Our Newest Addition: Pauling-Goudsmit Letters

Portrait of Samuel Goudsmit, 1937.

Portrait of Samuel Goudsmit, 1937.

Goudsmit and I were never together, I think, during the period when [The Structure of Line Spectra] was written. He would write a draft of some material that he thought ought to go in the book and then using that as a basis I wrote the corresponding sections of the book.”
– Linus Pauling. AHQP (Archive for the History of Quantum Physics), interview transcript part 2. Interview by John Heilbron. March 27, 1964.

The Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections is pleased to announce an important addition to the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers — the donation, by history of science scholar and dealer Jeremy Norman, of a series of letters between Linus Pauling and Samuel Goudsmit.

This correspondence, originally a part of Goudsmit’s personal papers, relates primarily to Pauling’s first book publication, The Structure of Line Spectra, a work largely-derived from Goudsmit’s original paper of the same name and co-authored by Goudsmit himself. The Pauling-Goudsmit donation includes 14 autographed letters, 5 typed signed letters, 1 typed signed note and 3 unsigned carbons, concerning the scientists’ collaboration on The Structure of Line Spectra and other topics.

This fascinating series of letters between Pauling and Goudsmit reflects their long scientific and personal association. Most of the letters were written during the 1930s and roughly half focus on The Structure of Line Spectra. While the line spectra textbook had its origins in Goudsmit’s doctoral thesis, it was translated from the German by Pauling and extensively reworked by both Pauling and Goudsmit for nearly three years before its publication in 1930. The pioneering text was the first work to be published in book form by either author.

Samuel Goudsmit, born in the Netherlands in 1902, became famous for his 1925 work with Eugene Uhlenbeck in which the physicists introduced the concept of electron spin to the scientific community. Pauling and Goudsmit met in 1926 in Europe, where Pauling had traveled on a Guggenheim fellowship to study quantum mechanics. At the time, Goudsmit was continuing his investigations into complex spectra and the Zeeman effect. The two men formed a strong friendship during their work together and, in a 1931 letter to Goudsmit, Pauling described their month of collaboration in Copenhagen as “the happiest period of scientific cooperation in my life, and the most profitable for me.”

In 1927, after obtaining his doctorate, Goudsmit accepted a professorship at the University of Michigan, where he taught until 1946. Much the correspondence from the Norman donation dates from Goudsmit’s time in Michigan, during which Pauling served first as an assistant professor and then as a full professor at Caltech. During World War II, Goudsmit was a member of the Alsos mission, a part of the Manhattan Project, in which he and other scientists were charged with assessing the German nuclear weapons development project.

After the war, Goudsmit took a position at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and served as editor-in-chief of the Physical Review, a prominent physics journal. Goudsmit was also an amateur Egyptologist, occasionally publishing in his work in archaeological journals. He passed away in at the age of seventy-six in Reno, Nevada.

The Pauling-Goudsmit letters are sprinkled with references to other famous or noted physicists, including but not limited to Sir William Lawrence Bragg (1890-1971), co-recipient of the 1915 Nobel Prize for physics for his studies in x-ray crystallography; Robert Millikan (1868-1953), Nobel laureate in 1923 for his work on electron charges and the photoelectric effect; Arthur Amos Noyes (1866-1936), professor of chemistry at Caltech and Pauling’s mentor; and Richard Tolman (1881-1948), thermodynamics expert and co-author of the first American commentary on relativity theory. Many of these men were associates of Pauling’s at Caltech, where the majority of the letters in this collection were written.

The OSU Libraries Special Collections is very grateful to Jeremy Norman of Jeremy Norman’s HistoryofScience.com for his incredibly generous donation of the Pauling-Goudsmit letters. Norman is a collector and seller of historical documents relating to science, medicine and technology whose blog can be found here.

Read more about Samuel Goudsmit’s work on the website “Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History.”

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