In 1931, Albert Einstein, in Pasadena for several months being wooed for a faculty
position at Caltech, sat in on a Linus Pauling seminar. Knowing that he had the world's
greatest living scientist in his audience, Pauling worked especially hard to explain
at length his new ideas about the application of wave mechanics to the chemical bond.
Afterward, Einstein was asked by a reporter what he thought of the young chemist's
talk. He shrugged his shoulder's and smiled. "It was too complicated for me," he said.
Einstein may simply have been brushing off another newshound, but he was correct in
noting that Pauling's interpretation of the chemical bond was complicated when carried
out with any mathematical rigor — too complicated for most chemists. Pauling, with
his avant-garde ideas about the quantum-based chemical bond, was in 1931 a decade
ahead of his time. The vast majority of chemists neither knew what quantum mechanics
was nor cared what it meant to their field. Chemistry was still a polyglot of separate
disciplines and specialities rooted in the last century — organic chemistry, inorganic
chemistry, physical chemistry, colloid chemistry, agricultural chemistry, each with
its own champions and sets of puzzles to solve. There were ionists and thermodynamicists
and now quantum chemists, separate tribes, each with its own traditions, methods,
and journals, gathering together only at a few general meetings each year.
Real chemistry, to most of its practitioners, was something done in the laboratory,
not on a piece of paper; discoveries were made through the hands-on experience of
manipulating compounds and observing their reactions, not by dreaming up mathematical
equations. X-ray crystallography was an exotic physicists' tool; Caltech was one of
the few places where the technique was applied in any significant way to chemistry.
As for Pauling’s emphasis on the importance of molecular structure, well, that was
something that organic chemists thought was important, but not many other chemists
believed that it played a significant role in chemistry. In short, chemists were not
prepared, historically, mathematically, or philosophically, for what Pauling offered
What was important was getting into the lab and getting your hands dirty. The laboratory
chemists' disdain of theoreticians like Pauling, who looked too much to physics for
their inspiration, was expressed by the leading British chemical educator Henry Armstrong
in the mid-1930s: "The fact is, the physical chemists never use their eyes and are
most lamentably lacking in chemical culture. It is essential to cast out from our
midst, root and branch, this physical element and return to our laboratories."