VIEW LARGER COVER
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.
Lillian Hoddeson is a professor of history and a senior research physicist at the University of Illinois. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Crystal Fire: The Birth of the Information Age written with Michael Riordan. She lives in Urbana, Illinois, with her husband.
Vicki Daitch holds a Ph D. in history from the University of Illinois. She teaches at New Hampshire Technical Institute and works as a behavioral consultant for the local SPCA. Daitch lives in New Hampshire with her husband and their eleven Alaskan malamute sled dogs.
Lillian Hoddeson, et al. 2002. True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen: The Only Winner of Two Nobel Prizes in Physics. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10372.
The National Academies Press (NAP) has partnered with Copyright Clearance Center's Rightslink service to offer you a variety of options for reusing NAP content. Through Rightslink, you may request permission to reprint NAP content in another publication, course pack, secure website, or other media. Rightslink allows you to instantly obtain permission, pay related fees, and print a license directly from the NAP website. The complete terms and conditions of your reuse license can be found in the license agreement that will be made available to you during the online order process. To request permission through Rightslink you are required to create an account by filling out a simple online form. The following list describes license reuses offered by the National Academies Press (NAP) through Rightslink:
Click here to obtain permission for the above reuses. If you have questions or comments concerning the Rightslink service, please contact:
Rightslink Customer Care
Tel (toll free): 877/622-5543
To request permission to distribute a PDF, please contact our Customer Service Department at 800-624-6242 for pricing.
To request permission to translate a book published by the National Academies Press or its imprint, the Joseph Henry Press, pleaseclick here to view more information.