John Bardeen (1908-1991) was an American scientist who twice won the Nobel Prize in Physics. To date, no one has been able to replicate his feat.
John Bardeen is the only scientist in history to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics twice. The first time he received one, in 1956, he was reprimanded by King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden, whose duty it was to present the award. The reason why: for not having brought his wife and three children. He’d only brought one of them.
Faced with such a reprimand, Bardeen, an American scientist born in 1908, more or less replied: “They had other things to do, I’ll bring them next time.” And he did, when he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for a second time.
“Bardeen wasn’t obnoxious, but very modest. He loved having barbecues at home and inviting all his neighbors. He also liked playing golf with his friends, who didn’t know that he’d won the Nobel Prize because he never told them. He didn’t use to talk about his awards,” says Jorge Amin Seman Harutinian, a researcher at the Institute of Physics of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in an interview for Tec Review.
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The day he invented the transistor (a component used to regulate electrical current), which would ultimately lead to him winning his first Nobel Prize, he was very happy.
So that same day, he came home and told his wife: “Something very important happened in the laboratory today.”
“Bardeen had such a mild nature that he didn’t tell her what he’d done. He didn’t think to tell her: ‘Listen, I finally achieved the goal I’ve been working on for 10 years.’ He was someone who didn’t boast (not even to his wife) about an invention that changed the world: the transistor,” explains Seman Harutinian.
He won the first Nobel Prize along with two other teammates, Walter Houser Brattain and William Bradford Shockley. Their invention, the transistor –at the time as big as a box of hot chocolate, but today as small as a grain of rice– replaced the vacuum tube and is currently part of many day-to-day activities (like reading this article), as it’s a component of computers, cell phones, household appliances, among other modern devices.
“If you show a photo of John Bardeen to physics students from the Faculty of Sciences at the UNAM and ask them, ‘Who’s that?’, they don’t know. And if you ask them, ‘Who invented the transistor?’, they don’t know that either. However, if you ask graduate students of electronics, they recognize Bardeen as a celebrity,” says Seman.
This lack of fame has to do with Bardeen’s own personality. He was never someone who wanted to attract the attention of the American media.
“He didn’t stick his tongue out in photos like Albert Einstein did. Another famous physicist was Richard Feynman (1918-1988). He was extremely charismatic, arrogant, and full of jokes. He liked parties, dated lots of women, and is well-known for his great contribution to science (equations that describe the bonding forces of matter), but Bardeen’s contribution is equally great,” says Jorge Seman.
It’s key to note that, as a child, Bardeen was intellectually gifted. From the age of six, he showed that he was brilliant at math. At 15, he entered the University of Wisconsin, where he studied electrical engineering, which also had to do with the scientific community belittling him.
“This is why he’s not as famous among physicists, since he had no training as a physicist. He was an electrical engineer, although afterward, at Princeton University, he studied for a doctorate in physics,” says the UNAM academic.
The year after he won his first Nobel Prize, he began working on a new project with Leon Cooper, a postdoctoral researcher. In fact, Sheldon Cooper, the character from The Big Bang Theory series, has that last name in honor of this scientist. The pair was also joined by Robert Schrieffer, who had just begun studying for a PhD.
Eventually, they formulated the theory of superconductivity (the property of conducting electricity without resistance), which is known as the BCS theory, in honor of the initials from the surnames of those three American scientists.
“They discovered that, at very low temperatures, the electrons in an electrical current bind together in pairs. So, the conductive material is transformed into a macroscopic quantum entity, similar to the Bose-Einstein condensate,” says Seman.
At present, superconducting materials have significant applications; for example, they’re part of the internal mechanism of MRI equipment used in hospitals to make X-ray-style mappings of the human body.
“In 1972, all three of them were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. Schrieffer was just a student, but Bardeen was a very generous person, and included him to receive the award as well. On this second occasion, Bardeen kept his promise to bring his entire family to Stockholm,” Seman says.
The other three people who’ve accomplished the feat of winning two Nobel Prizes are: Marie Curie, for physics and chemistry; Linus Pauling, for chemistry and peace; and Frederick Sanger, who won both awards in the same field: chemistry. All of these were in the 20th century. As yet, no one has won three or more Nobel prizes.
John Bardeen was a physicist who’s become a role model, in an academic and moral sense, to Jorge Seman who, like the double Nobel Prize winner in physics, demonstrates not only knowledge, but also a kind and gentle character, during the video call interview.
“I’ve always really liked the life of John Bardeen because he was a very calm and very unassuming person. He died of a heart attack in 1991, and his children are still alive,” says this UNAM physicist.