Pauling’s Theory of Resonance: A Soviet Controversy

As to the Russian scientists and the scientific controversies, I must say that I have great difficulty in understanding what is happening. The most likely explanation seems to be that some of the Russian scientists are taking advantage of the political situation to advance themselves at the expense of their colleagues. Others are then drawn into the controversy, and required by practical considerations to align themselves with those who say that they are supporting the correct Marxist position. I have read the Russian articles carefully, and I must say that I cannot understand the arguments.
-Linus Pauling to Frank Aydelotte. September 25, 1951.

In the 1947 Russian translation of Pauling’s Nature of the Chemical Bond (Priroda khimicheskoi sviazi) Pauling wrote on the fly leaf in black pen “Moscow, 8 August 1957. Today…ten years after it was published, I have for the first time seen the Russian edition of The Nature of the Chemical Bond – this copy, given to me by Prof. Voevodsy. Linus Pauling.”

Just above this, is Voevodsky’s lightly penciled inscription, reading “To the author, In remembrance of your stay in the URSS, 8 VIII 57”.

The book that Pauling received from Voevodsky – which is held in the Pauling archive today – is a careful translation done by two Soviet scientists, Ia. K. Syrkin, a chemist, and M. E. Diatkina, a mathematician. Syrkin and Diatkina were two of the Soviet Union’s most prominent sympathizers and popularizers of Pauling’s resonance theory of chemical bonds. Their own textbook on the new quantum methods in chemistry, Structure of Molecules and the Chemical Bond, had been published in Moscow in 1946 and, by 1950, already served as a textbook at Moscow State University.

Developed by Pauling in the early 1930s, the theory of resonance was, twenty years later, an accepted component of the scientific lexicon.  As it turned out, however, the theory did not agree with Soviet dogma, at least as conceptualized in the early 1950s.  Biographer Thomas Hager writes

The Lysenko-era Russian researchers, intent on boosting the reputation of Russian achievements in structural chemistry, had for two years been tearing away at Pauling’s ‘reactionary, bourgeois’ chemical ideas, especially his use of idealized resonance structures with no real independent existence.  Resonance theory, it was decided, was antimaterialistic and hence anti-Soviet.  The chemists’ division of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the summer of 1951 formally resolved that Pauling’s approach was ‘pseudo-scientific’ and ‘idealistic’ and should be rejected.  Pravda trumpeted the decision, which was echoed in Soviet scientific publications with appropriate denunciations of Pauling’s approach to chemistry as ‘contrived, a made-up convenience, an economy of thought that bore no relation to reality.’

Simon Shnol [Russian-language link], a student of Syrkin and Diatkina’s, remembers having attended their lectures on resonance theory in 1950 before its fall from grace. Syrkin’s lectures were full of “brilliant digressions” and “literary analogies,” Shnol recalls, making the complicated topic of quantum mechanics in chemistry seem “accessible and interesting.” Diatkina, somewhat more severe than Syrkin, handled the mathematical aspects of the topic.

Shnol attended the 1951 conference at which the official rejection of resonance theory was formulated, believing that it would merely consist of a conversation about the new theories of the structure of chemical bonds. The conference quickly turned into an auto de fe, and Syrkin and Diatkina were severely criticized. While “the majority felt sympathy for Syrkin and did not want to destroy him,” they nonetheless agreed that his propagation of resonance theory in the Soviet Union had been false and dangerous.

Syrkin and Diatkina, along with several others, issued official and formal recantations of their views, but their careers were effectively stifled. Both Syrkin and Diatkina were made to leave Moscow State University and Syrkin lost his membership in the Academy (though he retained his leadership of the Institute of Fine Chemical Technology until his death in 1974).

Pauling, of course, was not uninformed of the controversy taking place in the Soviet Union. His collection of press clippings is full of mentions and analyses of the resonance theory debate from its inception. I. Moyer Hunsberger acknowledged in his 1954 review of the Soviet resonance theory controversy, “I am indebted to Dr. Linus Pauling for his valuable criticism of this paper. In particular, the contents of footnote 13 were suggested by Dr. Pauling.” Years later historian Loren Graham relied on personal communications with Pauling to construct parts of his article, “A Soviet Marxist View of Structural Chemistry: The Theory of Resonance Controversy,” (1974).

Though he seems to have been unimpressed with Syrkin and Diatkina’s own 1946 text, Pauling was nonetheless concerned by the ideological path that Soviet chemistry was taking. In a characteristically humorous way he alluded to these concerns in a lecture he that gave while visiting the Soviet Union for the first time in 1957.  In his memoir, Simon Shnol recounts this lecture, which was delivered by Pauling at the Institute of Organic Chemistry in the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

It was perfect…with artful gestures, which included his eyebrows, eyes, hands (he reminded me of Louis de Funes), Pauling lectured on the successes of the theory of the structure of chemical bonds….In the lecture room that day the audience separated spatially into three tiers. The most important, high level academic bureaucrats sat in the front rows, the professors and doctors of science sat in the middle rows, and the graduate students filled the back rows. In the course of his lecture Pauling encouraged the students not to repeat the mistakes of those in the front rows (literally: “to not pay attention to them”), a comment that was translated as an encouragement to the students to follow the example of their teachers.

Shnol recalls that the discrepancy was immediately noted by many in the audience. Someone from the back rows then shouted an accurate translation of Pauling’s admonition and the room was filled with laughter and noise.

The Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers contain a large collection of correspondence and publications with marginalia in Pauling’s hand that relate specifically to the resonance theory controversy. Pauling’s collections of photographs, press clippings, reprints and official correspondence, combined with recently-added interpretive material, provide a rich archive of this important and in some ways still unexplored scientific controversy.

Learn more about Pauling’s theory of resonance from the website Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond, available at the Linus Pauling Online portal.

4 Responses

  1. […] the dynamics of Soviet dogma evolved, the enmity surrounding the so-called “resonance controversy” simmered down, and by the late 1960s Pauling had gone from being a disparaged name in Soviet […]

  2. […] one of our leading universities on the west coast is something to think over seriously. The recent condemnation by Moscow of Dr. Pauling’s celebrated ‘resonance theory’ in chemistry does not seem to have dimmed his ardor on behalf of Stalinite […]

  3. […] to his non-professional activities, his scientific work was simultaneously under ardent attack by Lysenko-era Soviet scientists. His theories were also being challenged by several leading British scientists, forcing him to […]

  4. […] further: in the Soviet Union the idea that electron can be in many places (resonance bonds) was considered to oppose materialism. Later, in California, hippies investigated quantum mechanics as a basis for […]

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