Saturday, December 25, 2010

Lifelines 96 -- Linus Pauling

Linus Pauling was a chemist who lived a long and productive life. He received two Nobel Prizes, one for his work on the chemical bond and one for his efforts to get the US and the USSR to negotiate a ban on testing nuclear weapons in the air and sea. He could have won a third Nobel Prize had he not won the other two. He was the first to recognize and name a molecular disease. He demonstrated that sickle cell anemia, a disorder that afflicts some children of African American ancestry, was caused by a defect so small that it only altered one three hundredth of the hemoglobin molecule. He would have won a Nobel Prize for the third time if he had not made an error in interpreting the structure of DNA.

I met Pauling twice. The first time was at UCLA where I served as his host while he spoke on five different topics in as many days. He was politically controversial because of his efforts to get scientists to sign his petitions against testing atomic bombs in the atmosphere. None of the senior faculty in my department would host him to dinner so I volunteered and he and his wife had a dinner at my home and he met mostly a few graduate students and younger faculty like myself. I asked him about his error and whether he would have interpreted the DNA molecule correctly if he had seen Rosalind Franklin’s or Wilkins’s xray diffraction pictures which Watson and Crick used. He said science doesn’t work that way. You can sometimes see the obvious and not recognize it because of your expectations. I admired him for that honesty. Many competitors of Watson and Crick claimed that they would have seen the obvious if they had access to those photographs of DNA.

I met Pauling and his wife again at Stony Brook in 1969. I was the faculty advisor for Sanger College, a dormitory on our campus. The dormitory had funds for a dedication of the building. Pauling was scheduled to visit for a conference on crystallography. I told the students to write to Pauling and he graciously agreed to give a keynote talk (along with Margaret Sanger’s son).

In his later years Pauling became more controversial not because of his anti-war views but because he believed huge doses of vitamin C would prevent colds (and other diseases). His evidence was indirect and many people lost faith in his abilities as a scientist. Research with human subjects is much more difficult and less convincing than experiments that can be tightly controlled using bacteria, fruit flies, maize, or mice. Unfortunately these forms of life don’t get colds!

Pauling responded to claims that as a scientist he should not get involved in public controversies about cold war politics and radiation damage to our health because he was not an expert. Pauling said that if his critics read as much chemistry as he read articles and books on controversial issues, he would consider their advice. At least President Kennedy recognized what our Constitution and country is all about. He had dinner with Pauling the evening of the same day that Pauling picketed the White House.

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