Linus Pauling on involvement in politics
I have to admit I didn’t know Linus Pauling’s second Nobel was for the Peace Prize. In addition to his scientific pursuits, Pauling helped bring about the treaty banning tests of atomic explosives in the atmosphere. Though six decades ago, it seems eerily relevant to discussion about scientist’s role in politics today:
Pauling’s political stand in the last years of the Truman presidency seems mild enough now, a rather flamboyantly idealistic campaign against the cold war, against atomic weapons and the development of the hydrogen bomb. In those days of the rise of Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, when the national anxieties reverberated into hysteria in Southern California, Pauling’s course took courage and principle. His politics had unpleasant consequences at the time. At the end of April 1952, Pauling was supposed to go to London to attend a meeting of the Royal Society on the structure of proteins, but at the last minute was refused a passport. Some claim that had he got to London, he would have seen the newest x-ray-diffraction pictures of DNA from Maurice Wilkins’s and Rosalind Franklin’s laboratories, and from them learned what he needed to solve the structure. When I asked Pauling about the political responsibilities of scientists, he laughed as if at the foolishness of his enemies. “I have contended that scientists—first that they have the responsibilities of ordinary citizens, but then that they also have a responsibility because of their understanding of science, and of those problems of society in which science is involved closely, to help their fellow citizens to understand, by explaining to them what their own understanding of these problems is. And I have contended that they have the duty also to express their own opinions—if they have opinions. Of course, just after 1945, there was a good response from scientists. But then in the United States, McCarthy came along and frightened the majority of scientists out of taking any action. And, of course, there’s been the really great effort made by the administration, by the powers in control, to convince scientists that they should stay out of things, you know.” The brows contracted furiously and the swell of language deepened. “Year after year, I’ve been told I might know a lot about chemistry but that doesn’t mean that I know anything about world affairs or economics or social problems, so I should just keep my mouth shut. I have replied—well, first by saying”—he laughed again, enjoying himself—”that I refuse to take your advice, but second by saying that a lot of other people, the lawyers and politicians, are just as ignorant as I am about these matters, and yet no one tells them to keep their mouths shut. After Dean Acheson had been quoted in Harper’s magazine as saying that I might know a lot about biochemistry but I didn’t know anything about world affairs, and should keep my mouth shut—that there was no justification for me to make pronouncements about world affairs—I didn’t bother to say that I wasn’t a biochemist, but I wrote back saying that if Dean Acheson had studied biochemistry as much as I had studied world affair, then I would say we ought to listen to what he had to say about biochemistry.”
The excerpt is from The Eighth Day of Creation, a comprehensive history of molecular biology’s beginnings.