LINUS PAULING (1901- 94)

1931 USA

‘A framework for understanding the electronic and geometric structure of molecules and crystals’

An important aspect of this framework is the concept of hybridisation: in order to create stronger bonds, atoms change the shape of their orbitals (the space around a nucleus in which an electron is most likely to be found) into petal shapes, which allow more effective overlapping of orbitals.

A chemical bond is a strong force of attraction linking atoms in a molecule or crystal. BOHR had already shown that electrons inhabit fixed orbits around the nucleus of the atom. Atoms strive to have a full outer shell (allowed orbit), which gives a stable structure. They may share, give away or receive extra electrons to achieve stability. The way atoms will form bonds with others, and the ease with which they will do it, is determined by the configuration of electrons.

Earlier in the century, Gilbert Lewis (1875-1946) had offered many of the basic explanations for the structural bonding between elements, including the sharing of a pair of electrons between atoms and the tendency of elements to combine with others to fill their electron shells according to rigidly defined orbits (with two electrons in the closest orbit to the nucleus, eight in the second orbit, eight in the third and so on).

Pauling was the first to enunciate an understanding of a physical interpretation of the bonds between molecules from a chemical perspective, and of the nature of crystals.

In a covalent bond, one or more electrons are shared between two atoms. So two hydrogen atoms form the hydrogen molecule, H2, by each sharing their single electron. The two atoms are bound together by the shared electrons. This was proposed by Lewis and Irving Langmuir in 1916.

In an ionic bond, one atom gives away one or more electrons to another atom. So in common salt, sodium chloride, sodium gives away its spare electron to chlorine. As the electron is not shared, the sodium and chlorine atoms are not bound together in a molecule. However, by losing an electron, sodium acquires a positive charge and chlorine, by gaining an electron, acquires a negative charge. The resulting sodium and chlorine ions are held in a crystalline structure. Until Pauling’s explanation it was thought that they were held in place only by electrical charges, the negative and positive ions being drawn to each other.

Pauling’s work provided a value for the energy involved in the small, weak hydrogen bond.
When a hydrogen atom forms a bond with an atom which strongly attracts its single electron, little negative  charge is left on the opposite side of the hydrogen atom. As there are no other electrons orbiting the hydrogen nucleus, the other side of the atom has a noticeable positive charge – from the proton in the nucleus. This attracts nearby atoms with a negative charge. The attraction – the hydrogen bond – is about a tenth of the strength of a covalent bond. 
In water, attraction between the hydrogen atoms in one water molecule and the oxygen atoms in other water molecules makes water molecules ‘sticky’. It gives ice a regular crystalline structure it would not have otherwise. It makes water liquid at room temperature, when other compounds with similarly small molecules are gases at room temperature.Water10_animation

One aspect of the revolution he brought to chemistry was to insist on considering structures in terms of their three-dimensional space. Pauling showed that the shape of a protein is a long chain twisted into a helix or spiral. The structure is held in shape by hydrogen bonds.
He also explained the beta-sheet, a pleated sheet arrangement given strength by a line of hydrogen bonds.

He devised the electronegativity scale, which ranks elements in order of their electronegativity – a measure of the attraction an atom has for the electrons involved in bonding (0.7 for caesium and francium to 4.0 for fluorine). The electronegativity scale lets us say how covalent or ionic a bond is.

Pauling’s application of quantum theory to structural chemistry helped to establish the subject. He took from quantum mechanics the idea of an electron having both wave-like and particle-like properties and applied it to hydrogen bonds. Instead of there being just an electrical attraction between water molecules, Pauling suggested that wave properties of the particles involved in hydrogen bonding and those involved in covalent bonding overlap. This gives the hydrogen bonds some properties of covalent bonds.

1922 – while investigating why atoms in metals arrange themselves into regular patterns, Pauling used X-ray diffraction at CalTech to determine the structure of molybdenum.

When X-rays are directed at a crystal, some are knocked off course by striking atoms, while others pass straight through as if there are no atoms in their path. The result is a diffraction pattern – a pattern of dark and light lines that reveal the positions of the atoms in the crystal.
Pauling used X-ray and electron diffraction, magnetic effects and measurements of the heat of chemical reactions to calculate the distances and angles between atoms forming bonds. In 1928 he published his findings as a set of rules for working out probable crystalline structures from the X-ray diffraction patterns.

1939 – ‘The Nature of the Chemical Bond and the Structure of Molecules’
Pauling suggests that in order to create stronger bonds, atoms change the shapes of their waves into petal shapes; this was the ‘hydridisation of orbitals’.
Describing hybridisation, he showed that the labels ‘ionic’ and ‘covalent’ are little more than a convenience to group bonds that really lie on a continuous spectrum from wholly ionic to wholly co-valent.

Pauling developed six key rules to explain and predict chemical structure. Three of them are mathematical rules relating to the way electrons behave within bonds, and three relate to the orientation of the orbitals in which the electrons move and the relative position of the atomic nuclei.



1951 – published his findings one year after WILLIAM LAWRENCE BRAGG’s team at the Cavendish Laboratory.

As carbon has four filled and four unfilled electron shells it can form bonds in many different ways, making possible the myriad organic compounds found in plants and animals. The concept of hybridisation proved useful in explaining the way carbon bonds often fall between recognised states, which opened the door to the realm of organic chemistry.

X-ray diffraction alone is not very useful for determining the structure of complex organic molecules, but it can show the general shape of the molecule. Pauling’s work showed that physical chemistry at the molecular level could be used to solve problems in biology and medicine.


A problem that needed resolving was the distance between particular atoms when they joined together. Carbon has four bonds, for instance, while oxygen can form two.It would seem that in a molecule of carbon dioxide, which is made of one carbon and two oxygen atoms, two of carbon’s bonds will be devoted to each oxygen.

diagram of CO2 bond length

CO2 bond length

Well-established calculations gave the distance between the carbon and oxygen atoms as 1.22 × 10-10m. Analysis gave the size of the bond as 1.16 Angstroms. The bond is stronger, and hence shorter. Pauling’s quantum .3-2. explanation was that the bonds within carbon dioxide are constantly resonating between two alternatives. In one position, carbon makes three bonds with one of the oxygen molecules and has only one bond with the other, and then the situation is reversed.

(image source)

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