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Linus Pauling: Biography & Discovery

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Linus Pauling was one of the most influential scientists who ever lived. In this lesson, learn about his life and all his remarkable discoveries in the fields of chemistry and biology.

Who was Linus Pauling?

In 1901 a child was born in Portland, Oregon, who would transform the world. During his 93 years on Earth (1901-1994), he transformed chemistry by deepening our understanding of how and why chemical bonds form, and how they influence molecular shape. He founded the new science of molecular biology, and was the only person to ever receive two Nobel Prizes in different fields (Chemistry and Peace).

In addition to these amazing accomplishments, he was also a gifted teacher, a vocal activist for nuclear disarmament and world peace, and a devoted husband and father. Who was this remarkable person who is still regarded as one of the most influential people of the twentieth century? His name was Linus Pauling, and he was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived.

Early Life and Education

Linus Pauling grew up in Oregon and enrolled in Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) at the age of 15. While still an undergraduate, Pauling began researching how the physical and chemical properties of a material depend on the structure of the atoms within it. These early research experiences would go on to shape the rest of his scientific career.

Linus Pauling graduated from Oregon Agricultural College with a B.S. degree in Chemical Engineering in 1922
Linus Pauling at college graduation

Pauling also taught several undergraduate classes while still a student himself. In one of these, he met a young woman named Ava Helen Miller, whom he would marry in 1923. Linus and Ava Helen Pauling had a famously long and happy marriage and raised four children.

Scientific Discoveries in Chemistry

After graduating from Oregon Agricultural College, Pauling was accepted into graduate school at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He completed a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and mathematical physics in only three years, graduating in 1925. While at Cal Tech, Pauling researched crystal structure using X-ray crystallography and published nine papers, an extraordinary achievement after only three years of research!

Pauling then received a fellowship to study in Europe with some of the pioneers in the field of quantum mechanics, including Erwin Schrödinger. While in Europe, he began to think of ways to use quantum mechanics to understand atomic bonding and molecular structure. This was something that no one had ever thought of before, and would form the basis of most of his future scientific work.

After two years in Europe, Pauling came back to Caltech, where he was hired as a professor of theoretical chemistry in 1927. During the next five years, he would continue his experimental study of crystallography and combine it with theoretical predictions using quantum mechanics in order to describe and predict the structure of minerals. It was also during this time that he developed a series of rules, now known as Pauling's rules, which are still used to understand and predict the crystal structure of compounds containing ionic bonding.

In 1932, Pauling made another big discovery when he introduced the concept of electronegativity. Electronegativity measures how strongly an atom exerts a pull on electrons. The difference in electronegativity between two atoms determines the type of bond that will form between them. If the electronegativity difference is large, then the bond will be ionic, and, if it is small, the bond will be covalent. Even today, the electronegativity of an atom is measured on the Pauling scale, named in honor of Linus Pauling.

Pauling developed the electronegativity scale that is used to determine which types of bonds an element is likely to form
periodic table of electronegativity

Around the same time, Pauling also introduced the idea of orbital hybridization and resonance, which further deepened our understanding of atomic bonding. Pauling was more than just a great scientist, though. He was an amazing science communicator as well. In 1939, he took all of his research on chemical bonding and wrote a book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules and Crystals, which is still considered to be one of the most important scientific books ever written, and remains in print today!

For his work on chemical bonding, Pauling received the first of two Nobel Prizes in 1954.

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