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True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen [Paperback]

Hoddeson
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Oct. 30 2006
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 emerge. This perspective will have readers looking anew at what it truly means to be a genius.

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Product Description

From 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.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From the Inside Flap

"John Bardeen was one of the most important and prolific physicists of the twentieth century, on par with the likes of Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman, but the general public hardly knows his name. In this eloquent and entertaining biography, Lillian Hoddeson captures the true essence of this quiet, gentle genius."
-- Michael Riordan, author of The Hunting of the Quark and coauthor of Crystal Fire

"If we agree that science literacy is key to the 21st century, then True Genius is one of the most important books of our times. Hoddeson and Daitch have created a masterpiece of biography, illuminating the creative work of a scientific genius, but also the human values, strengths and qualities that must guide, moderate and ultimately determine the fruitfulness of the extraordinary mind."
-- Leon M. Lederman, Nobel Laureate, author of The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? and co-author of From Quarks to the Cosmos: Tools of Discovery

"A sensitive and inspiring portrait of one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. This excellent biography should redefine what it means to be a genius."
-- Iris Chang, author of The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II

"An easy-flowing personal and scientific biography of John Bardeen, who arguably was the most important American physicist. His transistor started modern electronics, the basis of modern technology. Subsequently, he explained superconductivity, a problem which had baffled many other famous physicists."
-- Hans Bethe, Nobel Laureate and Professor Emeritus at Cornell University

"A quiet revolutionary in science was John Bardeen, reticent, deep, intuitive--and a formidable subject for a biographer. Now his science and his personality have been thoughtfully, knowledgeably, lovingly opened up."
-- Horace Freeland Judson, author of The Eighth Day of Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Biology --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


