Even at age 15, Linus Carl Pauling showed that he was very bright. “Like thousands of other boys, I had a little chemical laboratory in our cellar and think that some of our friends thought me a bit crazy,” he said.
He used chemicals he found in an abandoned iron smelter and also from a druggist friend of his father, soon teaching himself more chemistry than he could learn in high school.
He had enough credits to get into Oregon State University (then Oregon Agricultural College). He just needed two American history courses to graduate and asked if he could take them both during spring semester.
The principal said no, so he dropped out.
Forty-five years later — after he had won two Nobel Prizes — Washington High School in Portland gave him an honorary diploma.
Not all Nobel Prize winners were geniuses — high IQ types who tested at higher than 130 in the U.S. (other countries have different standards) — but he had an insatiable appetite for learning about many different subjects.
He’s often described as a polymath — a person with expertise in a number of subjects — who in addition to his primary field of chemistry and physics, included X-ray crystallography, mineralogy, biochemistry, nuclear science, genetics, molecular biology, nutrition and various aspects of medicine such as serology, immunology, and psychiatry.
Chemistry was his passion, but his boundless curiosity steered him into other subjects as well. “I made use of the college library by borrowing books other than scientific books, such as all of the plays by George Bernard Shaw; the writing of Edgar Allan Poe. The college library helped me to develop a broader aspect of life.”
High intelligence polymaths are rare, but history records many of them, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Johann Wolfgang Goethe — both towering figures of the Renaissance Age (14th to 17th century).
Italian polymath da Vinci who had exceptional interest and knowledge not only in painting — “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper” — but also sculpting, anatomy, architecture, astronomy, botany, cartography, engineering, geology, history, ichnology, inventions that included the helicopter, airplane, parachute, tank, weapons; literature, mathematics, music, paleontology, science and writing.
Goethe from Germany was primarily a poet, but also a painter, novelist, dramatist, humanist philosopher, scientist, and for 10 years was minister of state for the Republic of Weimar. He also learned five languages.
Jalees Rehman, from the Department of Medicine and Department of Pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago describes polymath as “The intellectual curiosity and restlessness which triggers the desire to venture beyond the boundaries of one’s primary discipline,” noting that it “can only be sustained with a strong measure of courage and at times even over-confidence to overcome the inevitable episodes of disappointment, rejection and failure.”
He warns multi-disciplinarians not to become over-confident or arrogant, and to recognize “one’s own limitations.”
In high school, Linus Pauling’s friend, Lloyd Alexander Jeffress, invited him to come over and watch some chemical experiments — which he did and was hooked. “I’m going to be a chemist!” he said.
While a senior at Oregon Agricultural, Pauling was teaching a freshman chemistry class when he called on student Ava Helen Miller to answer a question about baking soda. Two years later they were married, and raised four children.
Young Linus went on to earn his Ph.D. at Caltech in 1925, after turning down acceptance at Harvard and not hearing from Cal-Berkeley. About two years later, he joined the faculty at Caltech and stayed there for 41 years
Biographer Anne K. Lohrey said, “The key to his self-motivation and success were that he truly enjoyed intellectual pursuits and his work. He had always had a strong desire to understand the physical world better and his work was fulfilling to him in this way. He worked very long and late on manuscripts and various other endeavors, not to test his will power, but for the sheer joy of the work.”
Pauling was one of the founders of quantum chemistry (also called molecular quantum mechanics) the study of the behavior of all known forms of matter, including the atoms and molecules that make up living organisms.
This led him to studying about DNA — the structure in all living things that determines what they look like and how they work, with the information stored in genes in each body cell.
Other research and ideas in the nature of chemical bonds significantly changed the way that we understand the world, and would earn him a Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1954.
Pauling was an excellent teacher, lecturing about complex matters in understandable terms, and the students loved him.
He told his students and fellow teachers, “In teaching, you do not want to COVER things, you want to UNCOVER them. The best way to get good ideas is to have lots of ideas.”
Even polymaths have rough times. For Pauling one rocky moment occurred during his long career while he was teaching at Caltech:
His close friend, J. Robert Oppenheimer, — a brilliant theoretical physicist and “Father of the Atomic Bomb” — was visiting from Cal-Berkeley, and the two professors planned a joint study of the nature of the chemical bond.
