As of 1995, Linus Pauling was the only person to have won two unshared Nobel Prizes. One was for chemistry and the other for peace. He was the leading chemist in the twentieth century, perhaps the most outstanding American scientist of the century, and the youngest inductee to the National Academy of Sciences. In addition, during the Cold War he was one of America’s most outspoken advocates of peace, international cooperation, and disarmament—positions that made him a target of conservatives in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, as well as the press. To millions during the 1970’s and 1980’s, however, Pauling was renowned as an advocate of megadoses of vitamin C and other vitamins to prevent colds and to conquer cancer, long before megadoses of vitamins were accepted as a rational approach by the medical profession.
The story of this multifaceted life, which occupied most of the twentieth century, is told by a science journalist. Thomas Hager wrote Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling with the cooperation and assistance of Pauling—although this is not an authorized biography. (Pauling had reviewed the first third of the manuscript, but only for factual errors.) It is based on extensive use of Pauling’s papers at Oregon State University, where Pauling did his undergraduate study, other manuscript and archival collections, and interviews with Pauling, members of his family, and former colleagues, students, and critics. Hager has also read extensively in the scientific literature and the literature of the history and sociology of science. (There is a seventeen-page bibliography.) Although Hager is clearly sympathetic with Pauling’s perspective most of the time, he does not hesitate to point out his subject’s flaws.
Central to understanding the life and significance of any scientist is understanding his or her science. As a science writer, Hager describes clearly, in nontechnical language, what Pauling did and why it was important. A reader does not need a background in science to appreciate Pauling’s place in the history of science.
Pauling often worked at the point where the boundaries of chemistry, biology, and physics meet. He was primarily a theorist who did most of his best work in his study, not in a laboratory. During his most productive years as a scientist, he was fundamentally interested in the structure of matter. At first, he studied inorganic matter. Exposed to the new quantum mechanics while enjoying a fellowship in Europe during the years 1926-1927, he explored its utility in explaining chemical bonds. In the 1930’s, he turned to organic chemistry and the structure of biological molecules, especially proteins, the most important type of molecule in the body. Among his discoveries was that sickle-cell anemia was the result of the alteration of a specific molecule. His 1949 paper dubbed sickle-cell anemia “a molecular disease,” opening up a new approach to medical research.
Readers who know Pauling from James D. Watson’s The Double Helix (1968) as Watson and Francis Crick’s chiefly offstage competitor in the race to discover the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) will find Hager’s discussion of that aspect of Pauling’s career quite enlightening. Hager contends that Pauling’s failure was the result of “hurry and hubris.” Pauling was in a race—not with Crick and Watson, who were, after all, very junior members of the profession—but with the better-known and more senior Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind Franklin, and especially Pauling’s long-time rival Sir William Lawrence Bragg, the director of the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, where Crick and Watson worked. Because he was in a race, Pauling decided to rely on his intuition rather than painstaking experiments. This approach had worked before, most notably in his work on the alpha helix protein molecule. This time, however, it failed.
The double helix proved to be one of Pauling’s few major scientific failures. Less than two years later, however, he was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his quarter-century of work on the chemical bond.
Pauling’s impact on chemistry was not limited to his research. He was also an outstanding undergraduate and graduate teacher at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). His freshman lectures were full of both show and substance, and became legendary. As a graduate adviser, he was inspirational but aloof. His approach was not to give day-to-day supervision but rather to provide motivation and general guidance.
His reach as a teacher went far beyond Caltech, particularly through his textbook The Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules and Crystals (1939). Written for...