Biography of John Bardeen

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American physicist who was cowinner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in both 1956 and 1972. He shared the 1956 prize with William B. Shockley and Walter H. Brattain for their joint invention of the transistor. With Leon N. Cooper and John R. Schrieffer he was awarded the 1972 prize for development of the theory of superconductivity. He was the only person who won two Nobel Prizes in the same field.

John Bardeen was born on May 23, 1908 in Madison, Wisconsin. His father, Charles Russell Bardeen, was the first graduate of the Johns HopkinsMedical School and founder of the Medical School at the University of Wisconsin. His mother, Althea Harmer, studied oriental art at the Pratt Institute and practiced interior design in Chicago. He was one of five children (the second son). Bardeen was a brilliant kid right from the beginning – his parents decided to move him from third grade up intojunior high.

When Bardeen was 12, his mother became seriously ill with cancer. Thinking he was helping his kids, Dr. Bardeen downplayed the seriousness of her illness. John didn’t realize she was dying, and was stunned when it happened.

“It was on the way between my high school and home so that I would stop and see her on the way home from school. I remember stopping in to see her on the day before she died. I thought she looked well that day and cheerful and I was shocked to hear the next day that she had passed away. I didn’t realize how seriously ill she was.” – John Bardeen, May 12,1977 , Childhood recollection of his mother.

His father quickly married his secretary, Ruth Hames, wanting to give his young children the family he thought they needed. It didn’t help Bardeen much – he was heartbroken and distracted, barely passing French that year. Nevertheless, he made it through high school and entered theUniversity of Wisconsin in the fall of 1923 at the age of 15, where he majored in engineering.

John – a student

John Bardeen stayed on at the University of Wisconsin receiving a B.S. in 1928 and an M.S. in 1929 in electrical engineering. He chose engineering because it had lots of the math he loved, but it also had good job prospects. He didn’t want to be an academic, like his father. By the time he graduated, however, the Depression had struck and jobs were scarce. Bardeen was courted briefly by Bell Labs, but a hiring freeze closed that door. Professor Leo J. Peters, under whom his research in geophysics was done, took a position at the Gulf Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Bardeen followed him there and worked during the next three years (1930-33) on the development of methods for the interpretation of magnetic and gravitational surveys. This was a stimulating period in which geophysical methods were first being applied to prospecting for oil. His heart wasn’t in geology – the time had come to go back to school.

John Bardeen, mid-1930s

Because he felt his interests were in theoretical science, Dr. Bardeen resigned his position at Gulf in 1933 to take graduate work in mathematical physics at Princeton University. He went to Princeton to get his Ph.D. in mathematical physics. It was there that Bardeen first got involved with the studies of metals. He attended Princeton at an exciting time, when scientists like Eugene Wigner and Frederick Seitz were using the new theories of quantum mechanics to help understand how semiconductors worked. These theories would help Bardeen later during the invention of the transistor. He finished his dissertation in 1935.

He spent the next three years there working with Professors Van Vleck and Bridgman on problems in cohesion and electrical conduction in metals and also did some work on the level density of nuclei.

John and Jane Bardeen, years later

Bardeen went on to Harvard where he was hired as a Junior Fellow with a salary of $1,500 a year, plus living expenses – a sum considered quite substantial at the time. Life in Cambridge allowed him to spend more time with his sweetheart Jane Maxwell, a biologist who taught at a girls high school near Boston. They were married in 1938. They had three children: James M. Bardeen, William A. Bardeen, and Elizabeth A. Bardeen Greytak. Their grandchildren are Charles G. Bardeen, Karen G. Bardeen, William T. Bardeen, David P. Bardeen, Andrew B. Greytak, and Matthew B. Greytak.

After Harvard, Bardeen worked at the University of Minnesota until World War II broke out, then he transferred to the Naval Ordnance Labs. During the war, he helped the Navy develop ways to protect U.S. ships and submarines from magnetic mines and torpedoes.

John Bardeen had met William Shockley when they were both in school in Massachusetts. In 1945, when World War 2 ended, Shockley was put in charge of a new research group at Bell Labs and he wanted Bardeen on the team. Since Bell offered Bardeen twice his salary at Minnesota, Bardeen didn’t have to think long about the offer. John and Jane Bardeen, along with their three young children, moved to New Jersey.

Bardeen also knew another member of the group, Walter Brattain, from his grad school days. Bardeen was introduced to Walter Brattain by Bardeen’s good friend Bob, Walter’s brother. Over the years their friendship grew, both in the lab and on the golf course where they spent time on the weekends. The two made a great team, with Brattain putting together the experiments and Bardeen weaving theories to explain the results.

In the spring of 1947, Shockley set Brattain and Bardeen a task: explain why an amplifier he’d devised didn’t work. At the heart of this amplifier was a crystal of silicon (they would switch to germanium several months later). To figure out what was going on, Bardeen had to remember some of the quantum mechanics research that had been done on semiconductors while he was at Princeton in the 1930s. He had also come up with some new theories himself. By observing Brattain’s experiments, Bardeen realized that everyone had been assuming electrical current traveled through all parts of the germanium in a similar way. That was wrong: electrons behaved differently at the surface of the metal.

If Brattain and Bardeen could control what was happening at the surface, the amplifier should work. It took them until the end of 1947, but on December 23 the pair succeeded. They had built the first point-contact transistor.

Solid-state devices, through miniaturization, reliability and low-heat operation, perform many tasks that could not have been handled by vacuum tubes. From transistors and their progeny come portable radios, manned space flight and computers. Solid-state electronics embodied by the transistor is the most significant discovery in communications since the invention of the telephone itself. Today, billions of transistors are manufactured weekly.

