Pauling Amidst the Titans of Quantum Mechanics: Europe, 1926

Erwin Schrödinger and Fritz London in Berlin, Germany, 1928.

[Ed. Note: Spring 2010 marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of Linus Pauling and E. Bright Wilson, Jr.’s landmark textbook, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics.  This is post 1 of 4 detailing the authoring and impact of Pauling and Wilson’s book.]

…the replacement of the old quantum theory by the quantum mechanics is not the overthrow of a dynasty through revolution, but rather the abdication of an old and feeble king in favor of his young and powerful son.

-Linus Pauling, “The Development of the Quantum Mechanics,” February 1929.

Since 1925 the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation has annually awarded fellowships to promising individuals identified as advanced professionals who have “already demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”  The selection process is extremely competitive and recipients are generally esteemed in their chosen field as applicants face rigorous screening and are selected based on peer recommendation and expert review.

Since the first awards in 1925, many Nobel and Pulitzer prize winners have received Guggenheim Fellowships including, but not limited to, Ansel Adams, Aaron Copland, Martha Graham, Langston Hughes, Henry Kissinger, Paul Samuelson, Wendy Wasserstein, James Watson and, of course, Linus Pauling.

As one of the program’s earliest honorees, Pauling was awarded his first Guggenheim fellowship in 1926.  Heeding the advice of his mentors, Pauling had applied for the fellowship in hopes of pursuing an opportunity for international study.  Pauling’s advisers had long been insisting that he go to Europe to study alongside the leading experts in the budding field of quantum physics, and the Guggenheim funding provided Pauling with the opportunity to do just that.  It was this fellowship that allowed Pauling to travel abroad 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, Germany. 1927.

The subject of quantum mechanics constitutes the most recent step in the very old search for the general laws governing the motion of matter.

–Linus Pauling and E. Bright Wilson, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, 1935.

The mid-1920s – the time during which Pauling was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim fellowship – was an exciting period to begin an exploration of quantum theory.  The tides were dramatically shifting in this field of study and the acceptance of the old quantum theory was rapidly declining.

Linus and Ava Helen left for Europe on March 4, 1926, arriving in Europe in the midst of what was a great quantum theory reform.  At the inception of quantum theory, physicists and chemists had attempted to apply the classical laws of physics to atomic particles in an effort to understand the motion of and interactions between nuclei and electrons.  This application was grossly flawed as the classical laws, such as Newton’s laws, were originally generated to represent macroscopic systems.   Theorists soon discovered that the classical laws did not apply to atomic systems, and that the microscopic world does not consistently align with experimental observations.

A series of breakthroughs by prominent theorists in the early- to mid-1920s accelerated the decline of the old quantum theory.  In 1924 Louis de Broglie discovered the wave-particle duality of matter, and in the process introduced the theory of wave mechanics.  Then in 1925, just one year before Pauling began his European adventure, Werner Heisenberg developed his uncertainty principle and thus began applying matrix mechanics to the quantum world.

In 1926, shortly after the Paulings arrived in Europe, Erwin Schrödinger combined de Broglie’s and Heisenberg’s findings, mathematically proving that the two approaches produce equivalent results.  Schrödinger then proceeded to develop an equation, now know as the Schrödinger Equation, that treats the electron as a wave.  (The Schrödinger Equation remains a central component of quantum mechanics today.)  The adoption of wave and matrix mechanics led to the development of a new quantum theory and the overwhelming acceptance of a burgeoning field known as quantum mechanics.


Arnold Sommerfeld and Ava Helen Pauling in Munich, Germany. 1927.

Where the old quantum theory was in disagreement with the experiment, the new mechanics ran hand-in-hand with nature and where the old quantum theory was silent, the new mechanics spoke the truth.

–Linus Pauling, February 1929

Pauling began his work in Munich at Arnold Sommerfeld‘s Institute for Theoretical Physics, a scholarly environment described by biographer Thomas Hager as “a new wave-mechanical universe for Pauling.”  It was this atmosphere that opened the door for Pauling to leave his mark as a pioneer of quantum mechanics.

In the fall of 1926, Pauling began applying the new quantum mechanics to the calculation of light refraction, diamagnetic susceptibility, and the atomic size of large, complex atoms.  Through these types of applications, Pauling developed his valence-bond theory, in the process making significant advancements in the new field of quantum mechanics and expanding our understanding of the chemical bond.

