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Pauling and Polymaths August 14, 2009

Posted by calvinus in Uncategorized.
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I’ve been away for a while and have not been thinking at all about chemistry or academia…and for good reason (not that I am telling you lot why).  Not long back at work and I have a surprising mountain of goodies that have appeared amongst the perpetual detritus of admin nonentities.  One of these has turned up via Peter Muray-Rust’s fine blog.

Thank you Peter for bringing the Pauling blog to light.  Linus Pauling remains one of those fascinating, monumental characters.  His contribution to chemistry one of the most significant and fundamental of the modern era.  Yet it is not just his chemistry that raises him above the crowd, as highlighted in the blog.  The day I tripped across the Pauling blog had an article about his involvement in disarmament and his peace activism, in this case, the Hiroshima Appeal.

Linus not just influenced chemistry but was active across a range of disciplines – and important in them too.  I can see me working more references to Pauling and his work into my teaching.  Does his profile need to be raised?  Do “the youth” need to be educated in this way?

Quite probably.

Two years ago, whilst teaching molecular spectroscopy and the Born-Oppenheimer approximation, I went off on one about another character of similar stature; J Robert Oppenheimer.  It would appear that out of 25 adults studying for a science degree, none had heard of Oppenheimer.  More worryingly, none had heard of the Manhattan Project.  It only sunk in to some of them when I gave the vague clue of “Come on, you must have heard of it – a couple of loud pops in the East around 60 years ago?”

Now, I don’t consider myself to be that old but does nobody try to put faces to equations?  Are these names really so meaningless to the current crop of students?  Should this actually be the case?  It seems a shame that the rich history of the likes of Pauling and Oppenheimer, of the likes of Richard Feynman, here in the U.K., of the likes of Bertrand Russell is not known.  All had fascinating, colourful lives – Oppenheimer’s role in the course of history particularly so.  All made fundamental contributions to many different fields (especially, I might argue, Russell). Who, I wonder is making the same contributions, to more than just a particular branch of science today?

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