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Mulliken, Robert (Sanderson)

molecular theory chemical molecules

(1896–1986) US chemical physicist: developed molecular orbital theory and investigated molecular spectroscopy.

An organic chemist’s son, Mulliken graduated in chemistry at MIT in 1917, went on to study poison gases and then in 1919 began work in Chicago on a problem in chemical physics (isotope separation). Except for some research visits he was to spend the rest of his long career at Chicago, working on a variety of topics in chemical physics involving molecular spectra and quantum theory. By 1932 , F Hund (1896– ) and others had done much to show how energy levels in atoms could be understood in theory and related experimentally to atomic spectra. Mulliken extended these ideas to molecules. His central idea was that, in a molecule, the electrons that bind the nuclei together move in the field produced by two or more nuclei; the atomic orbitals (a word he devised) become molecular orbitals extending over these nuclei. He showed how the energies of these orbitals could be found from the spectra of the molecules. These ideas formed the basis of molecular orbital (MO) theory and were developed by Mulliken, and by and others in Europe, to become the major approach to understanding the bonds between atoms in molecules. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1966.

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