Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age

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When William Shockley invented the transistor, the world was changed forever and he was awarded the Nobel Prize. But today Shockley is often remembered only for his incendiary campaigning about race, intelligence, and genetics. His dubious research led him to donate to the Nobel Prize sperm bank and preach his inflammatory ideas widely, making shocking pronouncements on the uselessness of remedial education and the sterilization of individuals with IQs below 100. Ultimately his crusade destroyed his reputation and saw him vilified on national television, yet he died proclaiming his work on race as his greatest accomplishment. Now, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Joel N. Shurkin offers the first biography of this contradictory and controversial man. With unique access to the private Shockley archives, Shurkin gives an unflinching account of how such promise ended in such ignominy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Shurkin is a good storyteller, and better still as a researcher of the personal facts." —Nobel laureate Professor Philip Anderson, Times Higher Educational Supplement

"Shurkin deftly tackles this complex figure — and his unraveling — and delivers an unflinching portrait of a tragic life."—Seed Magazine

"At last, the definitive, unstinting biography of this hugely important historical figure—complete with all his contradictions and idiosyncrasies."—Michael Riordan, coauthor of Crystal Fire

"I recommend it to people curious about the history of technology and the computer or anyone interested in a rise and fall of truly epic proportions."—Cory Ondrejka, CTO Linden Labs/Second Life"Shurkin does a good job of portraying a difficult man—a vivid portrait."—NewScientist

Praise for Engines of the Mind:

"A popularized, clearly written history of computing...beautifully captures the hectic, creative air at the Moore School as young engineers labored under John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert to construct ENIAC..."—The Wall Street Journal

"A fine book, full of interesting angles and lively stuff...Shurkin has the same lively facility for writing clearly about computers that Robert Heilbroner has for writing about economics...Shurkin writes a crisp newspaperly style, has a good eye for color and has created a fine book."—Boston Globe

"Offers a glimpse of science at both its finest and most mundane...clearly and vivaciously written."—ALA Booklist

"The other wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to convey the excitement of scientific inquiry and invention."—New York Sun

"FIVE STARS: this gripping biography gives a balanced picture of the most bizarre of the great names of electronics. Recommended." —Brian Clegg, author of The God Effect and Light Years

"I recommend it to people curious about the history of technology and the computer or anyone interested in a rise and fall of truly epic proportions." —Cory Ondrejka, CTO Linden Labs/Second Life

"Masterfully walks the fine line between presenting Shockley as purely evil and legitimizing his more controversial theories—very readable." —Physics World

"This portrait of a flawed giant reveals a man crushed under the weight of his own pathological insecurities." —David Bodanis, Discover

"Shurkin reveals Shockley to be a fascinating example of an Aristotelian tragic hero—riveting." —Nature

"This informed and candid biography asks, 'Why did a man so brilliant deliberately destroy himself?'" —Skeptical Inquiry

Praise for Terman's Kids:

"While Shurkin views his subject in a sympathetic light, he makes no apologies for Terman's flaws as a scientist and a human being...his Midwestern biases, sexism, his moral humbuggery."—Philadelphia Inquirer

Library Journal
It is ironic that the Nobel Prize winner widely credited with inventing the transistor should be more frequently remembered for his pseudo-scientific, racist views on IQ. William Shockley's innovations at Shockley Semiconductor Laboratories spawned the tech-Mecca known today as Silicon Valley. How could this man drift from solid-state physics to the genetics of human intelligence, treating it with equal intensity but far less rigor or, to pose the question Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Shurkin (Engines of the Mind) asks in his preface, "Why would a man as unquestionably brilliant as he knowingly and deliberately destroy himself?" In search of answers, Shurkin combs through a trove of personal documents and family memorabilia, among them the 1943 suicide note Shockley saved after a failed attempt at taking his life. Knowing this particular aspect of Shockley's past might provide some context and explanation for the legendary arrogance and paranoia he displayed in his labs, as well as for his eventually obsessive advocacy of eugenics and some of its most radical protocols (e.g., involuntary sterilization). Shurkin portrays Shockley as a consummately driven man in all of his endeavors, who was, ultimately, driven to self-destruction. Highly recommended. Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., Univ. at Albany Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781403988157
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
  • Publication date: 6/13/2006
  • Series: MacSci Series
  • Pages: 378
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.45 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Joel N. Shurkin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of many books, including Engines of the Mind and Terman's Kids. He lives in Washington, DC.

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Table of Contents






Physics and M.I.T.

"Highly Explosive Character"

World War 2


"The Magic Month"

"We Better Call Shockley"

"There's Enough Glory in This for Everyone"

"....To Do My Climbing by Moonlight and Unroped"

"Well-equipped Female with Brains"

"Really Peculiar Ideas about How to Motivate People"


"Three Generations of Imbeciles is Enough"

"What Law of Nature Have You Discovered?"

"Someday We May Actually Be Very Alone"

"The High Cost of Thinking the Unthinkable"

"I love you"


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