A close-up of the first transistor

After the invention of the transistor, the mood in the lab took a turn for the worse. Shockley resented the fact that he missed the invention. He went to work on his own, developing the improved, more stable junction or sandwich transistor. Relationships fell apart completely when Shockley blocked Bardeen from working on things that interested him.

By 1951 Bardeen had started looking for a new job. When his friend Fred Seitz convinced the University of Illinois to make Bardeen an offer of $10,000 a year, he left Bell Labs with little regrets. In a memo to Mervin Kelly he wrote: “My difficulties stem from the invention of the transistor. Before that there was an excellent research atmosphere here.”

The University of Illinois lured John Bardeen with the one thing he wanted most – the right to research whatever he wanted. Bardeen decided to work on superconductivity, which had begun to interest him in his last days at Bell Labs. At Illinois, Bardeen established two major research programs, one in the Electrical Engineering Department dealing with both experimental and theoretical aspects of semiconductors, and one in the Physics Department which dealt with theoretical aspects of macroscopic quantum systems, particularly superconductivity and quantum liquids.

The microscopic theory of superconductivity, developed in collaboration with L.N. Cooper and J.R. Schrieffer in 1956 and 1957, has had profound implications for nearly every field of physics from elementary particle to nuclear and the helium liquids to neutron stars. During his sixty year scientific career, he made significant contributions to almost every aspect of condensed matter physics from his early work on the electronic behavior of metals, the surface properties of semiconductors and the theory of diffusion of atoms in crystals to his most recent work on quasi-one-dimensional metals. In his eighty-third year, he continued to publish original scientific papers.

During this period, Bardeen maintained active interests in engineering and technology. He began consulting for Xerox Corporation in 1951, when it was still called Haloid and the Research Department was located in a frame house in Rochester, New York. He worked with Xerox throughout their spectacular development, and later served on the Xerox Board of Directors. He also consulted with General Electric Corporation for many years and with several other technology firms.

On the morning of Thursday, November 1, 1956, John Bardeen was making breakfast and listening to the radio. As he scrambled his eggs, he heard a newscaster announce that the Nobel Prize in physics had been awarded to him, Brattain, and Shockley for the invention of the transistor. Bardeen dropped the frying pan and ran into the bedroom to tell his wife Jane the news.

The Nobel ceremony took place in Sweden on the evening of Monday, December 10. Shockley arrived late, with his wife and mother in tow. Bardeen and Brattain spent the time together getting ready. Bardeen had to borrow an extra white vest and white tie for his formal suit from Brattain since Bardeen’s had turned green at the laundry. Then the nervous pair shared a bottle of quinine to settle their stomachs. They received their awards that night from King Gustav VI and then adjourned for a great banquet in their honor. After dinner, Brattain, Bardeen, their families, and Swedish friends sat around a table at their hotel celebrating. Towards the end of the night, Shockley walked in and was invited to join the party. For one night, the group was together again. The three men remembered the days when they had been friends and a phenomenal research team.

John Bardeen brought only one of his three children to Stockholm so as not to disrupt the other two sons’ studies at Harvard. King Gustav scolded Bardeen about leaving his family behind on such an important occasion. He assured the King that the next time he would bring all his children.

Nobel Prize, 1972

By then, Bardeen was much more fascinated by the research that was taking up his time in Illinois: superconductivity. In 1957, along with post-doctoral student Leon Cooper and graduate student Bob Schrieffer, Bardeen developed the first theory on how extremely cold metals are able to conduct electricity so efficiently. To this day, this theory is known as the BCS theory (for Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer). In 1972, the three men were awarded a Nobel for their work. John Bardeen became the only person in history to have received two Nobel Prizes in physics. And he did bring all his children to the next Nobel ceremony.

Bardeen, a Fellow of the American Physical Society, served on the Council from 1954-57 and was President in 1968-69. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1954 and the National Academy of Engineering in 1972. He served on the U.S. President’s Science Advisory Committee from 1959 to 1962 and on the White House Science Council in 1981-82.

He was a founding member of the Commission on Very Low Temperatures of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics from 1963-1972, serving as chairman in 1969-1972. From 1961-1974 he was a member of the Board of Directors of Xerox Corporation and was a member of the Board of Supertex, Inc. from 1983 to 1991.

Honors have included the Stuart Ballantine Medal, Franklin Institute (1952), Buckley Prize, American Physical Society (1954), John Scott Medal, City of Philadelphia (1955), Fritz London Award for low temperature physics (1962), the Vincent Bendix Award of the American Society for Engineering Education (1964), the U.S. National Medal of Science for 1965, and the Medal of Honor of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (1971) and the James Madison Medal of Princeton University (1973).

He shared the 1956 Nobel Prize for Physics with W.H. Brattain and W. Shockley for research leading to the invention of the transistor and the 1972 Nobel Prize with L.N. Cooper and J.R. Schrieffer for the theory of superconductivity. He received the distinguished Lomonosov Award of the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1987. In 1990, Bardeen was one of 11 recipients of the Third Century Award honoring exceptional contributions to American creativity. He was also named by Life Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the century.

Other achievements include medals from the University of Wisconsin varsity swim team and a hole-in-one in a golf tournament held at the Champaign Country Club. Bardeen lived out the rest of his years in Urbana, teaching, researching, and playing his favorite sport: golf. He died in 1991 at the age of eighty-two.

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