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Customer Reviews

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4.7 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Overall, a Fine Portrait Feb. 3 2003
By K. Luey
Format:Hardcover
I should really write two reviews. One with a rating of four stars, and one with five. Then the average will be 4.5, which I feel is the right rating. I have only two complaints. First, the discussion of minority carrier injection was not clear to me. I went back to the April 1992 issue of "Physics Today." There, the discussion is done just right,the importance of holes is clear. Second, the issue of "genius" and it's identification and cultivation in chapter 17 did not appeal to me. In my opinion, if we were to conclude with a jumping off point from Bardeen's life, it would be to address the question "why is he so unknown today?" That would have been a good epilogue. It's a good question. In W. H. Cropper's book "Great Physicists: etc." Bardeen is not mentioned. A real shame. Bardeen easily ranks with the physicists in that book.
But there really is so much to enjoy in this book. Although born in Wisconsin, and not Minnesota, Bardeen would have been so comfortable in Garrison Keillor's world. Bardeen seems straight out of Lake Wobegone and names like Clarence Bunsen and Florian Krebsbach kept coming to mind. Here was a loyal, moral, dedicated man, focused on his life and work, but needing few words to talk about it. Together with Brattain and Schockley (sort of), Bardeen invents the transistor, comes home to his wife, who is cooking dinner, and says to her, "we discovered something today." Wife Jane says, "that's great." After unraveling one of the greatest puzzles in all of physics, Bardeen says to Charles Slichter, "well, I think we've figured out superconductivity." Wonderful, News from Lake Wobegone stuff. (Hoddeson and Daitch's discussion of superconductivity is quite good, by the way.)
But that's the fun part. In the physics world, there are so few Bardeens.
Read more ›
Was this review helpful to you?
5.0 out of 5 stars Diamond of many facets Nov. 12 2002
Format:Hardcover
I read the brief "Publishers Weekly" review for True Genius, as well as the more cryptic but more positive comments of others. From the very first sentence I knew that the "Publishers Weekly" review would be superficial, and maybe even wrong, which then is of what help to a reader and potential book customer? Living in the U.S. democracy, how can we not be curious and not read about the Founders? Similarly, how can we be immersed in all the new electronics (computers, cell phones, DVD and CD machines, MRI's, digital machinery---in fact, Si here, Si there, Si everywhere) and not be curious about how all this happened, what sort of ingenious mind, or minds, might be at the beginning of it all? Imagine the calamity on the planet if the transistor vanished for a day. Does that help in understanding the scale of a Bardeen, of "True Genius"! I knew John Bardeen for 40 years (as my teacher, friend, colleague) and still I learned something further from Hoddeson and Daitch and the material they unearthed for "True Genius", a fascinating biography (a different kind of story). Hoddeson and Daitch do not disappoint in their biography of Bardeen and in elucidating over many chapters his kind of genius, which "Publishers Weekly" doesn't seem to appreciate. Genius is a diamond of many facets, and Hoddeson and Daitch reveal a Bardeen facet. It isn't the last chapter of "True Genius" that matters. It's the whole book, all the chapters, that reveal an American hero---if you will, a genius.
Nick Holonyak, Jr.
John Bardeen Chair Professor of
Electrical and Computer
Engineering and Physics, and
Center for Advanced Study
Professor of Electrical and
Computer Engineering
University of Illinois
Urbana, IL
Was this review helpful to you?
4.0 out of 5 stars The truth about genius Nov. 18 2002
Format:Hardcover
John Bardeen was one of the most important and prolific physicists of the twentieth century, on par with the likes of Niels Bohr and Richard Feynman, but the general public hardly knows his name. In this eloquent and entertaining biography, Lillian Hoddeson and Vicki Daitch capture the true essence of this quiet, gentle genius. They bring forth aspects of the warm, genuiune man behind the science that gave humanity the transistor and solved the almost intractable problem of superconductivity. Bardeen was a giant of 20th century science, and "True Genius" is the definitive story of his life.
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
61 of 65 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Diamond of many facets Nov. 12 2002
By Nick Holonyak, Jr. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I read the brief "Publishers Weekly" review for True Genius, as well as the more cryptic but more positive comments of others. From the very first sentence I knew that the "Publishers Weekly" review would be superficial, and maybe even wrong, which then is of what help to a reader and potential book customer? Living in the U.S. democracy, how can we not be curious and not read about the Founders? Similarly, how can we be immersed in all the new electronics (computers, cell phones, DVD and CD machines, MRI's, digital machinery---in fact, Si here, Si there, Si everywhere) and not be curious about how all this happened, what sort of ingenious mind, or minds, might be at the beginning of it all? Imagine the calamity on the planet if the transistor vanished for a day. Does that help in understanding the scale of a Bardeen, of "True Genius"! I knew John Bardeen for 40 years (as my teacher, friend, colleague) and still I learned something further from Hoddeson and Daitch and the material they unearthed for "True Genius", a fascinating biography (a different kind of story). Hoddeson and Daitch do not disappoint in their biography of Bardeen and in elucidating over many chapters his kind of genius, which "Publishers Weekly" doesn't seem to appreciate. Genius is a diamond of many facets, and Hoddeson and Daitch reveal a Bardeen facet. It isn't the last chapter of "True Genius" that matters. It's the whole book, all the chapters, that reveal an American hero---if you will, a genius.
Nick Holonyak, Jr.
John Bardeen Chair Professor of
Electrical and Computer
Engineering and Physics, and
Center for Advanced Study
Professor of Electrical and
Computer Engineering
University of Illinois
Urbana, IL
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Overall, a Fine Portrait Feb. 3 2003
By K. Luey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I should really write two reviews. One with a rating of four stars, and one with five. Then the average will be 4.5, which I feel is the right rating. I have only two complaints. First, the discussion of minority carrier injection was not clear to me. I went back to the April 1992 issue of "Physics Today." There, the discussion is done just right,the importance of holes is clear. Second, the issue of "genius" and it's identification and cultivation in chapter 17 did not appeal to me. In my opinion, if we were to conclude with a jumping off point from Bardeen's life, it would be to address the question "why is he so unknown today?" That would have been a good epilogue. It's a good question. In W. H. Cropper's book "Great Physicists: etc." Bardeen is not mentioned. A real shame. Bardeen easily ranks with the physicists in that book.
But there really is so much to enjoy in this book. Although born in Wisconsin, and not Minnesota, Bardeen would have been so comfortable in Garrison Keillor's world. Bardeen seems straight out of Lake Wobegone and names like Clarence Bunsen and Florian Krebsbach kept coming to mind. Here was a loyal, moral, dedicated man, focused on his life and work, but needing few words to talk about it. Together with Brattain and Schockley (sort of), Bardeen invents the transistor, comes home to his wife, who is cooking dinner, and says to her, "we discovered something today." Wife Jane says, "that's great." After unraveling one of the greatest puzzles in all of physics, Bardeen says to Charles Slichter, "well, I think we've figured out superconductivity." Wonderful, News from Lake Wobegone stuff. (Hoddeson and Daitch's discussion of superconductivity is quite good, by the way.)
But that's the fun part. In the physics world, there are so few Bardeens. Not just in terms of intellect, but also in terms of generosity, humility, broad and inclusive vision, and overall respect and like for colleagues. I particularly liked the relationship between Bardeen and Brattain. Some physicists can only work alone, but for those who prefer collaboration, finding a partner like Brattain makes every workday fun and exciting.
Chapter 15 on Bardeen's work with charge density waves was also interesting, if dark. This chapter is an important lesson to those who believe science is the absolute collection of truths and facts. In reality, science is filled with that we do not understand and, as a result, consists of differing opinions and views, just like any other field. It was disheartening, but realistic, I feel, to read that disagreement can also include hurtful disrespect from colleagues/competitors, but Bardeen always maintained the highest levels of professionalism.
It was also disheartening to read in the acknowledgements that Betsy Bardeen Greytak had passed away. ...P>Other than physicsits, I'm not sure what audience will appreciate this book. But it will be interesting for all those, like myself, who have read, enjoyed, and mostly understood the "popular" Richard Feynman books and biographies.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bardeen: The Gentle Giant Sept. 1 2009
By Youssef Ragab - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
John Bardeen was certainly a remarkable man on both the intellectual and human levels. Despite having to his credit such groundbreaking achievements as the invention of the transistor and the explanation of superconductivity, certainly more than most scientists can claim, he is scarcely known. The aim of this book is to shed light on the life, environment, work and persona of this gentle giant. The book starts at the root of Bardeen's ancestry, a bit of US history involved, and moves chronologically with his life. The book succeeds in drawing a portrait of Bardeen as a successful family man, athlete, colleague and of course scientist. A remarkable thing to take home from reading this book is the authors' description of Bardeen's method of tackling problems i.e. thorough investigation of previous work, breaking the problem into smaller pieces and struggling through till the end. An impressive trait of Bardeen's that is made very clear is his kind, helpful and encouraging attitude towards his students and younger colleagues. The first few chapters of the book are very engrossing, e.g. problems with Shockley, but the later chapters discussing Bardeen's industrial and government contribution were a bit boring. I found myself skipping through them. Being nonscientisits, the authors explanation of Bardeen's scientific work is not as good as it should be but it still gives the reader a feeling of the problems. All said, this is one book I definitely enjoyed and would recommend to anyone. Physicists and electronics engineers will love this book.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a brilliant and extremely interesting scientist; a disappointing book Aug. 11 2006
By lector avidus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
John Bardeen was one of nature's prodigies. After an academic career at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, Princeton and Harvard he wound up at Bell Labs where he co-invented the transistor, for which he eventually received a Nobel Prize. Having to deal with a notorious egomaniac of a boss at Bell Labs, who was intent on keeping him from making further discoveries, he fled to the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, where he found a life-long sinecure, and explained superconductivity, and eventually earned another Nobel Prize. Incidentally, the authors of this book both were or are affiliated with UIUC.

