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John Bardeen *36
Physics 1972 and 1956

Nobel Portrait of John Bardeen *36

The Nobel Prize in Physics 1972

The Nobel Prize in Physics 1972 was awarded jointly to John Bardeen, Leon Neil Cooper and John Robert Schrieffer "for their jointly developed theory of superconductivity, usually called the BCS-theory."


When certain metals are cooled to extremely low temperatures, they become superconductors, conducting electrical current entirely without resistance. Based on quantum mechanics, John Bardeen, Leon Cooper, and Robert Schrieffer formulated a theory for the phenomenon in 1957. At extremely low temperatures, the interaction between electrons and atoms in the metals’ crystalline structure causes the electrons to pair up with one another. As a result, their movement becomes orderly, unlike the random movement at normal temperatures, and electrical resistance disappears.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 1956

The Nobel Prize in Physics 1956 was awarded jointly to William Bradford Shockley, John Bardeen and Walter Houser Brattain "for their research on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect."


Amplifying electric signals proved decisive for telephony and radio. First, electron tubes were used for this. To develop smaller and more effective amplifiers, however, it was hoped that semiconductors could be used, materials with properties between those of electrical conductors and insulators. Quantum mechanics gave new insight into the properties of these materials. In 1947 John Bardeen and Walter Brattain produced a semiconductor amplifier, which was further developed by William Shockley. The component was named a “transistor”.

[Curator’s note: The following material quotes and paraphrases extensively from articles posted by the Nobel Prize Committee and the Daily Princetonian and the Princeton Alumni Weekly; see Sources below for details.]

Early life

John Bardeen was born in Madison, Wisconsin, May 23, 1908. He attended the University High School in Madison for several years and graduated from Madison Central High School in 1923. This was followed by a course in electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, where he took extra work in mathematics and physics. After being out for a term while working in the engineering department of the Western Electric Company at Chicago, he graduated with a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1928. He continued at Wisconsin as a graduate research assistant in electrical engineering for two years, working on mathematical problems in applied geophysics and on radiation from antennas. It was during this period that he was first introduced to quantum theory by Professor J.H. Van Vleck.

Professor Leo J. Peters, under whom his research in geophysics was done, took a position at the Gulf Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Dr. Bardeen followed him there and worked during the next three years (1930-33) on the development of methods for the interpretation of magnetic and gravitational surveys. This was a stimulating period in which geophysical methods were first being applied to prospecting for oil.

The appeal of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study

At the same time, he was working at Gulf Oil, Bardeen heard about the creation of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. “Princeton’s unique. I'd heard that the Institute was opening with Albert Einstein and other famous professors,” Bardeen recalled in The Daily Princetonian book, In the Nation's Service. "So, I decided to quit my job and go back to graduate school in mathematics. I had some savings and a small inheritance from my grandfather, so I was financially independent, at least for a couple of years,” Bardeen said. "One of the main reasons for choosing Princeton was that because the Institute brought in outstanding mathematicians, Princeton was kind of unique then — and it still is now — in having outstanding mathematical physicists,” Bardeen added.

Solid state physics and soft-spoken manner

Both of Bardeen’s major accomplishments came in the field of solid state physics, an area in which he received much of his training at Princeton under the direction of Professor Eugene P. Wigner, himself a Nobel laureate.

The field, concerned with the properties of solid metallic elements, has since given its name to solid state television and radio, in which Bardeen’s transistor, consisting of wires implanted in a piece of the semiconducting metal germanium, replaced the bulky and inefficient vacuum tube. When Bardeen came to Princeton in 1933, however, solid state physics was in its infancy, and Bardeen was only Wigner's second thesis advisee. Bardeen had never intended to become involved in physics. "I had no idea of working in solid state physics; in fact, I had no idea what it was when I came to Princeton," he said. Bardeen soon became interested in solid state physics, however. "I was lucky to get in on the ground floor," he said.

Belies expectations

Wigner said that he had been struck by Bardeen’s "very deep insight" and "thorough understanding," but that he "would not have expected" Bardeen would win one, much less two Nobel awards. Despite his friendliness one of Bardeen’s most noticeable characteristics, Wigner said, was his quiet and soft-spoken manner. "He often came in and sat in my office for a whole minute without saying a word," Wigner explained, "but then he said something worth remembering." Wigner added, "Now every time I see him, I learn something from him."

