The Guggenheim Trip, Part III: Unexpected Colleagues

Walter Heitler, Fritz London, and Ava Helen Pauling in Europe. 1926.

Walter Heitler, Fritz London, and Ava Helen Pauling in Europe. 1926.

The paper of Heitler and London on H2 for the first time seemed to provide a basic understanding, which could be extended to other molecules. Linus Pauling at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena soon used the valence bond method. . . . As a master salesman and showman, Linus persuaded chemists all over the world to think of typical molecular structures in terms of the valence bond method.” – Robert Mulliken. Life of a Scientist, pp. 60-61. 1989.

After Linus Pauling’s publication of “The Theoretical Prediction of the Physical Properties of Many-Electron Atoms and Ions,” he was ready for an even greater challenge – the problem of the chemical bond was a tantalizing enigma for Pauling, and he wanted more time in Europe to work on it. In the winter of 1926, he applied for an extension of his Guggenheim fellowship and with the help of a particularly complementary cover letter from Arnold Sommerfeld, Pauling was granted six more months of support.

Boosted by this news, he quickly began planning visits to Copenhagen and Zurich, both cities boasting of some of Europe’s finest research facilities. His first stop was Copenhagen, where he hoped to visit Niels Bohr’s institute and discuss ongoing research with the renowned scientist. Unfortunately, he had arrived uninvited and found it almost impossible to obtain a meeting with the physicist. Bohr, with the help of Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger, was deeply engaged in research on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, and was specifically attempting to root out the physical realities of the electron, in the process developing a theory which would eventually be termed the “Copenhagen Interpretation.”

Pauling did, however, did make one valuable discovery in Denmark — that of a young Dutch physicist named Samuel Goudsmit. The two men quickly became friends and began discussing the potential translation of Goudsmit’s doctoral thesis from German to English. Their work did eventually get them noticed by Bohr, who finally granted Pauling and Goudsmit an audience. Unfortunately for the pair, Bohr was neither engaging nor encouraging. Nevertheless, the two continued to work together, their cooperation eventually culminating in a 1930 text, The Structure of Line Spectra, the first book-form publication for either scientist.

In 1926 though, frustrated by his unproductive time in Copenhagen, Pauling departed, stopping briefly at Max Born’s institute in Göttingen before traveling to Zurich where other advances in quantum mechanics promised an interesting stay. Unfortunately, the man Pauling was most interested in, Erwin Schrödinger, proved to be just as unavailable as Bohr. The quantum mechanics revolution was consuming the time and thoughts of Europe’s leading physicists and Pauling, a small-fry American researcher, simply wasn’t important enough to attract the interest of men like Bohr and Schrödinger.

Fritz London

Fritz London

As a result, Pauling chose to converse and work with men of his own status in the scientific community. Fritz London and Walter Heitler, acquaintances of the Paulings, had spent the past several months working on the application of wave mechanics to the study of electron-pair bonding.

Heitler and London’s work was an outgrowth of their interest in the applications and derivations of Heisenberg’s theory of resonance, which suggested that electrons are exchanged between atoms as a result of electronic attraction. Heitler and London determined that this process, under certain conditions, could result in the creation of electron bonds by cancelling out electrostatic repulsion via the energy from electron transfer. Their work on hydrogen bonds likewise agreed with existing theories, including Wolfgang Pauli’s exclusion principle and G.N. Lewis’ shared electron bond. The Heitler-London model was well on its way to contributing to a new truth about the physics of the atom

Walter Heitler

Walter Heitler

Pauling used his time in Zurich to experiment with the Heitler-London work. While he didn’t produce a paper during his stay, the new model made a great impression on him and he returned to Caltech with a renewed sense of purpose. He was preparing to tackle the problem of atomic structure, in all its manifestations, and make history as one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century.

For more information, view our post “Linus Pauling and the Birth of Quantum Mechanics” or visit the website “Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History.”

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One Response

  1. [...] in fact, cared for the infant Linus Pauling, Jr. during his parents Guggenheim trip to Europe in 1926-1927 – but seems to have fallen out of touch with her father. In his discussions with Hager, Linus [...]

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