way of understanding living organisms that transcends the limitations of equilibrium thermodynamics. Had Pauling been able to follow him, he would have found powerful arguments against the reductionist medicine of the establishment that treats isolated symptoms instead of integrated wholes. His intellectual schizophrenia was by no means peculiar to him; it may be endemic among academic scientists in the West.

People will confess in private to using complementary or holistic health practices, often in preference to conventional biomedicine, but they will publicly condemn anyone as "vitalist" and "pseudo-scientific" who, like Schrodinger and others, insists on understanding organisms as coherent wholes.

Pauling was a major figure in both science and politics. He deserves a decent biography, of the style and scope of Andrew Hodges's Alan Turing, if not P. N. Furbank's monumental treatment of the French Encyclopedist and polymath, Diderot.

While Pauling's biographers manage to present their subject's scientific achievements admirably, they do not connect them with Pauling's personality and they singularly fail to convey the troubled and exciting times in which he lived. In fact, they succeed too well in their dissection of his personality. One is left, sadly, with bits of psychological entrails in search of the ghost of the departed whole.

The book reminds me of 1984, when I found myself back in the University of California San Diego on a visiting fellowship, and Pauling came to give a lecture. I missed the talk, as there was no publicity, and was told afterwards that only a handful of students bothered to turn up. Several staff members confided to me that they were heart-broken; the low turn-out seemed symbolic of how all their work (in the protest marches of the 1960s) had come to nothing.

But it has not been for nothing. For those who have known Pauling in the 1960s, his bright, wild-eyed enthusiasm will always be associated with images of flower power, of "Make love, not war", of protest against the establishment, of striving towards freedom from war, against oppression and hypocrisy, towards all that is noble and good. For over two generations, he held the ideals of the young and youthful, who will forgive and forget his failings. For many of us, the 20th century is, and will remain, Pauling's century.

Mae-Wan Ho is reader in biology and director, Bioelectrodynamics Laboratory, Open University.

Linus Pauling: A genius put on the scales and found wanting

Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics

Author - Ted Goertzel and Ben Goertzel
ISBN - 0 465 00672 8
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £18.99
Pages - 300

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