Book Review: True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen

I came across Bardeen’s name again while looking up BCS theory in superconductivity. To me, Cooper was always the big contributor, since Cooper Pairs are so frequently talked about in relation to Josephson junctions and other superconductivity phenomena. But that B of BCS was none other than Bardeen.

I knew of Bardeen – I had a poster of famous scientists in my room and his was on it, for his work on transistors. But transistors always seemed to be more associated with Shockley, the brilliant scientist who eventually went crazy over Eugenics in Silicon Valley. So how did Bardeen somehow hide away in the corner?

I immensely appreciated this book for it’s wonderful way of looking through John Bardeen’s entire life, and documenting his challenges, first at the Bell Lab working under the egomaniacal Shockley, then later with his semi-failed theory on CDWs. His life is inspiring, and his dedication to research is unrelenting.

The book itself was dry – it reads much more as a history of science report than a general science biography. Pages are filled with direct quotes, with a hefty 27 page bibliography of sources, and an even heftier 81 page notes section, sourcing each quotation. Some of the anecdotes are repeated through the book, which might make sense on a chapter-to-chapter basis, but induce a strong sense of déjà vu while reading. However, it’s clear that Lillian Hoddeson and Vicki Daitch are truly dedicated to presenting a complete picture of who John Bardeen was and aspired to be in this biography. Their dedication to details, especially on the minutia of scientific controversy and how Bardeen navigated through them, was brilliant.

Perhaps the greater travesty is that, despite Bardeen’s phenomenal life of research, this is the only book published about him. He has perhaps contributed more than any other American to our current standard of life in the 21st century, and yet books barely mention him. Indeed, even as a physics student, I have never truly heard of him exalted or commented on, besides the lessons in superconductivity labs. Perhaps that’s because of his choice of field – solid state physics and transistor circuits are not often introduced at an early stage of an undergraduate physics curriculum. But that really is not much of an excuse, for one who has contributed so much. His transistors are in every one of the computers that power the modern information age. And I believe that his theory of superconductivity, which has led to Josephson junctions, which has led to superconducting circuits used in quantum computing, will soon be the basis of another scientific revolution not too far off in the future.

One of the fascinating aspects of this book is in the epilogue, where the authors spend some time dissecting Bardeen’s psychological profile and make an effort to understand the nature of genius. While I am wary of the tone of finality taken in the chapter, I found it surprisingly motivating, as if it was laying out a roadmap for the mentality that I should take if I ever desire to follow in the same footsteps.

I truly enjoyed the read, but do hope that we will see more of a popular science book written about Bardeen in the future, so that his story will become more accessible to everyone.

5/5 stars

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