Engineer Who Won The Nobel Prize Twice In Physics

May 9, 2021 2 comments
john bardeen twice nobel prize winner physics superconductivity transistor

Winning the Nobel Prize once is no easy feat let alone winning it twice! The first ever person to do so was chemist and physicist Marie Curie as many of you might already know.

Similarly, John Bardeen has won the prestigious prize for physics first in 1956 and then in 1972. Although, if you happen to watch The Big Bang Theory, it might come off as surprising that he was an engineer by profession.

Bardeen (1908-1991) completed his bachelor and master degrees in electrical engineering in 1928 and 1929 respectively. He was then employed by Gulf Oil Corporation where he worked for four years.

However, his love for physics was intact and urged him to go back to school. Therefore, he enrolled at Princeton University to study physics and mathematics in 1933.

There he wrote a thesis on solid-state physics under the guidance of Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner. After graduating in 1935, he was chosen as Junior Fellow at Harvard University, a position he held for three years.

In 1939, the second world war broke out and John could no longer facilitate his individual research interests. The big break came after the war in October 1945 when he started working at Bell Labs.

Along with colleagues William Shockley and Walter Brattain, John invented the first transistor in 1947. Their relationship, however, soured when Shockley tried to take most of the credit for the invention.

first transistor invented by john bardeen physics
Replica of the first transistor

Shockley prevented both Bardeen and Brattain from working any further on the transistor technologies. So, John left Bell Labs in 1951 and accepted an offer from the University of Illinois to study superconductivity.

In 1956, he shared the Nobel Prize in physics with Shockley and Brattain for their work on the transistor. Today, as you might know, most of computing technologies are unimaginable without the transistor.

When Bardeen brought only one of his three children to the prize distribution ceremony, the King of Sweden ridiculed him, to which Bardeen candidly replied: "Next time I will bring them all to Sweden."

In 1957, John wrote a theory of superconductivity along with Leon Cooper and John Schrieffer. It ushered a new era of transportation and medical technologies such as MagLev and MRI respectively.

15 years later, John kept the promise he made to the King of Sweden when he took his three children to the Nobel Prize distribution ceremony in 1972.

John stayed as a professor of engineering at University of Illinois until 1975. In 1983, Sony corporation, which owed much of its commercial success to inventions by John, created an honorary John Bardeen professorship at the university.

It's similar to the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, a chair founded in 1663 and held by icons like Newton, Dirac and Hawking.

In a 1988 interview, when Bardeen was asked to comment on religion, he said: "I am not a religious person and so do not think about it very much." John was a very humble scientist who donated much of his Nobel Prize money. He enjoyed hosting cookouts for neighbours who were unaware of his scientific achievements.

If you make a list of people – politicians, scientists, sportspersons, etc – who have had the greatest impact on the 20th century, John's name would certainly make it to the top ten. Because, without his work, none of the modern technologies would be possible.

Comments

  1. In 1973 he gave a talk in Nato summer school on superconductivity. He talked about a 19 century philosopher who said that if people would have music all day the will mellow. Bardeen said nobody in his right mind would give money to Maxwel to work on his new theory. What he missed is that he made it possible to have all of your favorite music in your pocket. In 1978 a colleague of mine was going to another summer school, next to him was an elderly couple, he start to chat and explain to them about the great thing of superconductivity. in the conference he realize that that was Bardeen.

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