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Linus Pauling Interview (page: 3 / 9)
Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Peace
Who was a big influence on you as a young man?
Linus Pauling: Well, by the time I got to graduate school, there were people who had a great influence on me. One was Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson. He had got his doctorate in physical chemistry -- x-ray crystallography -- in 1920. He was the first person to get a Ph.D. from California Institute of Technology. And he was continuing with x-ray crystallography, determining the structure of inorganic crystals. After I had accepted appointment as a graduate student at California Institute of Technology, A.A. Noyes, the head of the division of chemistry and chemical engineering, wrote to say that he had decided I should work with Roscoe Dickinson on determining the structure of crystals.
This was really extremely fortunate for me, in my opinion. I don't think that there was any field that was more suited to my interests, and I don't really know why Dr. Noyes selected me out of eight or ten new graduate students to do x-ray crystallography. Dickinson had a remarkable mind. He was a very careful investigator and thinker, a very logical thinker. When he was teaching me x-ray crystallography, he also taught me to ask at each stage in the argument, "What assumptions are being made? How reliable is the conclusion that you draw? What chance is there that one of the assumptions you have made is not correct?" "You should recognize," he said to me, "that there is in almost every investigation a lack of complete rigor. You should understand just how reliable the arguments are that you are presenting."
There was a professor of physical chemistry and mathematical physics in the California Institute of Technology who was very influential with me, Richard Chase Tolman. He immediately began giving a course of the basis of science. A very interesting course in which he discussed the question of how science is in fact prosecuted. He also began giving a course on quantum theory and atomic structure, using the book, The Origin of Spectra, by Foote and Muller.
This was the old quantum theory, of course, in those years. I studied quantum theory with Tolman in a seminar in which Arnold Sommerfeld's book on quantum theory and atomic structure was used as the text. One year it was the German edition because there was no English edition, and the next year the English translation. Tolman made a great impact on me in regard to physical and chemical theory. Those two people, I think, were probably most important in the early period of my career.
It sounds like they not only imparted knowledge to you, but also gave the tools to work with for the rest of your scientific career.
Linus Pauling: Yes. The experimental work that I did in x-ray crystallography was not especially complicated in the way that some modern experiments are. But I was at least a passable experimenter. I was good in the laboratory, making chemical compounds and crystallizing them. My work as a whole has been about half experimental and half theoretical, which I think is a good combination.
You discovered all sorts of new relationships in the physical world. Can you summarize, for the non-scientist, what those things tell us about the way the world works?
Linus Pauling: After the electron was discovered in 1896, and the nucleus of the atom -- an extremely small part of the center of the atom -- was discovered in 1911, it became possible to determine many properties of molecules, such as how far apart the atoms are. That hadn't been available for experimental study before. X-ray diffraction was one of the methods. I was fortunate in being able to use this essentially new experimental technique discovered in 1914, eight years before I became a graduate student, in attempting to answer many questions that I had formulated about chemical substances and their properties. And yet, they had only experimental answers to them.
The next important development was that the theory of quantum mechanics was discovered in 1925 and 1926. This was an improvement on the old quantum theory. The old quantum theory was an approximate theory which sometimes worked in a very remarkable way, and sometimes failed. But quantum mechanics -- so far as chemistry is concerned -- quantum mechanics is the basic theory, and there is nothing wrong with it. It works.
It must be very exciting to be involved with something that you realize, at least later, is a turning point, the opening of a door for scientists and researchers to walk through into a new area of discovery.
Linus Pauling: Yes. Someone asked me, not long ago, what was the discovery I made that excited me the most? And I answered that it was the basic discovery about directed chemical bonds that I made in January of 1931. I had published a paper in 1928, two years after I began learning quantum mechanics, in which I said that from quantum mechanics, by a treatment that I call "the resonance theory," I could explain the tetrahedral nature of the bonds of the carbon atom, and that I would publish details later. Nearly three years went by before I published the details.
In 1928, I was working with the quantum mechanical calculations -- which were very complicated mathematically -- and I managed to derive the result that the carbon atom would form four bonds in tetrahedral directions, but it was so complicated that I thought, "People won't believe it. It is so hard to see through this mass of symbols and equations and relationships that they won't believe it. And perhaps I don't believe it either." It took a long time for me to simplify the quantum mechanical equations so that they were very easily applied to various problems. So around January 19, 1931, late in the day, I had this idea. I can use a simple method of simplifying a power method of simplifying these equations. Then I can apply these simplified equations to various chemical problems.
So I worked nearly all night, very excited about applying this idea. I not only can easily derive the tetrahedral arrangement of the bonds of the carbon atoms, but also various other arrangement of atoms around a central atom, not only tetrahedral, but also octahedral ligation, and square planar ligation, which does occur with certain substances. And I did make predictions about relationships between magnetic properties and the arrangements of the atoms around each other. I considered that paper, which was published 17th of March, 1931, as my most important paper, and I believe I am right in saying that it is the one that developed the greatest feeling of excitement in me.
What other experiences or events had a major impact on you?
Linus Pauling: I think that meeting the young woman whom I married a year-and-a-half later was the event that had the greatest effect on my life. I can see in retrospect, she felt that her duty was to see to it that her husband lived as good a life as possible. And in particular, that she would handle the problems and stresses associated with family, leaving me free to devote all of my time and effort to working on the problems that I wanted to work on, the scientific problems.
So I owe much of this to my wife.
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