The Smartest Person in the Room

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Linus Pauling was always the smartest person in the room. 

These days we hear the word “genius” associated with people who excel at making omelets, organizing birthday parties, and playing fantasy football.  Pauling, who was born in 1901, was an old school genius – a brilliant scientist with unrivalled powers of deduction and imagination. 

His 1931 paper, The Nature of the Chemical Bond, was revolutionary.  In 1939 he solved the vexing mysteries of sickle cell anemia and essentially launched the field of molecular biology.  The Structure of Proteins, published in 1951, pulled back the curtain on the nature of life’s building blocks.  By the early 60s he was widely regarded as the 20th century’s greatest living scientist.

But Pauling was just getting started.  He and his wife Eva became global advocates for human rights and nuclear disarmament.  In 1954 he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and eight years later the Nobel Peace Prize.  To this day Pauling is the only person in history to win two unshared Nobel Prizes.    

In March 1966, at the age of 65, while accepting yet another honor, he mused aloud to the audience that he wished he could live another 25 years so he could experience whatever new wonders might come through science.

A few days later he received a letter from someone who had been in the audience that night.  It was a note that would change his life – but not for the good. 

The author suggested that if Pauling wanted to live longer and feel better, he should consider megadoses of vitamin C.  The venerable scientist gave it a shot.  Human beings need vitamin C to thrive, but our bodies cannot manufacture it.  Nutritionists recommend that adults ingest 60-90 mg every day, primarily by eating fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Pauling figured that you can’t have too much of a good thing.  So he began to swallow generous quantities of vitamin C. 

At first it was three times the recommended dose.  Then ten times.  Eventually he reached 18,000 mg per day – 300 times what doctors, then and now, consider safe.

Pauling announced that he felt livelier and healthier.  He no longer got sick.  In 1970 he published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, which became a national bestseller.  In grandiose fashion he declared that megadoses of vitamins would abolish polio, warts, strokes, leprosy, rabies, altitude sickness, fractures, mental illness, ulcers, radiation poisoning, stress, and snakebites – to name just a few human maladies.  Within a short period of time, one in four Americans was following his advice.

But as Paul Offit documents in his book Pandora’s Lab, there was abundant evidence that the great Linus Pauling was “clearly and spectacularly wrong.” 

For the first time in his life, Pauling had done an end run around the scientific process – the part where diligent researchers work slowly but surely behind the scenes to uncover truth.  He ignored the fact that study after study showed that while vitamin C might have a modest effect in shortening the duration of colds, supplemental doses were powerless to prevent them.

But Pauling was brilliant.  He couldn’t possibly be wrong, could he? 

So he doubled down. 

He declared that vitamin C cures cancer.  At first he said it would drop the US cancer rate by 10%.  Then he said, “No, it will be more like 75%.”  Vitamin C would also allow most people to live to 100.  Then he decided we could all live to the age of 150. 

One thing’s for sure: Linus Pauling’s pronouncements did wonders for the sale of orange juice.   

Research gradually proved beyond reasonable doubt that megadoses of vitamins aren’t merely ineffectual.  They can be dangerous.  Instead of curing cancer, massive doses of vitamin C actually make cancer more likely.     

Pauling was incensed.  He accused the entire medical establishment of fraud.  But it was too late.  His legacy was tarnished beyond repair – all because he couldn’t imagine that his brilliance could ever lead him astray.

Poignantly, he died at age 93.  Of cancer.  

The other candidate for the 20th century’s greatest scientist, Albert Einstein, was thrilled when studies showed that he was wrong.  He was grateful that such corrections allowed him to escape from errors. The difference between the two scientists emerges in Proverbs 9:8:  “A scoffer who is corrected will only hate you.  The wise, when rebuked, will love you.” 

It’s possible to be the smartest person in the room, while at the same time demonstrating you’re also the least wise.

Be humble.  Be open to correction.  Never forget that you may be wrong.

Just in case you don’t have a Ph.D., a breakthrough bestselling book, or a tenured position on the faculty of a prestigious university, don’t despair.

You can still be wise.

In the school of Christ, that puts you at the head of the class.