Thursday, July 11, 2013

Remembering Linus Pauling

Gordon Hughes, a friend from high school half a century ago, posted a note on Linus Pauling on the blog that accompanies his book, Hard Drive, As the Disk Turns. Gordon's post recalled Pauling as a teacher at Cal Tech, when Gordon was a student. The post reminded me of the kindness of that great man.

Linus Pauling won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. He almost won it a second time since he nearly beat Crick and Watson to the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule. He did also win the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in the successful campaign to stop above ground testing of atomic weapons.

The year that I graduated from the engineering school of UCLA I was an officer of the schools engineering society, and a member of the committee charged with finding a speaker for our graduation dinner. We decided to go for broke and invite Dr. Pauling, who was a professor at Cal Tech, which was only across town from out campus.

I was designated to call and make the invitation. He responded to the call inviting a couple of us to come to his office and explain what we wanted him to do in some detail. My fellow committee member, Jimmy Miyamoto, and I made the visit. Pauling was very gracious, and we spent a couple of hours in his office chatting. Unfortunately, he turned down the invitation.

A few weeks later, Jimmy and I were in a coffee house one evening when Dr. Pauling and a friend came into the place. Pauling recognized us and they joined us. We again chatted for several hours, long into the evening.

Linus Pauling was the first Nobel Prize winner that I ever met, and one of the most distinguished scientists of his time. Indeed, he was world famous both as a scientist and as a peace activist. His willingness to spend hours of his time with a couple of soon to be engineers has remained with me for the last 54 years. He was perfectly natural, treating us as if we were his equals, appearing as interested at what we had to say as we were in him. (In fairness, Jimmy was a lot more interesting that I at the time.)

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