The authors do a good job of describing a taciturn scientist and golfer who was much-loved and greatly respected as a person. Unfortunately, as with all biographies of prodigies, it generally is a foregone conclusion that the authors are not equal to the accomplishments of their subject. Even bearing this caveat in mind, I found the book to be a disappointment.

I understood as much of Bardeen's seminal work explaining superconductivity after reading the book as I had before, and this was not for lack of attentive reading. This cannot have been because it is inordinately complicated; Bardeen had been wary of publishing his explanation of superconductivity because it was so simple that he felt he must be missing something.

Similarly, the relevance of the transistor - the other discovery for which Dr. Bardeen won a Nobel Prize - is explained as the invention of a smaller vacuum tube which is of use in consumer electronics and hearing aids. That transistors could be, were and are, connected in such a way as to allow logical circuits, microchips and the internet to exist, doesn't get the mention it merits. On the other hand, there are ample references to the sociology of Nobel Laureates, Thomas Kuhn's theories about scientific advances, and even a 17 page epilogue or bonus material concerning theories about how prodigies come to be. On top all this, the dye used to color the hardcover version of this book rubbed off onto my fingertips.

I enjoyed reading parts of this book, and hope that eventually other authors will write a more complete and informative book about a most interesting scientist.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Fate of the Spinning Electron. NOT July 2 2010
By Milton Valenta - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an important biography of the great American physicist, John Bardeen,who was awarded two Nobel Prizes in physics, the only one to receive two awards in the same field. Bardeen was my thesis advisor. Although a theoretician, he enjoyed working with experimentalists; daily he came into the laboratory to study my data and to help me solve experimental problems that may have arisen during the course of the work. John was greatly missed when he went on his visits as a consultant to the then Bell Labs., General Electric Research Lab., Xerox (then Haloid) Research Lab., and others.
Though the authors are not scientists, early on Bardeen had asked Lillian Hoddeson to write his biography; whenever anyone offered to write his biography, he would mention that Hoddeson was working on one. In preparing the biography, Hoddison & Daitch had approached anyone across the planet who had had contact with John Bardeen.
In writing to John from Vienna to congratulate him on his second award, I interjected that my concern had been that he might suffer the same fate as the physicists who first proposed that the electron has spin. Goudamit & Uhlenbeck had proposed that the electron has spin and a magnet moment but never did receive
a Nobel Prize for this fundamental discovery. Goudsmit had mentioned more than once
that people often assumed he had won a Nobel Prize. Apparently the Nobel Committee decided to
wait a dozen years until The Theory of Superconductivity had been sufficiently tested. It almost got to the point that if the data did not agree with the theory, it was the data that were spurious.
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