A Flamboyant Scientist’s Legacy : An Inspiration to Students as a Trailblazer and Humanitarian
They never met the man. Never even saw him. He was, after all, 70 years older than some of them. But young chemistry students at Caltech--where he reached his greatest heights--paused Saturday in sorrow over his passing and in gratitude for his legacy.
Linus C. Pauling was dead.
Chaoying Rong reacted as if he had been slapped when he heard the news during a stroll across the campus.
The slender, young postdoctoral researcher had first become familiar with Pauling’s work as a student in his native China. The more Rong studied, the more he appreciated the significance of Pauling’s contribution to chemistry.
“He is such a great scientist,” said Rong, not quite able to talk of Pauling in the past tense. “He made a major impact on the progress of molecular chemistry.”
But it is perhaps another side of Pauling--not the scientist, but the humanitarian--that holds a special significance for students pursuing the cold, hard discipline of chemistry.
“I think he’s a real human being,” Rong said. “I admire his moral spirit.”
During his tenure as a Caltech professor, Pauling was not only awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for groundbreaking molecular research, but he also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his crusade against nuclear arms proliferation.
Brian Hudson mulled over the complexity and depth of Pauling’s life during a break from research in a Caltech chemistry lab.
Hudson is a 23-year-old graduate student who did his undergraduate work at Purdue and says new scientists owe a great debt to Pauling.
“I never actually met him,” Hudson said. “But when you think of Caltech, you think of Linus Pauling.”
Hudson, a husky man with a sandy beard and glasses, learned of Pauling’s death Friday night. He didn’t like the way he found out.
“I heard it on the news,” Hudson said. “It was 10 minutes of O.J. Simpson and five minutes of John Wayne Bobbitt and, ‘Oh, by the way, Linus Pauling died.’ ”
In an office not far away, graduate student Ben Ramirez pawed through a pile of research material on a desk and pulled out a book he had taken from the library to help him on a protein project.
The title: “Scientific Publications of Linus Pauling.”
The book, published in 1968, listed 375 published scientific papers by Pauling.
Ramirez, like Rong, did not seem willing to use the past tense on Pauling. And although he never met him, Ramirez referred to Pauling with a certain affection, as he might an old friend or personal mentor.
“Linus is very keen on understanding the structure of molecules,” he said.
Pauling was also keen on scientific responsibility, he said.
“I think one of Linus’ main messages is to be careful in science,” Ramirez said, “so that you will benefit mankind but not harm the environment.”
Back in his lab, Hudson agreed that fellow chemists are indebted to Pauling for bringing a measure of humanity to a field that is sometimes criticized as causing problems such as pollution and worse.
“Of all the sciences,” he said, “chemistry gets a lot of flak.”
Pauling mitigated that, Hudson said, but fellow scientists might tend to overlook such work.
“I would like to go to a memorial service,” he said, “that would remember him and talk about the things he did--especially the humanitarian things, which probably more people outside science know about and fewer people inside science know.”