One day when Pauling was at work, Oppenheimer invited Ava Helen to go with him on a tryst to Mexico. She refused.
That was the end of the Pauling-Oppenheimer relationship and the joint study.
While other scholars were pursuing academic activities, Pauling became a high-profile activist making speeches and marching in street demonstrations, denouncing war and nuclear weapons.
“The only sane policy for the world is that of abolishing war,” he said. “The power to destroy the world by the use of nuclear weapons is a power that cannot be used — we cannot accept the idea of such monstrous immorality…
“We must have research for peace … It would embrace the outstanding problems of morality. The time has come for man’s intellect, his scientific method, to win over the immoral brutality and irrationality of war and militarism … Now we are forced to eliminate from the world forever this vestige of prehistoric barbarism, this curse to the human race.”
For his efforts, he was awarded the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize and became the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes.
His polymath mind also focused on medicine, often challenging accepted medical fortresses like the American Cancer Society: “Everyone should know that most cancer research is largely a fraud, and that the major cancer research organizations are derelict in their duties to the people who support them.”
In his later years, Pauling became a bell-ringer for Vitamin C. “You can trace every sickness, every disease and every ailment to a mineral deficiency,” he said. “If you take a reasonable amount of vitamin C regularly, the incidence of the common cold goes down. If you get a cold and start immediately, as soon as you start sneezing and sniffling, the cold just doesn’t get going.”
Advocating that healthy people take six to 18 grams of vitamin C every day to fight ailments from common colds to cancer, he said, “By the proper intakes of vitamins and other nutrients and by following a few other healthful practices from youth or middle age on, you can, I believe, extend your life and years of well-being by 25 or even 35 years.”
With their children grown and following successful careers of their own, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling moved to a ranch at Big Sur, Calif. From three or four in the morning until bedtime at 8 p.m., he continued his involvement in science, political activism and medical advocacy.
Linus Pauling died of prostate cancer in 1994 at his ranch at age 93. The world lost a brilliant scientist, a beloved and respected teacher and a passionate activist.
He was always an encourager, urging his students to remain skeptical, questioning even older scholars like himself, noting that long-held conventional beliefs are often wrong and blind acceptance can be a roadblock to fresh ideas.
“I think every person should be able to enjoy life,” he said. “Try to decide what you most enjoy doing, and then look around to see if there is a job for which you could prepare yourself that would enable you to continue having this sort of joy.”
Words of wisdom from the polymath from Oregon.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Advice to the young…
“I have been especially fortunate for about 50 years in having two memory banks available. Whenever I can’t remember something I ask my wife, and thus I am able to draw on this auxiliary memory bank. Moreover, there is a second way in which I get ideas … I listen carefully to what my wife says, and in this way I often get a good idea.
“I recommend to … young people … that you make a permanent acquisition of an auxiliary memory bank that you can become familiar with and draw upon throughout your lives.”
— Dr. Linus Pauling
Goodness is the greater power…
“I believe that there is a greater power in the world than the evil power of military force, of nuclear bombs — there is the power of good, of morality, of humanitarianism.”
— Dr. Linus Pauling
What are you?
Author Michelle Monet asks the question of what kind of person we are. She sees people at two types: Hummingbirds or jackhammers. Hummingbirds try many things, while jackhammers drill away in one thing until they get it.
Polymaths are hummingbirds — but could be both.
You don’t have to be a genius to be a polymath…
“At the core of a polymathic personality is an unrestrained curiosity — about nearly everything. They don’t learn in order to procure a degree. They don’t learn to get a better job. They don’t learn so that they can impress other people with their knowledge. They learn because they are curious. They want to know. No matter how pragmatic the popular culture might be about learning, the polymathic personality cherishes knowledge for its own sake.”
— Douglas Noel Adams (11 March 1952 — 11 May 2001),English author, scriptwriter, essayist, humorist, satirist, dramatist
“DNA is the material that carries all the information about how a living thing will look and function. For instance, DNA in humans determines such things as what color the eyes are and how the lungs work. Each piece of information is carried on a different section of the DNA. These sections are called genes.”
— Encyclopedia Britannica