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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Our university bookstore kindly informed me of your listing of Hoddeson and Daitch's John Bardeen biography, "True Genius," and, of course, I read the brief "Publishers Weekly" review, 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.