Great men are seldom good men. Achieving great things usually requires single-mindedness of purpose, unbounded egotism, intolerance of human shortcomings and an absence of self-doubt, traits that can make such a person, shall we say, a pain in the neck.
A case in point was Linus Pauling, one of this century’s most extraordinary scientists, who made stellar contributions to chemistry and biology, crusaded for liberal causes when it was very dangerous to do so, won two Nobel Prizes (in chemistry and peace)--the only person ever to win two unshared Nobels--and wound up as an embarrassment to the scientific establishment, an eccentric crank promoting megadoses of Vitamin C as a cure for everything from the common cold to cancer.
By the time he died in 1994 at the age of 93, Pauling had overstayed his welcome at many major institutions, including Caltech in Pasadena, where he had been on the faculty for four decades, and was increasingly involved in bitter litigation with foes and former friends.
How did this happen? Or, did anything happen? Did the personality traits that served Pauling so well in his youth--an ability to see things differently and hold fast to his beliefs in the face of opposition--simply get out of hand in old age?
Befitting Pauling’s larger-than-life life, not one but two biographies have appeared to tell his amazing story and try to make sense of it. With 627 pages of text and nearly a hundred more pages of notes and index, “Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling” by Thomas Hager is the more thorough, more detailed of the two books.
Among other things, it contains several important episodes in Pauling’s life that the other book either omits or mentions only in passing.
But “Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics” by Ted Goertzel and Ben Goertzel--a mere 300 pages including notes and index--has much to recommend it. The Goertzels take a broader, more sweeping, more judgmental view of Pauling, and they are more critical of him.
For example, their book includes a quote from Peter Pauling, one of Pauling’s four children, who told the authors, “My father is not the great man you think he is.”
Whatever else Pauling was or was not, he was an extremely creative and prolific scientist throughout his life.
Unlike most scientists, who specialize in one area, Pauling kept re-creating himself and taking up new fields, following his interests and his instincts wherever they led him.
In his early years, everything Pauling tackled worked out splendidly, and he made major contributions to the understanding of the structure of crystals and the nature of the chemical bond.
Later, he laid the groundwork for modern molecular biology. Though he failed to figure out the structure of DNA--he rushed into print with an embarrassingly wrong answer--Watson and Crick, who did crack the puzzle, worked with a copy of Pauling’s classic book, “The Nature of the Chemical Bond,” at their side.
In the 1940s, Pauling became interested in medical research, and some people thought he should have won a third Nobel Prize for his work on sickle-cell anemia.
At the same time, he became increasingly political. Born in Oregon to a conservative Republican family, Pauling hadn’t thought much about politics until the 1930s, when his devoted wife, Ava Helen, got him interested in the plight of the underdog.
During World War II, the internment of Japanese Americans in California solidified his political views, and the atomic bombing of Japan made him a steadfast antiwar activist.
During the buildup to the Gulf War in 1991, he personally took out an ad in the New York Times that ended “STOP THE RUSH TO WAR.” (This incident is mentioned in the Goertzels’ book, but not in Hager’s.)
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Pauling joined dozens of liberal, pro-peace, antinuclear organizations, which led to his being branded a communist sympathizer if not a communist. He was called to testify before congressional committees, and for several years he battled the State Department, which refused to give him a passport to leave the country.
Hager’s book is much better on this episode than the Goertzels’. Hager explains how Ruth B. Shipley, the head of the department’s passport division, single-handedly blocked Pauley’s foreign travel. Shipley does not appear at all in the Goertzels’ book.
Finally, there is the matter of Vitamin C and Pauling’s medical advocacy. In his last decades, to his discredit, he applied the techniques of politics to science, abandoning the impartial search for truth in favor of argument.
He believed that there was a great conspiracy by the medical establishment, the drug companies and the government to hide the truth from the people, and anyone who disagreed with him was part of that conspiracy.
Pauling’s life demonstrates yet again that anyone who does not see things in an essentially establishment way will be marginalized, regardless of whatever else he or she has done.
These two books complement each other. If you are short of time, read the Goertzels’ book. If you want to know more, read Hager’s. If you are fascinated by this man, read them both.