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.”

The Guggenheim Trip, Part II: The Growth of a Scientist

Linus Pauling, Werner Kuhn, and Wolfgang Pauli traveling by boat in Europe. 1926.

Linus Pauling, Werner Kuhn, and Wolfgang Pauli traveling by boat in Europe. 1926.

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. The Chemical Bond: Structure of Dynamics, Ahmed Zewail, ed. 1992.

After his and Ava Helen’s stay in Italy, Linus Pauling was itching to return to the lab. The couple arrived in Munich in the last week of April and the first item on Pauling’s agenda was a meeting with Arnold Sommerfeld.

Sommerfeld, in association with Niels Bohr, was responsible for the Bohr-Sommerfeld model of the atom, a precursor to modern quantum mechanical ideas on atomic structure. At the time of Pauling’s European trip, Sommerfeld was serving as the director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Munich. He had spent the past decade building Germany’s community of physicists, nuturing many of Europe’s best scientists on a steady diet of cutting edge research. His lectures, famous by the time Pauling reached Europe, were known for their new and innovative content. As Thomas Hager, a Pauling biographer, explains, “[Sommerfeld] knew everyone in theoretical physics, had collaborated with many of them and corresponded regularly with the rest.” He knew exactly what was happening in his field and made sure his students did too.

Pauling’s first Munich meeting with Sommerfeld was something of a disappointment for the young scientist. Rather than being allowed to continue the work he had begun at Caltech, Sommerfeld chose to assign Pauling mathematical research relating to electron spin – an area that held little interest for him.

After a spell of half-hearted devotion to the electron spin problem, Pauling convinced Sommerfeld to allow him to study the motion of polar molecules. Pauling believed he could clarify portions of the Bohr-Sommerfeld model by introducing the effects of a magnetic field to the existing equations. This caught Sommerfeld’s attention and Pauling was subsequently instructed to continue his research under the stipulation that he provide Sommerfeld with the details of his work for presentation at an upcoming conference in Zurich. Pauling did so, and a few days after Sommerfeld had departed for the conference, he received an order to appear in Zurich to discuss his work.

Once at the conference, Pauling found himself surrounded by the leading physicists of Europe. Wolfgang Pauli, a young German physicist famous for his development of the revolutionary Pauli Exclusion Principle, was among those in attendance. On a whim, Pauling approached his colleague and began explaining his recent work on the Bohr-Sommerfeld model. Pauli was unimpressed. The paradox-riddled Bohr-Sommerfeld model, and Pauling’s work supporting it, was on its way out with the new ideas of quantum mechanics soon to take its place. Pauling’s research was too late to be of any value and Pauli was not shy about telling him so.

After finishing his summer vacationing with Ava Helen in Switzerland, Pauling returned to Munich for the fall semester. It was at this time that Pauling really began to prove himself, developing a reputation for his extensive knowledge and concentrated enthusiasm. Pauling’s most important accomplishment, however, was not his ability to make friends. Instead, it was gaining both the attention and the esteem of Arnold Sommerfeld. Pauling did so by discovering a mathematical error in the work of Gregor Wentzel, a protégé of Sommerfeld. The discovery and correction of this mistake garnered Pauling a great deal of respect in Sommerfeld’s eyes.

As it turned out, Pauling’s discovery of Wentzel’s error resulted in more than just Sommerfeld’s acclaim. It allowed Pauling to apply Wentzel’s work to the calculation of energy levels, which in turn provided the platform for a series of calculations on the energy values for complex atoms. This was a totally new approach to deriving atomic properties and Pauling took full advantage of his discovery, publishing his findings in a paper titled “The Theoretical Prediction of the Physical Properties of many-Electron Atoms and Ions.”

In a matter of months, Pauling had evolved from a star-struck young American to a legitimate player in the European field of quantum mechanics. Fortunately for him, his rise to scientific prominence had only just begun.

Read about Arnold Sommerfeld in “The Duelist” or learn more about this entire story on the website “Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History.”

The Guggenheim Trip, Part I: Touring in Southern Europe

Ava Helen Pauling at The Temple of Neptune. Paestum, Italy.

