The quiet man of physics

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  • True Genius: The Life and Scienceof John Bardeenby Lillian Hoddeson & Vicki DaitchJoseph Henry Press: 2002. 482 pp. $27.95

    P. W. Anderson

    John Bardeen was an extremely quiet man.An anecdote in this book avers that when hewas selling his house in Summit, New Jersey,the prospective buyer was so disconcerted by Bardeens silence that he raised his bid bymany thousands of dollars while waiting forhim to speak. As an old friend of Bardeens, I dont find that at all implausible.

    Nonetheless, this quiet man led the way in two earth-shattering developments: withWalter Brattain he devised the first workingsemiconductor amplifier, jump-starting theinformation revolution; and with two youngassociates, he solved the 46-year-old puzzle of superconductivity, with repercussions notjust in that field but in fundamental aspects ofnuclear and elementary high-energy physics.He also helped to plan the research labora-tories of the giant Xerox Corporation, andwas a friend and consultant to the founder ofSony. By the way, he is the only person ever to have won two Nobel prizes in physics.

    Still, as Lillian Hoddeson and VickiDaitch bewail in this book, to most of theworld he is John who?. They intend to startremedying this situation. The second themeof the book is also the source of the title: they want to emphasize that it is possible tobe a true genius without being bohemian,neurotic or particularly difficult to get alongwith and that perhaps most geniuses donot fit the popular stereotype.

    Of course, the biographers task is muchharder if the subject is not eccentric in anyspectacular way. Even Bardeens precosity he entered college at 15 did not seem toimpair his ability to get on well with his peers.A few years of indecision as to his naturalcalling ended happily in 1933, at the age of25, with admission to Princeton Universitysgraduate school, where he joined the fortu-nate little band of extraordinary students ofEugene Wigner who founded the modernquantitative theory of solids.

    From Princeton he went on to be admittedinto the lite Society of Fellows at Harvard,which gave him time to attempt several of the toughest problems in his field. He finallyachieved a professorship at Minnesota University, and married Jane Maxwell after three years of courtship he had the old-fashioned determination to have a positivecashflow before marrying. Jane was attrac-tive, universally beloved, patient and, happily,chatty. Soon called into war work, Bardeen

    rose to head a group of 90 engineers and scientists at the uncomfortable and crowdedNaval Ordinance Lab in Washington.

    The drama in his life was largely com-pressed into the next dozen years. A generousoffer drew him to Bell Labs, where a groupwas being assembled under Bill Shockley to attempt to create an amplifier based onwartime advances in semiconductor science.The story of that achievement (by December1947) is told more fully in Hoddesons previ-ous book Crystal Fire, written with MichaelRiordan (Norton, 1997). But in True Genius,Hoddeson and Daitch recount the full storyof the personal conflict with Shockley thatensued when the latter used his position toisolate and overwhelm the two original inven-tors. Perhaps, it must be said, this had lastingbenefits for later developments in semicon-ductors, because it drove Bardeen to work onadvancing the science generally, while Shock-ley pursued a line that eventually petered out.

    By 1951, Bardeen had been lured away to the University of Illinois by old friend and fellow Wigner student Fred Seitz. Therehe not only fostered an independent semi-conductor-engineering group with NickHolonyak, but built a theoretical-physicsgroup within the already thriving condensed-matter physics enterprise.

    He was at last able to indulge his obses-sion with the puzzle of superconductivity,left over from his Harvard days and reacti-vated in his final months at Bell. Using againhis obstinacy and the careful assembling andcritical interpretation of experimental data

    that had carried him so quickly to the transis-tor, Bardeen and David Pines soon formal-ized the crucial interaction. By the end of1956 (with a slight interruption to pick upthe Nobel Prize for the transistor), Bardeen,his student Bob Schrieffer and postdoc LeonCooper had solved that problem as well. Theresulting paper (Physics Review 108, 1175;1957) deserves a place among the all-timeclassics of science. The intellectual ramifica-tions of their central hypothesis known asbroken gauge symmetry pervade all ofphysics, and have underpinned at least fourother Nobel prizes to nine individuals. Therewill doubtless be more to come.

    After that, the rest of Bardeens life mayseem like an anticlimax, even though itincluded key roles in the creation of the Sony Corporation and the Xerox Palo AltoResearch Center laboratories, and high officeand influential advisory roles in the scientificestablishment. Two well-written and well-researched chapters are devoted to scientificcontroversies in which Bardeen becameembroiled in later life, in several of which it ishard in retrospect to support his side of thematter. He may have been quiet but he wasnot self-effacing, and was quite capable ofthrowing his weight around in such contro-versies. But when the dust settled he could bequietly generous to his opponents, and wasinstrumental in the later Nobel Prize awardsto Brian Josephson and probably to me.

    To return to the genius thing. Is it possi-ble to be a genius when you are sometimeswrong? (Personal glamour seems to have

    book reviews

    NATURE | VOL 420 | 5 DECEMBER 2002 | 463

    The quiet man of physicsWho is the only physicist to have won two Nobel prizes?

    Radio days: (left to right) John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain invented the transistor.








    2002 Nature Publishing Group

  • little to do with it one way or the other, in science as in the arts.) Actually, few scientificgeniuses are even close to infallible, and somecan be wrongheaded indeed look at LinusPauling and vitamin C, or Julian Schwingerand cold fusion. Bardeen cracked a problemthat dozens of the greatest minds of physicshad failed at isnt that enough?

