Linus Pauling and the Birth of Quantum Mechanics

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling in Munich, with Walter Heitler (left) and Fritz London (right), 1927.

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling in Munich, with Walter Heitler (left) and Fritz London (right), 1927.

My year in Munich was very productive. I not only got a very good grasp of quantum mechanics — by attending Sommerfeld’s lectures on the subject, as well as other lectures by him and other people in the University, and also by my own study of published papers — but in addition I was able to begin attacking many problems dealing with the nature of the chemical bond by applying quantum mechanics to these problems.”
- Linus Pauling, 1992

In the spring of 1926, funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling embarked on their first trip to Europe, scientific tourists beginning a journey that would revolutionize modern chemistry and physics.

The Paulings travelled through the continent, stopping at the famed institutes of modern science in Munich, Göttingen, and Zurich, among others, and meeting with scientific giants including Arnold Sommerfeld, Max Born and Erwin Schrödinger. It was at this time that quantum mechanics, the branch of science devoted to the study of the atom’s physics, was being revolutionized by the ideas of Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg. It wasn’t until Pauling left Germany for Switzerland however, that he was introduced to a ground-breaking idea – the combination of Schrödinger’s wave mechanics with the study of structural chemistry.

In Zurich, the German researchers Walter Heitler and Fritz London explained to Pauling the concept of “electron resonance” as developed by Heisenberg. At its core, the theory suggested that electrons could be attracted to one another, to the point where they would eventually switch back and forth between two given atoms. This exchange of electrons would, in turn, release energy, in the process drawing the two atoms together and creating a chemical bond. This revolutionary concept agreed with certain known principles of the hydrogen atom – the atom on which Heitler and London were conducting their calculations – and appeared to support the Pauli exclusion principle which, as Pauling later put it, “states that no two electrons in the universe can be in exactly the same state.”

After his return to Caltech in September of 1927, Pauling worked on several projects, including his first published book and a class on the Heitler-London work. In the process of defining his research program as a young member of the Caltech faculty, Pauling decided that, rather than continuing to dabble in theoretical physics, he would instead return to his roots in chemistry. With that, he set out to combine what he had learned in Europe with his continuing interests in structural chemistry.

He began his work on the chemical bond, figuring calculations and comparing his results to existing experimental data. He affirmed that Heitler and London’s work meshed comfortably with G. N. Lewis‘ theory of the shared electron pair and he published articles on the subject, in the process introducing many chemists to the notion of using quantum mechanics as a tool for the study of non-physics problems. In early 1928, he suggested that quantum mechanics could answer the question of carbon bonding – a revolutionary idea at the time. Unfortunately, while the preliminary mathematics were promising, the sheer mathematical computing power required did not exist for Pauling to fully solve the problem.

In 1930 M.I.T. physicist John C. Slater succeeded in simplifying Schrödinger’s mathematical description of the types of changes experienced by any quantum system over time — an important mathematical model known as the Schrödinger Wave Equation. By slightly restructuring Slater’s set of simplified equations, Pauling was able to utilize the concept of wave functions to describe new orbitals that matched the known traits of the carbon-tetrahedron bond. Not only did these new methods allow Pauling to calculate the data for basic tetrahedral bonds, they also provided stable footing for detailing the precise structures of a series of complex molecules. This was the genesis of valence-bond theory — a hugely important marriage of quantum physics and structural chemistry.

In early 1931, Pauling released a paper detailing six rules, later known as “Pauling’s Rules,” that dictated the basic principles governing the molecular structure of any given molecule. He presented his findings in the simplest language possible, avoiding complex mathematics in order to make the concepts accessible to his fellow chemists. This paper, of course, was titled “The Nature of the Chemical Bond” and would serve as the basis for his immensely popular textbook of the same name.

In 1954 Pauling won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “For research into the nature of the chemical bond and its application to the elucidation of complex substances.” The award was granted in recognition of the work that began during his first trip to Europe and blossomed in the decade that followed. Pauling’s innovative application of quantum mechanics had resulted in his receipt of the highest possible scientific honor and the subsequent worldwide recognition of his talents.

Learn more about this story by clicking on the video link below, or by visiting the website “Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History.”

A Century of Science and Life. 1988.

A great achievement: the discovery of hybridization of bond orbitals

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4 Responses

  1. [...] everything from politics to academia to pure science.  For those readers who enjoyed our posts on quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, we highly recommend checking out P & P to see what a [...]

  2. [...] Linus Pauling and the Birth of Quantum Mechanics [5-20-08; 187] [...]

  3. [...] The Guggenheim Trip: a three-part series detailing Linus and Ava Helen’s adventures as they toured through Europe for a year, meeting major scientific figures and absorbing the fledgling discipline of quantum mechanics. [...]

  4. [...] in order to learn from the European geniuses of quantum physics and to later become one of the early American pioneers of the new field of quantum mechanics. Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s apartment in Munich, [...]

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