Ava Helen Pauling at The Temple of Neptune. Paestum, Italy, 1926

Noyes, a romantic at heart, may have hoped that Pauling’s Italian tour would bring to flower a latent aesthetic sensibility. But Pauling wasn’t Noyes.”
– Thomas Hager, Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling, 1995

By the mid-1920s, scientific institutions across Europe were producing top notch researchers in physics and chemistry. New and exciting research was being conducted across the continent and the scientific community was booming. To many, Caltech seemed a veritable backwater compared to the laboratories of Göttingen, Munich, and Copenhagen. It was in this context that, in 1925, Linus Pauling applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship with the hope of funding a European tour to visit the continent’s world-famous laboratories and learn from its scientific leaders.

In mid-1920s, prior to his Guggenheim application, Pauling was supported by a fellowship from the National Research Council. The fellowship was meant to allow Pauling to work at Caltech for six months, and then send him on to the University of California, Berkeley for another six month stint. A. A. Noyes, head of the Caltech chemistry department, had other plans. As a leading member of the American scientific community, he was able to convince Frank Aydelotte, the head of the Guggenheim Foundation, to guarantee Pauling a fellowship. Noyes also proposed that Pauling be sent to Europe early so that he and Ava Helen could enjoy the sights of the continent before beginning an intensive work schedule. In return, Noyes suggested that Pauling forfeit his National Research Council fellowship and remain at Caltech rather than serving the half-years stint at Berkeley. Pauling readily accepted the proposal.

On March 4, 1926, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling said goodbye to their infant son and departed for the East Coast. After a trans-continental train trip and a brief stay in New York, the couple stepped onto the steamship Duilio, therein officially embarking on their first trip to Europe. After a week of rough seas and a “young hurricane,” the Paulings and their shipmates finally set foot on dry land on the island of Madeira off the coast of Portugal. In response to her first sight of European land, twenty-three year-old Ava Helen wrote in her diary,

“For two hours we sailed along the southern edge of Madeira, watching the pretty villages made of toy houses with red roofs scattered along the terraced slopes, and seeing light lovely waterfalls beneath the snow-topped hills.”

Her diary entries, filled with romantic imagery and exclamations of delight, contrast sharply with her husband’s letters to his mentor, A. A. Noyes, in which he deemed Naples “not spotless,” the Roman ruins “disappointing” and Rome itself “terribly crowded.”

Linus Pauling at the Temple of Neptune, Paestum, Italy, 1926.

The Paulings’ wedding had been a quiet event followed by a one-day honeymoon in the small town of Corvallis, Oregon. Though three years late, their stay in southern Europe evolved into the honeymoon that they had missed. Even Linus’ complaints couldn’t stifle the fun of the trip. Ava Helen Pauling kept a travel diary, given to her by Linus and inscribed “For my dear Ava Helen.” In it she (and occasionally her husband) recounted, in detail, the notable events of their travels, including a diagram of the Rock of Gibraltar. In contrast, Pauling’s own diary briefly notes the trip across the U.S., a few sights in New York, and several days’ weather reports before ending in a long series of blank pages. It seems the young scientist had little interest in travel journalism.

Among the more colorful of Ava Helen’s entries is her description of an assassination attempt on Benito Mussolini in which an English woman “shot him through the nose,” followed by a further recounting of Mussolini’s car, containing the undoubtedly shaken leader, as it passed through a crowd of excited Fascists. This was not the only encounter the couple had with Italian politics during their stay. On a train ride from Pisa to Florence, the Paulings found themselves in conversation with a leader of the Fascist movement in Florence. During the trip, he regaled them with stories of his war wounds, the evils of Communism, and the successes of Mussolini. The couple, while entertained by the man’s exotic tales, were “glad to return to Florence and to dinner.”

The Pauling’s vacation, originally meant to continue through the end of April, ended a week early, at Linus’ insistence. In a letter to Noyes, he wrote “We have come to the end of a very pleasant trip, and I am glad; for even though Italy is wonderful, and everything was new to us, traveling becomes tiresome. Moreover, I am very anxious to get back to work after nearly two months of idleness.” Not even the romance of Italy in the spring could keep Pauling out of the laboratory for long. It was on to Munich for the restless young scientist.

View Ava Helen Pauling’s entire travel diary or learn more about the Guggenheim trip on the website “Linus Pauling and the Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History.”

[Ed. Note: Parts II and III of our series on the Paulings’ Guggenheim trip will appear next week]