In the late 1920s, Pauling was one of just three young Americans — the others were
John Slater at MIT and the University of Chicago’s Robert Mulliken — who could combine a deep understanding of the new physics with a strong interest
in solving chemical questions. Of the three, Pauling had the strongest training in
More direct competition for Pauling’s goal of explaining the chemical bond in quantum
mechanical terms came from two young German
researchers, Walter Heitler and Fritz London. Heitler and London, working closely with Erwin Schrödinger, had been the first to
apply Schrödinger’s wave equations to the question of the simplest chemical bond,
that between two hydrogen atoms.
They took advantage of a new idea of Heisenberg’s, something he called exchange energy.
The theory proposed that as two atoms approached each other the chances would increase
that a negatively charged electron from one would find itself attracted to the positively
charged nucleus of the other, and the same thing would happen from the other side.
At a certain point, the two electrons would begin jumping back and forth between the
two nuclei, creating an electron exchange at a rate of billions of times per second.
In a sense, the two electrons would not be able to tell which nucleus they belonged
Combining that concept with Schrödinger’s wave equation, Heitler and London calculated
that the attraction made possible by the electron exchange would be balanced at some
point by the repulsion of the two positively charged nuclei, creating a chemical bond
with a definite length and strength. They demonstrated the idea by applying the mathematics
to the binding of two hydrogen atoms.
It was a great triumph. Pauling became convinced that their approach was correct when
he was in Europe. But this was just a first step in a potentially huge field, worked
out only for the simplest molecule possible. There were many other problems to solve.
And Pauling would be the one to solve them.
"I thought there was a possibility of doing something better, but I didn’t know what
it was that was needed to be done," Pauling remembered. "I had the feeling that if
I worked in this field I probably would find something, make some discovery, and the
probability was high enough to justify my working in the field."