As the train rattled toward Portland, no one took much notice of the 15-year-old who kept to himself, looking out the window at the well-tended farms and patches of black-green fir forest of Oregon's Willamette River Valley. He was thin and gawky, with a full head of auburn hair and bright blue eyes. There was nothing unusual about him— except, perhaps, the large bottle of dark liquid carefully cradled between his feet.
Inside that bottle sloshed five gallons of concentrated nitric acid. If it spilled, it would eat away the carpet and floor of the train car. It would dissolve the shoes and socks and skin on the feet of the passengers. It would get the young boy, Linus Pauling, into a great deal of trouble. But he was careful and made certain the bottle stayed upright. This was, after all, not the first time he had smuggled chemicals.
Linus was on his way home after visiting his grandparents in the little river town of Oswego, a few miles south of Portland. He treasured these visits with his father's parents, a kind couple who still spoke with strong German accents. They had taken special care of their only grandson after his
Linus Pauling stands with his mother, Belle, in 1902. Their difficult relationship helped to shape Pauling's growing sense of independence.
■ Linus Pauling father died when the boy was nine years old. They had fed him treats, listened intently to his excited talk about what he had learned in school, and given him free rein to wander the countryside and go places his mother would never have let him.
Linus was something of a daredevil, who fearlessly ranged over nearby woods, creeks, and lakes and shinnied out high over the river on a train trestle. He especially enjoyed exploring the abandoned iron smelter where his grandfather worked as a night watchman. On one visit he had climbed the smelter's old smokestack, a hundred feet high, and perched there for a while enjoying the view of the river, patchwork farms, and faraway mountains.
Best of all, he found a way into the smelter's small laboratory, where iron ore had once been tested for its metal content. Although deserted for years, it was still packed with boxes of old chemicals, rusting equipment, bits and pieces of chipped glassware, and large blue bottles of acid turning dark with age.
Over the next few weeks Linus stripped the lab of everything he could carry—and even some he could not. He stuffed an old suitcase full of boxes and bottles of chemicals and carried it innocently back to his mother's boarding-house on the train. He dismantled and hauled home piecemeal a machine for distilling water. With a friend's help he dragged a complete electric furnace to a borrowed canoe, paddled it down the Willamette River, and pushed it home in a wheelbarrow two miles uphill.
Everything went into his homemade "laboratory," a basement corner he had walled off with scrap lumber. Linus had been obsessed with chemistry ever since his best friend, Lloyd Jeffress, had demonstrated some reactions with a toy chemistry set a year earlier. Linus always remembered one trick his friend had done, in which he mixed some sugar and another chemical together, added a drop of acid—and the sugar burst into flame. At the same moment, so did
young Pauling's mind. "Changing substances into other substances is what impressed me," he remembered later. "In chemistry, things happen. Very striking things happen."
For Linus Pauling, having things happen, having things change, was very important. He wanted his life to change. He had been unhappy since the sudden death of his father from a perforating ulcer, a traumatic event that had thrown Linus, his mother Belle, and his two younger sisters, Pauline and Lucile, into near poverty.
This trauma involved more than money. Linus's father had been a self-taught pharmacist, a man who knew that learning was a path to success and had appreciated his yourig son's precocious mental abilities. At an early age, Linus had shown himself to be unusually bright and a voracious reader, racing through every book in the house, from Alice in Wonderland to Dante's Inferno, just before his death, Linus's father wrote a letter to the editors of the local newspaper asking for suggestions for further reading for his nine-year-old son. "In order to avoid the possibility, or probability rather, of having some one advise me to have him read the Hible, I will state that it was through reading this and Darwin's theory of evolution that my son became so interested in both history and natural sciences," he explained.
But his mother did not appreciate Linus's abilities. After her husband's death, she used all her money to buy a boardinghouse and worked hard to keep her family together. But she never fully recovered from her grief She was depressed, withdrawn, and afflicted with pernicious anemia, a chronic blood disease
Herman Pauling Linus's father was a self-taught pharmacist who actively encouraged Linus's budding intefect His death, when Linus was nine, devastated the young boy.
that sapped her energy and forced her to stay in bed for days at a time.
Belle Pauling needed her children's help—Linus's especially—to keep the boardinghouse going. She needed the children to work around the house and take on outside jobs. So she could never understand why Linus preferred to be off at his grandparents', or up in his room reading, or in his laboratory. She would hector and nag, but it all seemed to go over his head. His only response was a muttered "Get to that later, Mother," or a terrible chemical odor wafting up from the basement, bothering the boarders. Linus did take odd jobs and helped as much as he felt he could. But he was distant from his mother and spent every spare minute in his basement sanctuary, alone with his thoughts and his wonderful experiments.
