Pauling first met the magnetic, brilliant American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1928 when they were both on postgraduate fellowships in Munich. By 1929, Oppenheimer,
one of the new generation of quantum physicists, was teaching at both Caltech and
He made an immediate impression in Pasadena. Thin, almost frail in appearance, with
strikingly large, wide-set eyes and a head of thick, dark hair, he was attractive
as well as brilliant. Although raised in New York, he seemed exotically European,
Bohemian, poetic, chain-smoking, prone to obscure references to literature and philosophy.
His only shortcoming seemed to be that he was a dismal lecturer, mumbling, scattering
cigarette ashes, talking over the heads of his listeners, and packing the blackboard
with barely readable, cramped equations. Despite that, he soon attracted a devoted
band of acolytes, some of the West Coast's finest students, who were able to cut through
the obscurity to the essentials of the new physics and who began following him on
his annual trek between Pasadena and Berkeley. Oppenheimer was pursued, too, by scandalous
rumors, hints of free love — perhaps even homosexuality — and radically leftist politics.
Linus and Ava Helen Pauling found him witty, interesting, and a welcome antidote to
the deadly dullness of most of the Caltech faculty. Oppenheimer and the Paulings were
soon sharing dinners and jokes, talking about European physics, and gossiping about
Caltech and Berkeley professors. Oppenheimer came to Pauling for advice on how to
become a better lecturer, and Pauling sought him out to talk about quantum mechanics.
The two of them began to consider mounting a joint attack on the chemical bond, with
Oppenheimer working on the mathematics and Pauling providing the chemistry background.
They became rather close rather quickly. Oppenheimer not only adopted some of Pauling's
lecturing style; he began wearing an old fedora around campus, much like one that
Pauling wore. He started to give Pauling gifts, sometimes little ones, a favorite
ring on one occasion, and on another, a magnificently extravagant one, Oppenheimer's
large boyhood mineral collection, the crystal treasury that had first spurred Oppenheimer's
interest in science. It consisted of a thousand fine specimens, including some extraordinary
calcites in which Pauling took special interest. Then there were the poems Oppenheimer
gave Pauling, verses that Pauling found both obscure and troubling, mixing classical
allusions with lines about mineralogy, Dante, and pederasty. Pauling, raised by his
Mother in a boardinghouse in Portland, Oregon, had never had a friendship like this.
Neither had Ava Helen. She enjoyed Oppenheimer enormously, took pleasure in talking
with him and flirting a little with him, as she did with almost everybody on social
occasions. Perhaps she flirted a little more than usual, for Oppenheimer was unusually
intriguing. Perhaps he felt her interest went beyond a casual friendship. It all went
a little too far, in any case, when Oppenheimer came to her one day in 1929 when Pauling
was at work and blurted out a clumsy invitation to join him on a tryst to Mexico.
Surprised and flattered, Ava Helen told him no, of course not, she was married and
took it seriously. That night, she reported the whole thing to Pauling. "I think she
was somewhat pleased with herself as a femme fatale," Pauling said. Seeing how pleased
she was, Pauling immediately cut off his relationship with Oppenheimer, ending any
chance of collaboration on the chemical bond and leading to a coolness between the
two men that would last for the rest of their lives.
Years later, Ava Helen told her husband, "You know, I don't think Oppenheimer was
in love with me. I think he was in love with you." After mulling in over, Pauling
concluded that she might be right.