John Bardeen was nervous and excited as he and his wife and their daughter sat at the table with King Gustav VI of Sweden at the dinner honoring him and his former colleagues, William Shockley and Walter Brattain, who shared the 1956 Nobel Prize for Physics. The ordeal for the introverted Bardeen was further burdened by the fact that the laundry had turned his white vest and white tie green. But Brattain came to the rescue, loaning him his spare vest and tie. King Gustav chided Bardeen for bringing only the youngest of his three children to Stockholm for this momentous occasion. The father had not wanted to interrupt the college studies of his sons. Bardeen promised to bring them all next time.
And then 16 years later, he did just that. The unassuming college professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign became the first man in history to win two Nobels in physics. His work on the creation of the transistor in 1947, and later the BCS theory which explained why metals become superconductivity at extremely low temperatures, were among the top breakthroughs in science in the 20th century. Both were the result not of lonely nights by a genius in the laboratory, but in teamwork among many geniuses.
Born in Madison, Wisconsin on May 23, 1908, his father was the dean of the medical school at the University of Wisconsin. His father had graduated in the first class at Johns Hopkins. Bardeen's lineage traced back to the Plymouth colony.
He grew bored in school and began skipping grades. By 15 he was in college. He graduated at 20 after taking a year off. He received his master's in electrical engineering the next year. Then the stock market crashed that fall. Bell Labs had a hiring freeze. The next year he found work as a geophysicist at Gulf Oil in Pittsburgh. The work bored him. In 1933, he left for graduate work at Princeton. But Pittsburgh was where he met Jane Maxwell. They married in 1938, and had the aforementioned three children.
At Princeton, he studied under Eugene Wigner, who would later win his own Nobel. Wigner was later instrumental in getting Einstein to press FDR to develop the atom bomb. But in the 1930s, Wigner was Bardeen's doctoral advisor, pushing him to learn all he could about metals. This would be crucial in developing the transistor. Wigner also introduced Bardeen to the solid state theory.
The most crucial event in his Princeton years was Bardeen meeting Walter Brattain through his brother and fellow physicist, Robert Brattain. Their parents were teachers, and Walter was born on February 10, 1902, in Xiamen, China, where his father taught school. Brattain and Bardeen played golf and bridge together.
After the war. Brattain would recruit Bardeen to William Shockley's team at Bell Laboratory in the search for an alternative too the vacuum tube. That technology had served its purpose but vacuum tubes were inefficient and unreliable. The three of them made an excellent team. Shockley, the leader, knew the solid-state theory, Brattain the quantum theory,and Bardeen the metals. But Shockley's initial theory proved wrong (90% of science is a dead end) and in what is now referred to as a Magic Month, Bardeen and Brattain conducted 300 experiments to figure out what went wrong with Shockley's answer. On December 23, 1947, Bardeen and Brattain applied two gold point contacts to a crystal of germanium, and a signal was produced with the output power greater than the input. They had figured it out. Much hard work was ahead, but they had their eureka moment.
But egos bruise. Shockley felt hurt because the other two had made the discovery without him. Their relationship disintegrated. Bardeen left the team first. After the transistor discovery, Bardeen explored the riddle of superconductivity. When no one at Bell Labs seemed interested in the work, he bolted for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was building its physics department.
His first graduate student was Nick Holonyak Jr., a blue collar kid who was the first in his family to get a formal education. His father was a coal miner in Illinois. The son quit his job at the Illinois Central Railroad after a 30-hour shift. That's right, he worked continuously for more than a day. After receiving a doctorate under Bardeen, Holonyak would later invent a light-emitting diode that emitted visible red light instead of infrared light. This enabled bar-code reading, DVD players, CD players, cell-phones, and a host of other ordinary applications.
But Bardeen was still grappling with superconductivity. His work was interrupted on the morning of November 1, 1956, when he heard the news while scrambling eggs for breakfast. The radio announced Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley had won the Nobel for their work on the transistor. He dropped the frying pan.
To work on superconductivity, Bardeen enlisted the aid of a colleague, Leon Cooper, and a graduate student, John Robert Schrieffer. This time, Bardeen was the Shockley. Cooper discovered that electrons in a superconductor are grouped in pairs, which we now call Cooper pairs. Schrieffer figured out the math while riding a subway in New York City.
Schrieffer is an extrovert. He delighted his fellow graduate students with a dead-on impression of Bardeen's boring lectures. But Schrieffer would become an excellent professor, volunteering to teach the class no physicist likes teaching: physics to non-scientists, or as Schrieffer called it "physics for poets."
The trio put their work together and developed the BCS Theory of Superconductivity. In 1972, they received the Nobel. The Nobels are a testament to Bardeen's genius and collaboration with his fellow geniuses.
By then, Bardeen was 64 and had settled into being his university's physics guru. But he also was an advisor to Xerox, which led to his final scientific contribution: convincing Xerox to keep its research facility in Palo Alto, California, open, just as his mentor, Wigner, had pushed for what became the Manhattan Project. The work at PARC led to the computer explosion in the 1980s and 1990s.
When Bardeen died on January 30, 1991, at age 82, he left a wife, three children, and a scientific legacy no one has matched.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.