Using some of his father's old books, chemistry texts from the library, and ideas he picked up in his high school classes, Linus figured out for himself how to make homemade explosives: mixtures of potassium chlorate and sulfur that went off when a trolley car ran over them (the company sent a man to Linus's house to put a stop to it) and an unstable iodide of nitrogen that popped loudly when disturbed—a sort of junior-grade nitroglycerine that proved very popular at school. Acid spills ruined his pants and ate the ends off brooms. He once set fire to the wooden walls with molten phosphorus.
While he was having a very good time, he was also learning. There was a logic to chemistry, rules about what happened when you mixed one thing with another. The more rules he learned, the easier it became to make the things he wanted to. It had always been easy for Linus to remember things, and now he began to memorize, almost without knowing it, great amounts of chemistry from the books he read.
Soon he was surprising his high school teachers. His chemistry teacher, a Mr. Green, was so impressed that he allowed Linus to stay after school to help determine the heat value of the school's heating oil and coal. The school offered only one year of chemistry to its students, but Linus was so eager that Mr. Green helped him get credit for a second year of independent study.
By the time he was a senior in high school, Linus knew that he wanted to make a career in chemistry. He had read about a field called chemical engineering, where there were well-paying jobs helping industries turn the ideas of chemists into new ways to make things. He knew that a college degree was necessary to be a chemical engineer.
But going to college was not going to be easy. His mother was barely making ends meet at the boardinghouse and was constantly harping on Linus to bring in more money. He had earned cash in various ways through high school—setting pins in a bowling alley, delivering newspapers and milk and special delivery letters, even running a movie projector at a nearby theater on the weekends—and his mother assumed that when he graduated from high school he would, like most boys his age, go out and find steady work. When she heard that instead he wanted to go to college, she became furious. You do not need college, she told him. The man down at the machine shop has already offered you a fine job there. You must face up to your responsibilities and help support our family.
It was a terrible choice. Linus would either have to do what his mother asked and give up his chance for a career in chemistry, or he would have to find the strength to say no. Unsure of what to do, he turned for advice to the family of his friend Lloyd Jeffress, who had first shown him chemistry years before. Linus had spent a good deal of time at the Jeffress home, so different from his own. Lloyd's family was well educated and better off than Linus's. The Jeffress home was full of interesting books and magazines, music, and dinner-table discussions about politics and science. They recognized and appreciated Linus's chemical talents. You must go to college, they told him. During a few years of study you will not make any money, but in the end you will have a much better job with higher pay. It's the best thing not only for you but, in the long run, for your mother as well.
Heartened by their advice, Linus told his mother that, despite her wishes, he planned to enter the chemical engineering program at Oregon Agricultural College (OAC) in Corvallis, about 90 miles away. It would be inexpensive, he said, because Oregon students paid no tuition there. During the summers he could earn money for books and living expenses. At the end of four years, he told her, he would be able to find a much better job, one that would bring in more money for the family. Reluctantly, Belle gave her assent.
Linus was learning to make decisions on his own. And there would be one more challenge to authority before he left for college. Impressed by his good grades and the amount of science he was taking, OAC admitted him when he was 16 years old, early in his senior year of high school. Linus had by that time taken every science and math course he could, so he decided to leave a term early to get a head start at college. The only problem was a state rule requiring that every senior take a full year of American history. Linus figured that he could get around this by taking two terms of the class simultaneously, but the school principal refused his request. "He didn't ask me, 'What are you going to do? Are you a good student?' He just said no," Linus recalled later.
Instead of doing what his principal told him was required, Linus did what he thought was best. He left for college early—without his diploma. Linus Pauling was destined to become one of history's most famous high school dropouts.
"I will not be able, on account of my youth and inexperience, to do justice to the courses and the teaching placed before me," he confided to his diary just before com-
ing to OAC in early 1917. He need not have worried. True, he was younger than the average freshman, but he was also brighter, especially when it concerned chemistry, and it did not take long for him to make his mark at the school. He discovered quickly that he knew as much or more about chemistry than most of his professors, none of whom had earned a Ph.D. and many of whom had only the most rudimentary knowledge of the field. With his quick mind and prodigious memory, Linus earned As in all his science and math courses, greatly impressing his classmates. "It just seemed like all he had to do was sit down at a table, look at a book, and he'd absorb the knowledge without reading it," one remembered.