    There are, almost inevitably, glitches inthe details in this book, but the authorsadmiration and affection for their subjectilluminates the biography. At the same time,they bring readers with varied levels ofexpertise to a real understanding of the com-plex workings of science as they are actuallyexperienced by those of us who do it. Will thebook appeal to the mass market and thusmake a dent in the John who? problem?Im not convinced, but perhaps it should. P. W. Anderson is in the Department of Physics,Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544-0708, USA.

    Keeping your feet in a moving fieldEarthshaking Science: What WeKnow (and Dont Know) aboutEarthquakesby Susan Elizabeth HoughPrinceton University Press: 2002. 272 pp.$24.95, 17.95

    Gregory C. Beroza

    Seismologists have been grouped, unfavour-ably, with economists in that they are bothgreat at telling you why an event happensafter it has happened. This sentiment reflectsfrustration with our limited knowledge ofearthquake behaviour. Why dont we under-stand earthquakes better? And why cant wepredict them?

    Large earthquakes occur infrequently,and the processes that are the key to under-standing them are removed from our sight by miles of opaque material. Moreover, the sudden rupture of a fault in an earthquake is a nonlinear process that occurs withinmaterials that vary strongly in their proper-ties and appear to be complex at all spatial scales. Given these challenges, perhaps it isnot surprising that we lack a comprehensiveunderstanding of earthquake behaviour.

    A more optimistic view of our limitedunderstanding is that the science of earth-quakes is not mature. Almost every new well-recorded earthquake seems to have atleast some surprising aspect. We are still onthe steep part of the learning curve.

    Earthshaking Science takes on the difficulttask of reviewing the state of earthquake science at a time when the field is evolvingrapidly. Its author, Susan Hough, has donean admirable job of clearly and accurately

    illuminating the boundary between ourknowledge and our ignorance. In theprocess, she outlines some of the major out-standing problems in the field and provides a balanced and insightful view of them fromseveral sides. Time and again as I read thisbook I thought to myself that she had advo-cated a particular position too strongly, onlyto find on the following page that she wouldoffer an equally strong counterargument.

    Hough, who has experience of both earth-quake research and public outreach, haswritten a book that is accessible to readers in other disciplines and to a non-technicalaudience, but provides enough thoughtful commentary and perspectives to hold theattention of specialists.

    An important part of any general book on earthquakes is how it treats short-termearthquake prediction a topic that is cen-tral to seismology and foremost in the mindsof non-seismologists. In this book there isnot a great deal of material on earthquakeprediction, which might disappoint readersoutside the field. This de-emphasis is notsurprising, though, given the lack of successto date. Instead, the discussion focuses onwhether or not earthquakes are predictableeven in theory (see Nature web debate; Aselsewhere, Hough delivers an even-handedand up-to-date treatment of both sides of the issue.

    The book excels in its treatment of theprediction of potentially damaging strongground motion in the near field of an earth-quake. The ability to predict strong groundmotion is arguably more important than theability to predict earthquakes. Seismologistsuse ground-motion prediction in the formof probabilistic seismic hazard analysis(PSHA) to characterize earthquake risk.

    PSHA, as used in building codes, forexample, is an estimate of the distribution of ground motion with a 10% probability ofbeing exceeded over a 50-year time interval. A lot goes into this estimate, and this bookexplains it clearly. To my knowledge there isno other accessible treatment of this topic.The test that precariously balanced rocks offerof the validity of PSHA is a nice example ofthe currency of the material in this book.

    Earthshaking Science is not a textbook or a coffee-table book. But it is a readable tourof many key aspects of earthquake science.The author focuses on California but alsocovers the poorly understood earthquakes inthe central and eastern United States. Whatsmissing is a thorough treatment of the manyearthquakes in other tectonic environments.One can hardly fault the author for this,because it would require a considerably largerbook. Moreover, much of the research knowl-edge needed to write such a book at the samelevel does not yet exist. But it soon will.

    Recently deployed modern seismic andgeodetic monitoring networks in Japan, as

    well as parallel efforts being contemplated inthe United States, have led to the discovery ofnew phenomena. In the past year, discoveriesof large aseismic transients and what appearsto be an entirely new type of seismic eventdeep under Japan are changing our views offundamental earthquake processes. It is mystrong expectation that the author will have a lot of new material to incorporate into thesecond edition. Gregory C. Beroza is in the Department ofGeophysics, Stanford University, Stanford,California 94305-2215, USA.

    More on earthquakesThe Mechanics of Earthquakes andFaulting, 2nd ednby Christopher H. ScholzCambridge University Press, $130, 90 (hbk); $48, 32.95 (pbk)

    Fertile ground for politicsAutarkie und Ostexpansion:Pflanzenzucht und Agrarforschungim Nationalsozialismus edited by Susanne HeimWallstein Verlag: 2002. 312 pp. E20Wissenschaften undWissenschaftspolitik:Bestandsaufnahmen zuFormationen, Brchen undKontinuitten im Deutschland des20. Jahrhundertsedited by Rdiger vom Bruch & Brigitte KaderasFranz Steiner Verlag: 2002. 476 pp. E96Marco Finetti

    Germanys major scientific organizations arefinally examining their past during nationalsocialism. For years the involvement of thesciences, and in particular of the research organizations, in the Third Reich was pur-sued only by undaunted PhD students or

    book reviews

    464 NATURE | VOL 420 | 5 DECEMBER 2002 |

    Shock result: earthquakes do enormous damagebut are extremely difficult to predict.

    P. S





    2002 Nature Publishing Group


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