Still Poised at the 'Cutting Edge'
At 90, the humanitarian/scientist talks about his passion as colleagues celebrate his career, INTERVIEW CHEMIST LINUS PAULING
PALO ALTO, CALIF. — THESE are my toys - the most expensive in the world," says Linus Pauling, twisting a plastic model of a polypeptide molecule as if it were a cubic hand puzzle. Behind him is a blackboard chalked with enough scientific hieroglyphics to choreograph a lunar landing. Here in his small office at the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine that he formed in 1973, America's premi 143&gt;re living chemist has been holding forth on the passions that still ignite his scientific/humanitarian fancy: the crystal structures of minerals, his opposition to war, and Vitamin C as a tool against the common cold, cancer, and AIDS. Activities in all three areas are being both highlighted and interrupted of late as a year's worth of celebratory symposiums, honorary dinners, and speeches have begun. Well into 1992, they will be trumpeting the 90th birthday (Feb. 28) of the science world's only unshare d double Nobel laureate (Chemistry, 1954; Peace, 1962).
"Pauling has been a larger-than-life figure his whole career for his groundbreaking work in explaining chemical bonds and his humanitarian concerns," says Harry B. Gray, director of the Beckman Institute at the California Institute of Technology. "But equally important has been his unwavering enthusiasm for scientific research over decades. He continues to be a phenomenal scientist who inspires generations of chemists."
Pauling was twice vetoed as a recipient for the National Medal of Science by President Nixon. His outspokenness against American war policy, nuclear arms and testing have won him both friends and foes (see accompanying story).
"The focus has pretty much shifted off his politics more to his scientific achievements," Dr. Gray says.
Besides recent fetes in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Portland, Ore., the World Affairs Council will honor him in April, the National Academy of Science in May - and Pauling will give speeches in Philadelphia and at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. In between, minions of the media will be calling here and at his seaside home near Big Sur, where he lives alone and still works seven hours a day.
"I don't think that I think more clearly than many other scientists or that I'm more intelligent," he says, pushing his signature, blue beret forward over silver eyebrows. "One characteristic that I can see in my life is that I think about the problems steadily, almost day and night, day after day, night after night. So it may be that I think more about scientific problems than most scientists do."
"For decades he has had an uncanny ability to sniff out what will be important five years hence and lay the groundwork so that others can come in and expand his findings," says William McClure, a professor of biological science at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh. "His track record implies a deeper view than anyone else."
In the 1940s, Pauling identified the alpha helix (a chain of amino acids held together by hydrogen) as the basic structure in protein. J.D. Watson and F.H.C. Crick took the discovery further to uncover the double helix as the building block of genes and chromosomes - and won a Nobel prize. Several of Pauling's students have also won Nobels.
Now considered America's grand old man of science, Pauling still researches and writes more papers than anyone else for Proceedings, the journal of the National Academy of Sciences. "His work on quasi-crystals continues to be on the cutting edge," says Bruce Ames, a biochemist at the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech). Applications of this study come in the fields of alloys and metallurgy, and in understanding superconductors.
Pauling is known for doing most of his calculations on a hand-held calculator and writing research only in longhand. Pressed for the role of technology in discovery and intuition, he is cautionary: "I think there's a side to use of computers that is unfortunate in that scientists who use them sometimes fail to think enough about the problems they're working on."
"He has shown that the computer solutions others have arrived at are based on faulty premises they fed into the thing to begin with," says John D. Roberts, professor of chemistry, emeritus, at Cal Tech.
Making intuitive leaps does not come from mere head-scratching, Pauling adds, but rather results from a very broad background.
"I have a reasonably good amount of knowledge in mathematics, and physics and chemistry and geology, mineralogy, crystallography, biochemistry, biol- ogy, various fields of medicine," says Pauling. "I recognize that when I am reading a paper about something that I hadn't known before and have an idea about it, I can see that I have this idea because of something I know in a quite different field of knowledge."
Working against such breadth, says Pauling, is today's far more specialized scientific environment.
"So many branches of science have developed to such a great extent that to master just one of these rather small branches takes up the years," he says. "When I began, there was not nearly so much knowledge about the nature of the world ... it may be that life isn't quite so [easy] for young scientists."
Though Pauling has racked up 45 honorary doctorates and nearly every major award given to scientists, many of his colleagues part company over his work on Vitamin C. About 25 years ago, Pauling's research indicated to him that heavy doses could help ward off numerous diseases and help people live longer.
Though much research continues at his institute - where about 50 scientists study cancer, aging, AIDS, and cardiovascular problems - "most think he's gone a bit overboard on this one," says Dr. Ames. Consequently "people think the institute is out on the fringe and he has had a hard time attracting top people."
Others part company with Pauling for his lifelong role as an activist. Accused of being a Communist during the McCarthy era, Pauling's criticism of American foreign policy during times of war has continued through the Persian Gulf conflict. "Stop the Rush to War" said full-page ads in the New York Times paid for by Pauling.
It was Albert Einstein who asked Pauling to join a committee in 1946 to alert the world to the dangers of fallout from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later, Pauling's efforts to draw world-wide attention toward banning atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons won him his second Nobel in 1962. Pauling got 10,000 of the world's top scientists to sign a petition he then presented to Dag Hammarskj 154&gt;ld, then secretary-general of the United Nations.
Pauling is still outspokenly critical of the United States for unwillingness to accept a complete nuclear ban. "The US has been unwilling to give up the testing of nuclear weapons when other nations were advocating [it] ... no testing would be a good step toward preventing [their] spread," he says.
Though Pauling was appalled at the power unleashed by atomic force in 1945, he says the scientist has no moral or ethical obligation to stop the process of discovery because it could be used immorally.
"I don't believe it is possible for anyone to predict what the consequences of his discovery will be. No one can say whether a discovery will be used to harm or benefit the human race."