Today is the birthday of John Bardeen, one of a handful of scientists who revolutionized the computer industry in the mid-20th century. He was the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice in the same discipline (Physics, 1956 and 1972).
Born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, John Bardeen was known as “Whispering John” for his quiet voice and low-key demeanor. He first chose to study electrical engineering out of a love for math and the sense that engineering was more likely to get him a job. By the time he finished school, the Great Depression meant that all kinds of jobs were scarce and he worked as a geophysicist before heading to to Princeton to get his Ph.D. in mathematical physics. It was at Princeton that Bardeen began working with metals and studied the emerging theories of quantum mechanics to help understand how semiconductors worked. His studied were interrupted by World War II, when he helped the Navy devise ways to protect Allied ships and submarines from magnetic mines and torpedoes.
Bardeen shared his first Nobel Prize with William Shockley of Semiconductor Laboratory of Beckman Instruments and Walter Brattain of Bell Laboratories for their research on semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor. Transistors are the major component in all digital circuits, and they replaced used vacuum tubes which were larger, used more energy, and created more heat. Bardeen and Brattain worked well together and filed the original patent for the transistor. Brattain said Bardeen was “the most intelligent human being that I’ve ever met.” But Shockley, a brilliant but difficult man, downplayed the work of his colleagues and tried to take full credit for the discovery.
Disenchanted by the new tension in the lab, Bardeen left Bell Labs for a position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he could pursue his burgeoning interest in superconductivity. There, he worked with post-doctoral student Leon Cooper and graduate student Bob Schrieffer, to develop the first theory on how extremely cold metals are able to conduct electricity so efficiently. Called the BCS theory (after Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer), it was this discovery that led to Bardeen’s second shared Nobel Prize in 1972.
John Bardeen and his colleagues laid the groundwork for computers as we know them today. In Tumblehome Learning’s The Desperate Case of the Diamond Chip, Clinton and Mae learn about electronics from those who developed the field, giving us the technology that we’ve come to rely on every day. It’s a good read and a great adventure!