The Contexts of Simultaneous Discovery: Slater, Pauling, and the Origins of Hybridisation

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 31 (4):451-474 (2000)
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This paper investigates a well-known case of simultaneous discovery in twentieth-century chemistry, the origins of the concept of hybridisation, in the light of Kuhn's insights. There has been no ambiguity as to who discovered this concept, when it was "rst in print, and how important it was. The full-#edged form of the concept was published in 1931 independently by two American scientists John C. Slater (1900}1976) and Linus Pauling (1901}1994), although both of them had made their ideas public earlier: Slater at the American Physical Society meetings in 1930, and Pauling in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1928. Slater and Pauling both argued for the necessity of using an s orbital as well as three p orbitals in the carbon atom in order to explain carbon's four valences and the tetrahedral structure of methane. The metaphor &hybridisation' for denoting this mix of s and p orbitals was "rst used by Robert S. Mulliken and J. H. Van Vleck before gaining currency with the scienti"c community around 1935.2 The concept of hybridisation was indeed indispensable for extending the quantum-mechanical interpretation of the chemical bond as an electron pairing from diatomic molecules to polyatomic ones. To be sure, the emergence of hybridisation attests to scientists' growing interest in exploring the borderland between physics and chemistry, a trend that led to the creation of physical chemistry in the late nineteenth century and of chemical physics and quantum chemistry in the 1920s and 30s. Slater and Pauling themselves experienced and on many occasions talked about the fruitfulness of interdisciplinary research; and historians have legitimately illuminated their works by examining them in this broad context.3 Yet the careful analysis of their research notes and published papers reveals that Slater and Pauling were working in quite disparate disciplinary traditions, with di!erent approaches, for di!erent audiences, and towards di!erent goals. The aim of this paper is to explore their di!erent routes to a common destination*hybridisation*and thereby to explicate tensions existing between physics and chemistry amidst the institutional and conceptual overlapping of the two disciplines.

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