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John Who?

Diana Buchwald

True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen. Lillian Hoddeson and Vicki Daitch. xii + 467 pp. Joseph Henry Press, 2002. $27.95.

True Genius recounts with empathy and enthusiasm the rich and varied career of a remarkably creative scientist who is little known outside a limited community of solid-state physicists and engineers—John Bardeen, the only person ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics twice. This new biography, a work of thorough scholarship, was coauthored by historians Lillian Hoddeson and Vicki Daitch; Hoddeson, who is also a physicist, wrote the 1997 history of solid-state physics Crystal Fire.

Bardeen was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1908 to progressive parents who had a strong devotion to education: His father was founder and first dean of the University of Wisconsin Medical School, and his mother had once taught at John Dewey's experimental Laboratory School of the University of Chicago. Together they nurtured John's emerging mathematical talents.

In spite of the tragic loss of his mother at age 11, Bardeen completed his high school curriculum at 13 and became a "college man" two years later. He attended the University of Wisconsin, studying with some of the preeminent men of science of that generation—John Van Vleck, Peter Debye, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac (who all became Nobel laureates), as well as Warren Weaver and Arnold Sommerfeld. It took Bardeen five years to graduate, because he had difficulty choosing an area of concentration (oscillating between physics, engineering and mathematics) and spent a semester working at Western Electric Company. He got a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1928.

Bardeen already had some credits toward a master's degree and stayed at Wisconsin to complete it, writing a thesis on the electrical detection of oil deposits. Next he applied for graduate studies at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, but he was rejected and so stayed on for another year of study at Wisconsin. In the spring of 1930 he accepted an engineering position with the Gulf Oil Company's research labs in Pittsburgh. After three years, finally bored with prospecting work, he was accepted without financial support into the Ph.D. program in mathematics at Princeton.

By then 25 years old, with substantial experience outside academia, Bardeen thoroughly enjoyed his graduate education. Under the tutelage of Eugene Wigner (another eventual Nobelist), he acquired the skills and foundation for his future outstanding discoveries in what was to become the field of solid-state physics. It is not quite clear how much Wigner guided him, but it is certain that Princeton, with its interdisciplinary atmosphere and close collaboration among mathematicians and physicists, was a fertile playground for gifted and enthusiastic students. Albert Einstein, John von Neumann and Hermann Weyl were there as refugees from Hitler, and the faculty also included such local luminaries as Thorstein Veblen, Edward U. Condon and Howard P. Robertson.

Bardeen at first chose to immerse himself in quantum electrodynamics, but eventually he completed a dissertation on the work function of metals—the energy needed to release an electron from a metal's surface. In addressing this set of problems, which carried important practical and technological implications, he embarked on a research program that eventually led to his codiscovery of the transistor and his later work on a theory of superconductivity. But the path to the Nobel Prizes for those two bodies of work was long and often arduous.

Bardeen finished his dissertation after taking up a postdoctoral position at Harvard's Society of Fellows, where he spent three pleasant and productive years. There he began work on many-body problems (in which interactions between electrons, or between electrons and ions, are crucial); attempted, in collaboration with Percy W. Bridgman (yet another future Nobel laureate), to explain phase transitions; took a stab at the problem of the "sharpness" of Fermi surfaces; tried to explain the "exchange forces" that arise when two particles change places; and began struggling with superconductivity, the phenomenon discovered more than two decades earlier by Heike Kamerlingh Onnes. Despite his lack of concrete results, Bardeen described these years as the most important in his educational career—mostly, one imagines, because he had the opportunity to immerse himself in many new fields and study the most recent literature, in particular the work of Fritz and Heinz London on a theory of superconductivity, a 1933 article on superconductivity by Sommerfeld and Hans Bethe in Handbuch der Physik and the "Bethe Bible" articles on nuclear physics in The Reviews of Modern Physics.

From Harvard, Bardeen's career took him to the University of Minnesota in 1938 as an assistant professor, and then to the Naval Ordnance Laboratory from 1941 to 1945, where he supervised a large group of coworkers but found the work unfulfilling. From there he moved on to a well-paid position at the new research facilities of Bell Telephone Laboratories in Summit, New Jersey.

Walter Brattain, William Shockley and John BardeenClick to Enlarge Image

At Bell Labs Bardeen began working fruitfully with Walter Brattain on semiconductor physics under the supervision of—and in tenuous collaboration with—William Shockley. The story of this work is fascinatingly told in a 26-page chapter, which concludes with a description of what the authors refer to as "the magic month [mid-November to mid-December 1947] that culminated in the transistor." When the transistor—which transformed modern technology in revolutionary and profound ways—was presented to the public six months later, Shockley took the lion's share of the credit for its discovery. After that, Bardeen's relationship with Shockley deteriorated markedly.

After that Bardeen was unable to work independently at Bell Labs, so he left in 1951 for the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where he remained until the end of his life in 1991. There he established a highly successful group of experimentalists and theoreticians in solid-state physics and returned to his early interest in superconductivity. In 1956, the Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley for the work they had done on semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect. Several months later, in 1957, in a spurt of concerted effort, Bardeen, Leon Cooper and Robert Schrieffer pushed ahead to complete their famous paper on what became known as the BCS (Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer) theory of superconductivity, for which Bardeen in 1972 received a second Nobel Prize, which he shared with Cooper and Schrieffer.

The book's opening and closing chapters address the following questions: Why are some scientists, despite obvious achievements and stature, less well known than others? What makes for "true genius"? and What is scientific creativity? The authors believe that, in general, personalities less flamboyant and eccentric than, say, Einstein and Richard Feynman fail to register on the popular cultural radar because, historically, we have associated genius with certain psychological and behavioral traits that originated in the Romantic Period myth of the genius as extravagant, absent-minded, "superhuman,"—"unbalanced, a bit mad perhaps, a recluse," and "possessed by (rather than endowed with) creative power."

Although our perceptions of genius are indeed informed by famous, and often eccentric, personalities, it may nevertheless be the case that Bardeen and many other post-World War II Nobelists are relatively little known for other reasons: The scientific community has grown exponentially; the number of Nobelists over the past 50 years has increased dramatically, with prizes being often awarded to more than three scientists each year in the same field; and the allure of a life in science has diminished steadily in the past few decades, with many fewer students in the United States pursuing advanced degrees in science and engineering.

Hoddeson and Daitch use Bardeen's life and work as the basis for a more nuanced profile of "real geniuses," whom they believe to be characterized by such qualities as perseverance, motivation, passion, talent, confidence, focus and effective problem solving—characteristics and skills that can be nurtured and developed. This more egalitarian portrayal offers hope for all those who may contemplate a career in science, even those who, like Bardeen, are modest and unassuming.—Diana Kormos Buchwald, Einstein Papers Project, History, California Institute of Technology

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