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True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen
     

True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen

by Lillian Hoddeson, Vicki Daitch
 

What is genius? Define it. Now think of scientists who embody the concept of genius. Does the name John Bardeen spring to mind? Indeed, have you ever heard of him?

Like so much in modern life, immediate name recognition often rests on a cult of personality. We know Einstein, for example, not just for his tremendous contributions to science, but also because he

Overview

What is genius? Define it. Now think of scientists who embody the concept of genius. Does the name John Bardeen spring to mind? Indeed, have you ever heard of him?

Like so much in modern life, immediate name recognition often rests on a cult of personality. We know Einstein, for example, not just for his tremendous contributions to science, but also because he was a character, who loved to mug for the camera. And our continuing fascination with Richard Feynman is not exclusively based on his body of work; it is in large measure tied to his flamboyant nature and offbeat sense of humor.

These men, and their outsize personalities, have come to erroneously symbolize the true nature of genius and creativity. We picture them born brilliant, instantly larger than life. But is that an accurate picture of genius? What of others who are equal in stature to these icons of science, but whom history has awarded only a nod because they did not readily engage the public? Could a person qualify as a bona fide genius if he was a regular Joe?

The answer may rest in the story of John Bardeen.

John Bardeen was the first person to have been awarded two Nobel Prizes in the same field. He shared one with William Shockley and Walter Brattain for the invention of the transistor. But it was the charismatic Shockley who garnered all the attention, primarily for his Hollywood ways and notorious views on race and intelligence.

Bardeen's second Nobel Prize was awarded for the development of a theory of superconductivity, a feat that had eluded the best efforts of leading theorists — including Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Richard Feynman. Arguably, Bardeen's work changed the world in more ways than that of any other scientific genius of his time. Yet while every school child knows of Einstein, few people have heard of John Bardeen. Why is this the case?

Perhaps because Bardeen differs radically from the popular stereotype of genius. He was a modest, mumbling Midwesterner, an ordinary person who worked hard and had a knack for physics and mathematics. He liked to picnic with his family, collaborate quietly with colleagues, or play a round of golf. None of that was newsworthy, so the media, and consequently the public, ignored him.

John Bardeen simply fits a new profile of genius. Through an exploration of his science as well as his life, a fresh and thoroughly engaging portrait of genius and the nature of creativity emerges. This perspective will have readers looking anew at what it truly means to be a genius.

Editorial Reviews

J. Robert Schrieffer
"True Genius gives an insightful and warm account of the scientific and personal life of this remarkable man. ... I recommend this book as a joyous read."
--Physics Today, February 2003
Science
"...their account is enlivened by many anecdotes. ...a detailed and animated rendering of Bardeen's life and science."
March 21, 2003
American Scientist
"True Genius accounts with empathy and enthusiasm the rich and varied career of a remarkably creative scientist who is little known... a work of thorough scholarship..."
March-April 2003
Nature
"...the authors' admiration and affection for their subject illuminates the biography."
December 5, 2002
The Times Higher Education Supplement
"This book is an inspiring and exciting read that can be recommended to layman and scientist alike. ... It is a model scientific biography."
March 7, 2003
Cityview
"Without dumbing it down, Hoddeson and Daitch treat the physics like an adventure story, full of alluring mystery, high-stakes competition, turbulent rivalry and inspiring teamwork. ...skillfully narrated..."
October 18-24, 2002
Publishers Weekly
The fact that he won an unprecedented two Nobel prizes in physics (in 1956 and 1972) may be the only extraordinary thing about John Bardeen. He grew up in a middle-class home in Wisconsin with his doctor father, interior designer mother and four siblings. He apparently worked hard, cared deeply about his family, loved sports, was, by all accounts, a gracious and likable colleague and devoted himself to his graduate students. He was also tenacious in pursuit of answers to complex problems in his discipline. Working with William Shockley and Walter Brattain, Bardeen developed the world's first transistor in 1947 and, ten years later, with J. Robert Schrieffer and Leon Cooper, he created a theory of superconductivity. Hoddeson (Crystal Fire) and Daitch attempt a portrait of this unassuming Midwesterner, but offer little more than a rough sketch. As they write in their preface, "We are painfully aware that this book merely scratches the surface of its subject." Little insight is offered beyond descriptions of Bardeen's friends, co-workers and activities. The authors attempt to provide a conceptual framework by examining "the meaning of true scientific genius," but this is largely done in a superficial, 17-page epilogue. Bardeen deserves more public recognition than he received during his life; this book may help in some measure, but it won't bring readers any closer to the man himself. (Oct. 15) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780309095112
Publisher:
National Academies Press
Publication date:
11/11/2002
Pages:
488
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.23(d)

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