Quote Origin: “How do you go about having good ideas?” “You have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones”
Linus Pauling? Apocryphal?
Question for Quote Investigator: An innovative scientist was once asked about how it was possible to generate worthwhile ideas. He replied approximately as follows:
You have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones.
This remark has been ascribed to Linus Pauling who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962. Would you please help me to find a citation?
Reply from Quote Investigator: A partially matching quotation from Linus Pauling appeared in “Fortune” magazine in April 1960 within an article about prominent U.S. chemists. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:¹
Pauling energetically pursued his ideas in many directions. “The best way to have a good idea,” he says, “is to have a lot of ideas.”
In January 1961 “Time” magazine printed a slightly different version of Pauling’s remark:²
Linus Carl Pauling, 59, Caltech’s outspoken, opinionated chemist, began prying into the personality of the atom just after World War I, when the laboratories of his specialty were alive with novel and productive ideas. The coincidence was explosive. For Pauling believes that “the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” He had plenty.
In 1969 Dickinson College of Carlisle, Pennsylvania awarded Pauling the Priestley Memorial Award. The local newspaper, “The Evening Sentinel”, published an article about the ceremony which included remarks from Pauling during which he employed the full version of the quotation:³
“I was once asked ‘How do you go about having good ideas?’ and my answer was that you have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones. Train your subconscious to discard the bad ones,” he suggested.
“Often a flash of inspiration gives scientists answers and ideas. Later the scientist looks for a logical derivation and often succeeds in finding one.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Oregon State University holds many documents about Linus Pauling in an archive at its Valley Library including a manuscript composed by Pauling titled “The Genesis of the Concept of Molecular Disease”. The document is dated 1973, and it contains a passage about the provenance of the quotation:⁴
Several times I have been asked how it came about that I had the idea that sickle-cell anemia might be a molecular disease. I have, in fact, been asked also about how I have had other ideas. On my 60th birthday, in 1961, I received a letter from one of my former students, David Harker, in which he wrote that in 1935 he had asked me how you go about having good ideas, and that I had answered that you have a lot of ideas and throw away the bad ones.
In 1977 “Nova”, the U.S. public television series about science, released a program about Pauling. He discussed the quotation again:⁵
Back when I was sixty years old, I think it was, when there was a party for me on my sixtieth birthday, David Harker, one of my early students, told an anecdote, a story. He said that back in 1935 he asked me a question: “Dr. Pauling how do you have so many good ideas?” And I said: “Well, you just have lots of ideas and throw away the bad ones.”
And this I think is part of it, that you aren’t going to have good ideas unless you have lots of ideas and some sort of principle of selection, some feeling based on experience, perhaps, as to what the ideas are that are apt to be good.
In June 1977 the Nova program was critiqued by the TV reviewer of the “Los Angeles Times” who repeated a version of the quotation:⁶
The secret to having so many good ideas is simply to come up with lots of ideas and throw out the bad ones, Linus Pauling remarks near the end of tonight’s Nova program (8 p.m., Channel 28). This affectionate profile of the two-time Nobel Prize winner is a testimonial to the abundance of good ideas he has introduced to the world during his 76 years here.
In 1995 by Ted Goertzel and Ben Goertzel published the biography “Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics”. The book used an instance while describing Pauling’s philosophy:⁷
Pauling’s philosophy had always been to have a lot of ideas and then to throw out the bad ones. In his work in the hard sciences, this had worked out quite well. When he made a mistake, such as his embarrassing flub in the race to find the molecular structure of DNA, he accepted the evidence graciously. Advancing speculative hypotheses is a normal part of the scientific method, and Pauling had plenty of successes to balance his occasional failure.
In conclusion, Linus Pauling deserves credit for this quotation. He employed the full version in public in 1969. There is also some evidence that he used the saying in private with a student in the 1930s.
Image Notes: Illustration of a lightbulb from Gerd Altmann at Pixabay.
Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Stephen Goranson whose message led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.
 1960 April, Fortune, Great American Scientists: The Chemists by Lawrence Lessing, Start Page 131, Quote Page 134, Column 2, Time Inc., Chicago, Illinois (Verified with scans)
 1961 January 2, Time, Man Of The Year: U.S. Scientists, Page Number Not Specified, Time Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Accessed content.time.com on March 23, 2023)
 1969 March 28, The Evening Sentinel, Priestley Award Winner Says Deployment of ABM’s “Silly”, Start Page 1, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
 Website: Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Library Name: The Valley Library of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, Descriptive Title of Website Section: It’s in the Blood! A Documentary History of Linus Pauling, Hemoglobin and Sickle Cell Anemia, Date on Website for Manuscript: 1973, Manuscript Title: The Genesis of the Concept of Molecular Disease, Author of Manuscript: Linus Pauling (Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University, Stanford, California), Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Website Notes: Primary source documents and media, including letters, manuscripts and more. Website section originally launched in March 2005, a revised and expanded version was released in October 2008. (Web address scarc.library.oregonstate.edu; documents accessed March 19, 2023) link
 Website: Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Library Name: The Valley Library of Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon, Descriptive Title of Website Section: Linus Pauling — The Nature of the Chemical Bond — A Documentary History, Audio Clip from television show: NOVA, Date of show: 1977, Show producer: Robert Richter and WGBH-Boston, Show title: Linus Pauling, Crusading Scientist, Audio clip length: 1 minute and 43 seconds, Audio clip title: How to Have Good Ideas, Speaker in audio clip: Linus Pauling, Website Notes: Primary source documents and media, including paper and manuscripts. (Web address scarc.library.oregonstate.edu; documents accessed March 19, 2023) link
 1977 June 1, Los Angeles Times, Linus Pauling’s Lifetime of Ideas by Lee Margulies (Times Staff Writer), Section 4, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
 1995, Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics by Ted Goertzel and Ben Goertzel, Chapter 9: Alone at Big Sur, 1991–1994, Quote Page 243, Basic Books: A Division of Harper Collins Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)