Away from his mother and the pressures of the board-inghouse, Linus began to enjoy himself. He wore the freshman beanie required of all "rooks," rooted at football
Pauling (far left) with some of the members of his fraternity at Oregon Agricultural College. His college years brought him confidence in his teaching abilities and spurred his passion for research.
games, partied at "smokers" (student boxing matches featuring heavy consumption of beer and cigars), and tried playing billiards. As a sophomore, he joined a fraternity and got a job in the chemistry department's "solution room," where he helped prepare various chemicals for laboratory use. He still had a few things to learn—on one occasion, while siphoning concentrated ammonia from a large jug, the tubing squirted enough into him to eat away the skin lining the inside of his mouth—but he mastered almost everything put before him. He even made enough money through chopping wood, mopping floors, and cutting up meat for sorority house kitchens to send some extra money home.
After his sophomore year, Linus landed the best summer job of all: testing the composition of asphalt being used to make a new system of hard-topped highways across the state. It paid well, and Linus enjoyed camping out with the road crews for weeks at a time, learning about surveying and laughing at the workers' sometimes off-color jokes. Once they gave the teenage chemist the chance to drive a steamroller and he promptly overturned it, narrowly missing killing himself. He sent all the money he earned to his mother, knowing that Belle would use what she needed and give him back the rest for college.
But as his junior year was about to begin, Linus's mother told him that she could no longer give him any of the money he had earned. Perhaps hoping that he might quit college, she told him that the needs at the boardinghouse were too great and he would have to take a year off from OAC and work.
The news confused and disheartened him, but Linus had no intention of quitting college, even if he had to delay graduation by a year. The interruption turned out better than he could have imagined, however. Learning of his problem, his chemistry professors at OAC offered him a year's contract to teach quantitative chemistry, a course to introduce students to general principles and laboratory tech
During the summer after his sophomore year of college, Pauling (second from right) took a job testing the composition of asphalt being used to make highways.
niques that he had taken himself just the year before. Linus did not hesitate. With this job he would be able to stay on campus, keep learning chemistry, and make money at the same time.
It was a wonderful year. Linus had always been a keen critic of his own professors, noting the reasons some lectures put students to sleep while others got students as excited about chemistry as he was, and thus put a great deal of work into preparing entertaining lectures. To improve his lecturing style, he got some pointers from a professor of oratory. Linus's natural enthusiasm, his orderly, logical approach to the subject, his quick mind and hard work soon proved to students that he was not only as good as the other professors but was in many ways a decided improvement. "Lots of times the students would say, 'Well, hell, he knows more than the profs anyway,'" said one of his classmates. "He could conduct the classes better than they could." Before long they were calling him "The Boy Professor" and vying to get into his classes.
During the summer after his sophomore year of college, Pauling (second from right) took a job testing the composition of asphalt being used to make highways.
Pauling's teaching year proved important in other ways as well. He was given a staft desk in the school's small chemistry library, where between classes he could look over the newest chemical journals as they came in. He read them cover to cover, learning about the most exciting new areas ot research and adding a great deal to his ever-growing mental library of chemical facts.
By the time he returned to school as a junior, he had completed his transition from a shy, unsure teenager into a self-confident, wisecracking young college man. He was never afraid to show off what he knew. One professor remembered having Linus pepper him with "embarrassing questions about the ultimate structure of matter." Teasing another, Linus wrote on a homework assignment, "I have attempted to use words of one syllable to as great an extent as practicable in order to prevent any mental strain." On one occasion a chemistry professor tried to needle him back, saying after correcting a problem, "Well now, since Linus Pauling and I get the same answer, when two great authorities agree, it must be right." Linus just looked at him innocently and asked, ''Who's the other one?"
In only one area did Lmus lag behind his classmates. He had trouble dating. He was critical of his looks—"The more I look at myself in the mirror, the more peculiar my physiognomy appears to me," he wrote in his diary—and had always been shy around girls. This created a problem at his fraternity, where every member was required to date every weekend. The punishment for failure was to be dunked into a bathtub full of freezing water. Pauling endured it week after week until he figured a way to get out of it. As he was being carried to the tub, he breathed very deeply, saturating his blood with oxygen. "Then I didn't struggle at all," he said. "They put me in the tub, holding me under the water, and I just lay there, lay there, lay there, and the seconds went by ... a minute went by . . . and they pulled me out, very frightened, saying, 'He's had a heart attack or some
thing!" Of course, I recovered, and from then on didn't have to worry about it."
