Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain at Bell Labs.
John Bardeen, 1973
John Bardeen In Illinois
Allowed to Follow His Own Path
The University of Illinois lured John Bardeen with the one thing he wanted most — the right to research whatever he wanted. Bardeen decided to work on superconductivity, which had begun to interest him in his last days at Bell Labs.
The Nobel Prize
On the morning of Thursday, November 1, 1956, John Bardeen was making breakfast and listening to the radio. As he scrambled his eggs, he heard a newscaster announce that the Nobel Prize in physics had been awarded to him, Brattain, and Shockley for the invention of the transistor. Bardeen dropped the frying pan and ran into the bedroom to tell his wife Jane the news.
The Nobel ceremony took place in Sweden on the evening of Monday, December 10. Shockley arrived late, with his wife and mother in tow. Bardeen and Brattain spent the time together getting ready. Bardeen had to borrow an extra white vest and white tie for his formal suit from Brattain since Bardeen's had turned green at the laundry. Then the nervous pair shared a bottle of quinine to settle their stomachs.
They received their awards that night from King Gustav VI and then adjourned for a great banquet in their honor. After dinner, Brattain, Bardeen, their families, and Swedish friends sat around a table at their hotel celebrating. Towards the end of the night, Shockley walked in and was invited to join the party. For one night, the group was together again. The three men remembered the days when they had been friends and a phenomenal research team.
John Bardeen brought only one of his three children to Stockholm so as not to disrupt the other two sons' studies at Harvard. King Gustav scolded Bardeen about leaving his family behind on such an important occasion. He assured the King that the next time he would bring all his children.
By then, Bardeen was much more fascinated by the research that was taking up his time in Illinois: superconductivity. In 1957, along with post-doctoral student Leon Cooper and graduate student Bob Schrieffer, Bardeen developed the first theory on how extremely cold metals are able to conduct electricity so efficiently. To this day, this theory is known as the BCS theory (for Bardeen, Cooper, and Schrieffer). In 1972, the three men were awarded a Nobel for their work. John Bardeen became the only person in history to have received two Nobel Prizes in physics.
And he did bring all his children to the next Nobel ceremony.
Bardeen lived out the rest of his years in Urbana, teaching, researching, and playing his favorite sport: golf. He died in 1991 at the age of eighty-two.
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