The Pauling legend: a failed idea in a tortured century


How many and how disappointing are the secular substitutes for religion - science, for instance. Scientists have often preoccupied the modern imagination, as both Satan and saint. But real scientists - even great ones - can turn out to be Wizards of Oz for truth-seekers.

Linus Pauling (1901 - 1994) was one such man behind the curtain. A genuinely brilliant chemist turned self-styled sage and leftist oracle, his career blazed and then fizzled across the 20th century like a Roman candle, right along the entire trajectory of modern scientific humanism. Pauling claimed that vitamin C prolonged his life by 20 years; had he laid off the megadoses, he might have charitably expired closer to his zenith.

Equal parts genius, gadfly, and charlatan, Pauling seemed to have lived at least a dozen lives, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes sequentially, as a new biography and an anthology of his writings make clear.

Thomas Hager approaches his task manfully in "Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling" (Simon & Schuster. 721 pages. $35), slogging through the exhausting curriculum vitae: the young maverick who rewrote the book on the nature of chemical bonds; the maturing researcher who ranged across disciplines from quantum physics to molecular biology with lambent ease; the post-nuclear crusader, huddling with the conscience-stricken Einstein to save the world from "the madness of atomic barbarism"; the two-time Nobel laureate (first chemistry, then peace) without honor in his own McCarthyite land; the nutty peacenik professor protesting 'Nam with the kids; and, finally, the motormouthed vitamin crank, relishing the perks of fin-de-siecle bestsellerdom on talk shows.

But it is "Linus Pauling in His Own Words" (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster. 320 pages. $15/paper) that best conjures up the eerie path of a failed idea in a tortured century. Edited by Barbara Marinacci, a longtime Pauling sycophant who edited his justly forgotten book "No More War!," this collection of articles, speeches, and interviews reveals the curious evolution of a first-rate scientist into a third-rate political philosopher - and, ultimately, a third-rate scientist.

The young Pauling is a delight to discover. The self-confidence that later bloated into egomania began as childlike delight at the powers of his own mind. Over dinner with friends, spurred by a chance comment, he intuits the key to sickle-cell anemia; he sits up in bed recovering from a cold and, bored with his paperback, mulls the question, "How would I fold if I were a polypeptide chain?"

Into his dotage Pauling professed an uncritical enthusiasm for every molecule of the physical universe, people included. Until political adventures took precedence over research, he was America's ideal image of a great scientist, the quintessential star lecturer, lone cogitator and "Eureka!"-shouter. No wonder he approached self-caricature in his later years, careening around with his tufts of white hair escaping from a jaunty black beret.

Fomenting activism

Despite dogged persecution by Red-baiters, Pauling racked up the honors as the years went by, including such howlers as "Humanist of the Year, 1961" and "The International Lenin Peace Prize." Along the way, the idealistic firebrand turned into a self-congratulatory gasbag, blathering about a utopian future under vaguely defined "world law." (By all accounts, his wife Ava Helen must take much of the blame for fomenting his activism.) His pronouncements had all the depth of a B-movie in which benevolent aliens take over the earth for the good of self-destructive mankind.

Indeed, this was pretty much the salvific role that Pauling envisioned for scientists. The advent of the nuclear age fried his circuits - a response perhaps hard to understand for middle-aged readers who came of age with fallout shelters, and incomprehensible for young ones born in a world where nukes are presumably tucked away in places like Uzbekistan and nobody really seems worried.

Thanks to the specter of mutually assured destruction, "war has been made impossible forever," he declared after World War II. One wonders what he made of Desert Storm, and what he would have made of the wholesale butchery in Rwanda by teen-agers clutching machetes.

But in the bloody dawn of the nuclear age, things seemed more clearcut. Scientists had helped cobble up the tools to create the holocaust, and now science - glorious, rational and good - would lead the world to a new and better era.

Pauling, an atheist, referred admiringly to primitive times in which the roles of scientist, shaman and priest were one. In the new religion of the nuclear age, scientists would perform the priestcraft of peace and enlightenment.

To his credit, Pauling was always ready to put his money where his mouth was, although in later years he seemed more likely to put his mouth where the money was. Implacably stubborn, he still comes off the hero in agitating for the U.S. to enter World War II and save Britain; in hiring a needy Japanese gardener after Pearl Harbor, even though it cost him threats to his family and vandalism to his California home; and in matching wits with various tentacles of HUAC and refusing to name names. (J. Edgar Hoover's years-long effort to pin something illegal on Pauling takes on the air of Wile E. Coyote pursuing the Roadrunner.)

But in the central moral dilemma of the century, Pauling missed the boat. His writings reveal that Hoover was indeed on a fool's quest; Pauling showed no particular zeal for Communism beyond a woolyheaded fondness for socialist rhetoric. Rather, he viewed the U.S. and Soviet systems as two ethically equivalent forces, like the covalent bonds he described so lucidly.

If anything, the Soviets, for all their mistakes and abuses (which he dutifully acknowledged now and then) had at least taken a step in the right direction, elevating scientists to become architects of Five Year Plans and other such progressive mechanisms.

This great organism

Blinded by the horrifying light from the mushroom cloud, Pauling and his disciples saw no particular forces of darkness at work in the Cold War: just folly awaiting the application of reason. He believed himself the adherent of a rigorous morality based on "the minimization of suffering" for "this great organism, humankind."

What is striking from the vantage point of a new millennium is not the hollowness or naivete of this message, but its inherent narrowness, its smallness. After remaking the world and our understanding of it, the best prescription for the human condition that science could offer was to minimize the suffering of an organism. It is not as unlikely as it first appears that Pauling wound down over several decades from agonizing about the Big Bang to pushing nostrums for the common cold. A bellyful of his writings left me almost physically hungry to re-read Solzhenitsyn.

The disenchantment with scientists as prophets and priests is one of the uneases of this expiring century, but is hardly new. The Russian aristocrat-turned-anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) wrote: "A scientific body to which had been confided the government of society would soon end by devoting itself no longer to science at all, but to quite another affair; and that affair, as in the case of all established powers, would be its own eternal perpetuation by rendering the society confided to its care ever more stupid and consequently more in need of its government and direction."

Brenda L. Becker is a medical writer and editor for consumer and clinical magazines, including Woman's Day and PatientCare. She co-authored, with Marvin Moser, M.D., "Week by Week to A Strong Heart" (Rodale, 1992). She is a two-time winner of national awards for writing on cardiovascular disease and a contributor to journals of opinion including the American Spectator and National Review.

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