Dating ceased being a problem on the first day of class in the winter term of 1922. Pauling was then teaching a chemistry course to home economics majors and stepped up to the lectern. To avoid any "boy professor" sniggering from the 25 young women facing him, he immediately asked a question. "Will you tell me all you know about ammonium hydroxide, Miss ..." He ran his finger down the registration sheet, looking for a name he couldn't possibly mispronounce. "Miss Miller?" He looked up and into the eyes of Ava Helen Miller, a small, delicate, strikingly pretty young girl with long, dark hair. She was just 18 years old, a flirt, and, as it turned out, knew quite a bit about ammonium hydroxide.
Pauling was attracted to her almost immediately, but he held his emotions back as the days went by. Ava Helen Miller, for her part, proved to be witty, blindingly attractive, and very interested in her young professor. He must, he told himself, maintain the decorum of a proper professor-student relationship. He tried hard to appear uninterested in Ava Helen, avoiding her eyes, steering clear of her desk as he walked around the room. She responded by making him jealous, encouraging visits from other would-be beaus, who sometimes visited her by climbing through the laboratory's windows during lab sessions. Finally, Pauling passed her a note with her homework. A year or two before, he wrote, a young OAC professor had been severelv criticized for the
Ava Helen Miller, seen below nght in a school play, was a student in a chemistry dass taught by Unus Paul<ng in (922 ,".':>_'" he WO\ only 21 yean old. The two would marry the next year.
attentions he had paid to one of his students. This was not, Pauling wrote, going to happen to him.
At the end of class, Ava Helen stormed up to his desk. "You are my chemistry instructor, so of course I expect you to teach me some chemistry," she snapped, "but I don't expect you to teach me anything else." Then she turned her back and marched off.
Undermined, Pauling's defenses crumbled. A few weeks later, Ava Helen found another note from her professor, this time asking her out for a stroll across campus. It was the beginning of a whirlwind romance. "Boys had always told me about what beautiful eyes I had or how good a dancer I was, but Linus was not overly concerned with that," Ava Helen said. "He was full of ideas and dreams. He knew what he wanted to do and it all sounded so exciting."
In the late spring, just before giving her a final grade for the class, Linus asked Ava Helen to marry him. Without hesitating, she said yes. Fully aware as always of his role as a professor, he then lowered her grade one point below what he thought it should be, in order to avoid any impression of favoritism.
WHAT HOLDS MOLECULES TOGETHER?
When Linus Pauling was in college, all chemists knew that atoms came in distinct sizes, each called an element. Atoms in turn combined with others in simple whole-number proportions to form larger molecules: two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom joined to form water, and so forth. Each element preferred to make a specific number of links to others—carbon preferred making four bonds to other atoms, hydrogen only one, for instance—a combining ability known as the element s valence.
But no one knew why elements combined in just these proportions, or what forces held them together. Whoever solved that mystery would hold the key to making sense of much of chemistry.
During his year of teaching at OAC, Pauling read one attempt at an answer in the papers of Gilbert Newton Lewis, the head of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley, and Irving Langmuir, a General Electric company chemist who would later become the first industrial chemist to win the Nobel Prize. They believed that an element s valence arose naturally from its structure.
Just a few years before, the British physicist Ernest Rutherford had shown that atoms were made of incredibly dense, positively charged nuclei surrounded by a number of smaller, negatively charged electrons. Each element was distinguished by its own specific number of electrons. Lewis and Langmuir compared those numbers to the periodic table of the elements and concluded that atoms were most stable when they were surrounded by shells that contained eight electrons at a time (except for the innermost shell, which was stable with two electrons). If an atom had only seven electrons in its outer shell, it would tend to build a stable eight-electron structure by combining with another atom that had an extra electron. The result would be a "shared electron" chemical bond between the two atoms.
Pauling was fascinated by this idea. He had learned, and was teaching his students, the old "hook and eye" theory of chemical bonding, in which certain elements were said to have a certain number of "hooks" and others a given number of "eyes." This way of explaining why elements combined with others in certain proportions really explained nothing. But Lewis and Langmuir, with their model based on the most recent ideas about atomic structure, seemed to be on to something important.
Was this article helpful?