Pauling and Wilson

[Part 2 of 4]

In 1926, while still in Europe completing his Guggenheim fellowship, Pauling attended history’s first full-term lecture on the new concept of wave mechanics as applied to quantum theory. This course, taught by Arnold Johannes Willhelm Sommerfeld, a renowned German theoretical physicist and a pioneer of quantum mechanics, was historically significant as the first of its kind.  Sommerfeld would later write of the classes,  “My first lectures on this theory were heard by Linus Pauling, who learned as much from them as I did myself.”

Upon returning from Europe to Caltech, Pauling used the knowledge gleaned from his Guggenheim experience to develop his own lecture series on quantum mechanics. Among those who attended these was none other than Albert Einstein who sat in on one of Pauling’s talks in 1930.

The content of this course became the foundation for Pauling’s first textbook, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics with Applications to Chemistry, which he developed with a former Ph. D. student named Edgar Bright Wilson, Jr.

E. B. Wilson, Jr., known to many as Bright, was born in Gallatin, Tennessee in 1908. After graduating from Princeton in 1930, Wilson attended Caltech and, under Pauling’s direction, received his doctorate in 1933. Wilson then became a fellow at Caltech until accepting a position at Harvard in 1934.

E. Bright Wilson, 1970.

In 1935 Wilson and Pauling published their co-authored text, which took the duo over two years to transform from Pauling’s original lecture notes.  The primary goal in writing the volume was to “produce a textbook of practical quantum mechanics for the chemist, the experimental physicist, and the beginning student of theoretical physics,” for the authors firmly believed that quantum mechanics had applications to nearly all scientific disciplines.

Cognizant of the need to guide the less mathematically adept reader “through the usually straightforward but sometimes rather complicated derivations of quantum mechanics,” Pauling and Wilson formatted their content such that it could be understood by those with mathematics training up through calculus, with some limited additional background on complex numbers, differential equations, and partial differentiation.  Pauling and Wilson wrote that

The book is particularly designed for study by men without extensive previous experience with advanced mathematics, such as chemists interested in the subject because of its chemical applications.

In completing the text, the authors acknowledged a number of mentors and colleagues – many of them Caltech contemporaries – for their contributions to both the authors’ own personal knowledge and to the field of quantum mechanics: Arnold Sommerfeld, Edward U. Condon, Howard Percy Robertson, Richard C. Tolman, Philip M. Morse, Leslie E. Sutton, George W. Wheland, Lawrence O. Brockway, Jack Sherman and Sidney Weinbaum. And last, but certainly not least, the authors acknowledged their wives, Emily Buckingham Wilson and Ava Helen Pauling.

In the years following publication, Wilson built a career as a highly successful chemist and an esteemed member of the scientific community. In 1949 Wilson too received a Guggenheim Fellowship, with another to follow in 1970. And in 1975 Wilson was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Science for physical sciences, just one year after Pauling.

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