Biography of John Bardeen, Nobel Prize-Winning Physicist

Portrait of John Bardeen
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John Bardeen (May 23, 1908–January 30, 1991) was an American physicist. He is best known for winning the Nobel Prize in Physics twice, making him the first person to win two Nobel Prizes in the same field.

In 1956, he received the honor for his contributions to the invention of the transistor, an electronic component that revolutionized the electronics industry. In 1972, he won the Nobel a second time for helping to develop a the theory of superconductivity, which refers to the state of having no electrical resistance.

Bardeen shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics with William Shockley and Walter Brattain, and the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics with Leon Cooper and John Schrieffer.

Fast Facts: John Bardeen

  • Occupation: Physicist
  • Known For: The only physicist to win the Nobel Prize in Physics twice: in 1956 for helping to invent the transistor, and in 1972 for developing the theory of superconductivity
  • Born: May 23, 1908 in Madison, Wisconsin
  • Died: January 30, 1991 in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Charles and Althea Bardeen
  • Education: University of Wisconsin–Madison (B.S., M.S.); Princeton University (Ph.D.)
  • Spouse: Jane Maxwell
  • Children: James, William, Elizabeth
  • Fun Fact: Bardeen was an avid golfer. According to one biography, he once made a hole-in-one and was asked the question, "How much is that worth to you, John, two Nobel Prizes?" Bardeen responded, "Well, perhaps not two."

Early Life and Education

Bardeen was born May 23, 1908 in Madison, Wisconsin. He was the second of five children to Charles Bardeen, the dean of the University of Wisconsin’s medical school, and Althea (née Harmer) Bardeen, an art historian.

When Bardeen was almost 9 years old, he skipped three grades at school to join the 7th grade, and a year later he began high school. After high school, Bardeen began attending the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he majored in electrical engineering. At UW–Madison, he learned about quantum mechanics for the first time from professor John Van Vleck. He graduated with a B.S. in 1928 and remained at UW–Madison for graduate study, receiving his master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1929.

Career Beginnings

After graduate school, Bardeen followed his professor Leo Peters to the Gulf Research and Development Corporation and began studying oil prospecting. There, Bardeen helped devise a method for interpreting geological features from a magnetic survey—a method considered so novel and useful that the company did not patent it for fear of disclosing details to competitors. Details of the invention were only published much later, in 1949.

In 1933, Bardeen left Gulf to undertake graduate study in mathematical physics at Princeton University. Studying under Professor E.P. Wigner, Bardeen conducted work on solid state physics. He graduated with his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1936, though he was elected a member of the Society of Fellows at Harvard in 1935 and worked again with Professor John Van Vleck from 1935-1938, also on solid state physics.

In 1938, Bardeen became an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, where he studied the problem of superconductivity—the observation that metals exhibit zero electrical resistance near absolute temperature. However, due to the outbreak of World War II in 1941, he began work at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C., working on mines and ship detection.

Bell Labs and the Invention of the Transistor

In 1945, after the war ended, Bardeen worked at Bell Lab. He researched solid state electronics, particularly on the ways semiconductors can conduct electrons. This work, which was heavily theoretical and helped aid the understanding of experiments that were already being conducted at Bell Labs, led to the invention of the transistor, an electronic component capable of amplifying or switching electronic signals. The transistor replaced bulky vacuum tubes, allowing for the miniaturization of electronics; it is integral to the development of many of today's modern electronics. Bardeen and his fellow researchers William Shockley and Walter Brattain won the Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the transistor in 1956.

Bardeen became a professor of electrical engineering and physics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, from 1951-1975, before becoming Professor Emeritus. He continued his research there through the 1980s, publishing up to a year before his death in 1991.

Superconductivity Research

In the 1950s, Bardeen resumed research on superconductivity, which he had begun in the 1930s. Along with physicists John Schrieffer and Leon Cooper, Bardeen developed the conventional theory of superconductivity, also called Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer (BCS) theory. They were jointly honored with the Nobel Prize in 1972 for this research. The award made Bardeen the first person ever to win two Nobel Prizes in the same field. 

Awards and Honors

In addition to the Nobel Prize, Bardeen received numerous honors awards and honors including:

  • Elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1959)
  • National Medal of Science (1965)
  • IEEE Medal of Honor (1971)
  • Presidential Medal of Freedom (1977)

Bardeen received honorary doctorates from Harvard (1973), Cambridge University (1977), and the University of Pennsylvania (1976).

Death and Legacy

Bardeen died of heart disease in Boston, Massachusetts on January 30, 1991. He was 82 years old. His contributions to the field of physics remain influential to this day. He is best remembered for his Nobel Prize-winning work: helping to develop the BCS theory of superconductivity and producing theoretical work that led to the invention of the transistor. The latter achievement revolutionized the field of electronics by replacing bulky vacuum tubes and allowing for the miniaturization of electronics.

Sources

  • John Bardeen – Biographical. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2018. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1956/bardeen/biographical/
  • Sir Pippard, Brian. “Bardeen, John (23 May 1908–30 January 1991), Physicist.”Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1 Feb. 1994, pp. 19–34., rsbm.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/roybiogmem/39/19.full.pdf