John Bardeen

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John Bardeen (23 May 1908 - 30 January 1991)

Bardeen was an American physicist and electrical engineer, winner twice of the Nobel Prize in Physics: first in 1956 with William Shockley and Walter Brattain for the invention of the transistor; and in 1972 with Leon Neil Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer for a fundamental theory of conventional superconductivity known as the BCS theory. The electronics industry was changed completely by the invention of the transistor, which made possible all modern electronical devices from computers to cell phones to missiles.

Bardeen was one of five children born to Dr. Charles Russell Bardeen and Althea Harmer Bardeen. His father was Professor of Anatomy and the first Dean of the Medical School of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His mother, Althea Bardeen who had taught at the Dewey Laboratory School and run an interior decorating business, was active in the art world. When he was 12, however, his mother died, whereupon his father married Ruth Hames, his secretary.

Bardeen, who attended the University High School at Madison, graduated at the age of 15 from Madison Central High School in 1923, then attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, receiving his B.S. in electrical engineering in 1928. In 1936, he earned his Ph. D. in mathematical physics from Princeton University. In the fall of 1938, Bardeen started in his new role as assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.

According to the Nobel Prize Organization,

Because he felt his interests were in theoretical science, Dr. Bardeen resigned his position at Gulf Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1933 to take graduate work in mathematical physics at Princeton University. It was here, under the leadership of Professor E.P. Wigner, that he first became interested in solid state physics. Before completing his thesis (on the theory of the work function of metals) he was offered a position as Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He spent the next three years there working with Professors Van Vleck and Bridgman on problems in cohesion and electrical conduction in metals and also did some work on the level density of nuclei. The Ph.D. degree at Princeton was awarded in 1936.
From 1938-41 Dr. Bardeen was an assistant professor of physics at the University of Minnesota and from 1941-45 a civilian physicist at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. His war years were spent working on the influence fields of ships for application to underwater ordnance and minesweeping. After the war, he joined the solid-state research group at the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and remained there until 1951, when he was appointed Professor of Electrical Engineering and of Physics at the University of Illinois. Since 1959 he had also been a member of the Center for Advanced Study of the University.
Dr. Bardeen's main fields of research since 1945 have been electrical conduction in semiconductors and metals, surface properties of semiconductors, theory of superconductivity, and diffusion of atoms in solids. The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in 1956 to John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William Shockley for "investigations on semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect," carried on at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. In 1957, Bardeen and two colleagues, L.N. Cooper and J.R. Schrieffer, proposed the first successful explanation of superconductivity, which has been a puzzle since its discovery in 1908. Much of his research effort since that time has been devoted to further extensions and applications of the theory.

At the time of Bardeen's death, then-University of Illinois chancellor Morton Weir said, "It is a rare person whose work changes the life of every American; John's did."

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Bardeen was honored on a March 6, 2008, United States Postage Stamp as part of the "American Scientists" series. The $0.41 stamp was unveiled in a ceremony at the University of Illinois. His citation read:

  • Theoretical physicist John Bardeen (1908-1991) shared the Nobel Prize in Physics twice -- in 1956, as co-inventor of the transistor and in 1972, for the explanation of superconductivity. The transistor paved the way for all modern electronics, from computers to microchips. Diverse applications of superconductivity include infrared sensors and medical imaging systems.

Bardeen was a Unitarian. He died of cardiac arrest at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

When he died, Bardeen and his wife Jane had three children, James and William Bardeen and Elizabeth Greytak; and six grandchildren.