The Genius of John Bardeen

Genius is more often than not measured by Intelligence Quotient (“I. Q. ”). This should not be the case. It would be better to attribute the label genius to someone who was able to beat the odds and used everything in his power to contribute to progress and in making life a much more blessed experience. The distinction of being a genius must only be given to those whose body of work has surpassed the test of time. If indeed achievements and great works is the trademark of a man of great intelligence then it would not be difficult to heap accolades and to celebrate the genius of John Bardeen.

Not only is he brilliant and possessing a mind that can beat a roomful of supercomputers but he is also self-effacing and not one to tell the world of his exploits. In fact it will be shown later that when he learned that he was one of the recipients of 1957 Nobel Prize for Physics, he could not believe he deserved to receive such a life changing award. If this was not enough, Bardeen won the Nobel Prize in Physics less than two decades later. His theory about superconductivity assured him of a place among the greatest scientists who ever lived.

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Without John Bardeen’s pioneering work on transistors and superconductivity, there would never have been a world wide web, interconnectedness in the blink of an eye and an ultra-efficient and comfortable lifestyle available for those living in the 21st century. The world today may very well be a different place if Bardeen was not born and allowed to develop into a formidable intellectual force. The following pages will provide a basic understanding of how one man help change the world. Building a Career
A great foundation is the assurance of a solid structure with an integrity that can withstand tremors and other pressures. If this analogy of building structures can be applied to life then it can be said that John Bardeen prepared a secure foundation for a great career that would change the course of history. All great careers – especially in engineering – must start with great education. Mr. Bardeen went to the University High School in Madison, Wisconsin for a number of years and then went on to graduate from Madison Central High School in the year 1923.
Then he took up a course in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. In the said university, Bardeen took up the extra challenge of adding in extra work in mathematics and physics. If this is not enough he went to work – while still an undergraduate student – in the engineering department of the Western Electric Company at Chicago. He graduated with a B. S. in electrical engineering in 1928. But he did not leave his beloved university just yet and he continued on as a graduate research assistant in electrical engineering, a task which he focused on for the next two years of his life.
In this two years he devoted himself to the study of mathematical problems in applied geophysics and also the phenomenon of radiation in antennas (see Nobelprize. org). After serving under the U. S. Navy in World War II, Bardeen, “…was hired by Bell Laboratories, a high-tech communications and electronics research plant” (Haven & Clark, 1999, p. 22). It is in this environment and in this scientific community where Bardeen was able to showcase his talents.
But Bardeen was not only keen in showing the what he can do; he is also very much willing to share what he knows to others. He served as a Junior Fellow at Harvard University and also worked as assistant professor of physics at the University of Minnesota (Haven & Clark, 1999, p. 24). Contributions In the beginning of this study the proponent submitted the idea that genius should not be only measured through intelligence quotient alone but also on the ability of the person to create something worthwhile; in other words to contribute to the forward progress of mankind.
This will show that the high IQ person is not simply a machine able to crunch complicated sets of numbers but also a complete human being able to touch lives and to work with others. In this category of super achievers one can include John Bardeen not only because he has the machinelike prowess to solve complicated problems but also because he was well regarded by his peers and well respected beyond the community where he first nurtured his genius in Wisconsin. The first major contribution of Bardeen was to crack the transistor puzzle.
Together with a team of scientists – Walter H. Brattain and William Shockley – he was able to explain semiconductors and the transistor effect (see Nobelprize. org). Just to show a basic idea of what this discovery has meant to human history here is Bardeen’s contribution in a nutshell, “The transistor has been the backbone of every computing, calculating, communicating and logic electronics circuit build in the last 50 years” (Haven & Clark, 1999, p. 21). For his work he shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics.
His second major contribution was to provide for a very enlightening explanation of superconductivity. In the words of Haven and Clark, “Bardeen won his second Nobel Prize for elucidating the theory of superconductivity, which has been called one of the most important achievements in the theoretical physics since the development of quantum theory” (1999, p. 21). Thus, in 1972 Bardeen became a double Nobel laureate. He shared the award with Leon N. Cooper and J. Robert Schrieffer for the theory of superconductivity.
From then on others were able to build on this new understanding and at present allowed many to experience that, “Superconductivity at higher temperatures has led to such feats as frictionless, ultrafast trains lifted magnetically above their rails…” (Haven & Clark, 1999, p. 21). Conflicts In every major endeavor and in every significant discovery, controversy and conflicts are almost inevitable as night follows day. More often than not conflicts are coming from the outside as people unable to fully grasp the new scientific breakthrough would question its relevance to society.
In the case of John Bardeen the conflicts he experienced did not come from his external environment but surprisingly it came from within; from within himself and from within their own community of scientists. This inner turmoil was explained by Hoddeson and Daitch (2002, p. 2-3) as follows: 1. Bardeen was unsure of the true worth of transistors in the larger scheme of things. 2. Bardeen was not agreeable to the fact that William Shockley was considered as the co-inventor of the transistor and share the Nobel Prize in 1956.
It is interesting to expound on the second statement for it would strengthen the thesis that a true man of genius must be able to work harmoniously within a community, within a group of individuals to be considered as a man of great intellectual stature and not merely a flash in the pan talent that would prove useless in real life situations. A deeper look at the issue would reveal that Shockley was not able to contribute a significant theory or solution that led to the discovery of the transistor action. It was purely the work of Bardeen and Brattain.
Hoddeson and Daitch reveal that, “…it was Shockley, rather than Bardeen and Brattain, who received wide recognition for the discovery. Even today, popular magazines sometimes credit Shockley alone with the invention” (2002, p. 2). Even if Bardeen knew the inside information as to what really happened within the Bell laboratories where the “transistor phenomena” was fully understood, it was a testament to his great character that he did not make a scandal out of it and at the end allowed Shockley to share the fame and the glory together with Brattain. Legacy
Aside from having great mind and the capacity to touch lives, one of the standards upon which true genius must be measured against is legacy. Legacy is what is left when the hype dies down and when the passage of time has truly tested the value of a person’s work. With regards to the legacy left behind by Bardeen this is what Jim Turley has to say: Few things have altered modern life as much as the discovery of semiconductors … Modern electronics have completely changed the way we talk with each other … It has changed medical research, entertainment, record keeping, travel, and exploration.
There’s almost no business, profession, or industry that hasn’t changed since the introduction of solid-state electronics in the last 50 years (2003, p. 2). If having a brilliant mind, capacity to work under pressure and to share recognition with a group of equally talented personnel, and a body of work that has changed history is the measure of true genius then there are only a few who can match John Bardeen in this respect. Works Cited Haven, Kendall & Donna Clark. 100 Most Popular Scientists for Young Adults: Biographical Sketches and Professional Paths.
Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc. , 1999. Hoddeson, Lilian & Vicki Daitch. True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen. Washington, D. C. : Joseph Henry Press, 2002. Nobelprize. org. John Bardeen: The Nobel Prize in Physics 1972. Available from <http://nobelprize. org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1972/bardeen-bio. html> Accessed 20 July 2007. Samuelson, Bengt & Michael Sohlman. Nobel Lectures in Physics. New Jersey: World Scientific Publishing Co. , 1998 Turley, Jim. The Essential Guide to Semiconductors. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. , 2003.

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