Linus Pauling and The Nature of the Chemical Bond: A Documentary History Narrative  
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The Avant Garde
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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 them.

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."

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See Also: Translation of 'Quantum Theory of the Monatomic Perfect Gas', A. Einstein, Setz. P. Ak. Wiss., 261 (1924). 1928. 
See Also: Translation of ‘Quantum Theory of Monatomic Perfect Gas’, A. Einstein, Setz. P. Ak. Wiss., 3 (1925). 1928. 

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Group photo of the Caltech Department of Physics Faculty and Graduate Students. October 1931.


Page 1
"A Thirty-Year-Old Prize Winner Who Once Stumped Einstein." September 4, 1931.

"Einstein came over here and attended a scientific meeting and at the end of the meeting Pauling was to deliver a paper; Pauling was introduced and delivered a paper in flawless German! And after meeting him, Einstein congratulated him and asked him, 'Where did you learn to speak such flawless German?' And Pauling said, 'Oh, I spent a year in Germany' and Einstein said, 'You learned to speak German in a year like that? Why I've been here over two years and I can't speak English yet!'

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