I must have attended more than a thousand lectures and speeches in my life but there is only one that I can recall in any detail, and that was a graduation speech delivered by Linus Pauling at Windham College, in Putney, Vermont, in the mid-Sixties.
Pauling began inauspiciously, fishing about for a note he had made. 'I am supposed to talk to you today,' he began, reading from his prompt-sheet, 'about 'the relationship between the humanities and the sciences'.
'Well,' he continued, 'I suppose there must be some relationship.' He then improvised, telling us about his early interest in science, but soon settling into a sort of introductory lecture to molecular biology.
This led to a description of how his discoveries in molecular biology could be applied to understanding the aetiology of the disease sickle-cell anaemia. He became passionate about the possibilities his work had raised for eradicating the disease. Its genetic origins could be tested for and, if people could be warned not to 'fall in love with and marry' someone who had the wrong match for their genotype, the condition would disappear in a couple of generations. But nothing was ever done to disseminate this information. Pauling suggested it might be tattooed to people's foreheads. I later learnt that this disease only affects black babies; I suppose Pauling felt that might be the reason the public health authorities did not make better use of his research.
At this point, although Pauling did not refer to it, the link between science and the humanities would seem to have been made. For he went on to speak, from a scientific perspective, of another failure of public policy. He spelled out, with passionate intensity and in great detail, the damage that had been done to the genetic condition of mankind by atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
Pauling then left science behind altogether to talk about the political issue that mattered most to the young graduates and their parents he was addressing: the Vietnam war. Once again, with precision, he enumerated the casualties, but he also spoke of the fact that the fighting was being waged by the President without the constitutionally required declaration of war from Congress. (President Lyndon Johnson, knowing he would never get such a declaration, had not asked for it.) 'Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,' Pauling read from a note, 'and whenever any government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.'
At this point it became hard to hear Pauling's words, for there were shouts of 'Traitor]' and 'Treason]' coming from all parts of the auditorium. The 'rock- ribbed Republican' dads of the Windham graduates were on their feet in rage at Pauling's call for the overthrow of the government. (He was using the words of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, but I suspect this was not widely recognised.)
Pauling continued for a few minutes more, winding up with the comment that he hoped he had demonstrated a link between the humanities and the sciences in a democracy, and sat down to a mixture of outrage and applause.Reuse content