Wherever he went after receiving his Princeton degree, his reputation for verbal economy preceded him. At Harvard, where he spent three years as a member of the newly established and extremely prestigious Society of Junior Fellows, his associates composed the following limerick: Our professor is a man of great sagacity; His intellect makes leaps of great audacity. But quiz him how you choose. Even ply him well with booze. He'll still answer you with minimum loquacity.

After leaving Harvard in 1938, Bardeen took an assistant professorship in physics at the University of Minnesota, where he did his first research into superconductivity in 1940. In that year he made "an abortive attempt to construct a theory" explaining the phenomenon. "I never did publish the paper," he said, an act which was fortunate since his theory proved totally wrong. "It was not until 1950 that I again became interested in superconductivity," he said.

During World War II Bardeen worked as principal physicist at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington. Before he moved on to Bell Telephone Labs in northern New Jersey in 1945, his future associates at Bell were warned: "He doesn't say very much, but when he does say something, you listen." And at Illinois, where he arrived in 1951, his soft-spokenness has earned him the nickname "Whispering John” from his students.

At Princeton, mathematics professor Albert W. Tucker GS '32, who joined the faculty the same year Bardeen entered the graduate school, remembers him as a "very hard worker. "Very often he stayed up studying and reading until 2 or 3 in the morning," Tucker said, although Herring says Bardeen was "not outstandingly a grind."

Bardeen held the JSK Fellowship, and "anyone who held a fellowship had first priority to live at the graduate college," Tucker said, remembering cramped housing conditions in years past. Bardeen’s doctoral thesis, a 34 page effort entitled "Quantum Theory of the Work Function," was concerned with the energy required to cause different metals to emit electrons from their surfaces.

Bell Labs

At Bell Labs

Creation of the Transistor

Once he arrived at Bell Labs Bardeen’s work began to excel. Two years after joining Bell, in December 1947, his work paid off. In recognition for his invention of the transistor Bardeen received two honorary doctorates, the Stuart Ballentine Medal in 1952, the John Scott Award in 1955, and a year later his first Nobel. His colleagues still regard this achievement a great one. A party for Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley Jo was convened to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the transistor's birth. Herring, who saw Bardeen often, says the Nobel winner has "changed remarkably little since Princeton," although Wigner said, "he's a little more talkative." But, said Tucker, "I always felt that when he had something to say he said it." What Bardeen has said and done in his lifetime has been no small amount.

Received his first Nobel Prize in 1956 and the second in 1972

Inventor of transistor Bardeen, who taught physics and electrical engineering at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, received his first Nobel in 1956 along with Walter H. Brattain and William Shockley for a monumental invention —the transistor.

His second Nobel in 1972 was also split three ways with professors Leon N. Cooper of Brown and J. Robert Schrieffer of Perm for work which may even be more revolutionary—the development of a theory for superconductivity. Superconductivity, a phenomenon in which the resistance of a piece of metal to the passage of electricity through it suddenly drops to zero as the metal is supercooled, was discovered 60 years ago, but Bardeen and his associates were the first to develop a theory explaining the physical processes behind a metal's loss of its electric resistance. Although the transistor produced a great economic boon, Bardeen’s work in superconductivity has "much more far-reaching implications," said W. Conyers Herring GS '37, an associate of Bardeen while the two were at Princeton. The "BCS" theory (from the first letters of the inventors' last names) already had beneficial effects on nuclear and astrophysics and promised to have "greater influence on other aspects of science. I don't think it will ever have the economic impact of the transistor,” Barden indicated. But he felt its great value resided in that it "didn't close a field but opened up a field" with great opportunities for scientific advancement.


He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society, has been (1954-1957) a member of its Council, and on the Editorial Board of The Physical Review and Reviews of Modern Physics. From 1959-1962, he served as a member of the United States President’s Science Advisory Committee.

Bardeen was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1954. Honors included the Stuart Ballentine Medal of the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia (1952) and the John Scott Medal of the City of Philadelphia (1955), both awarded jointly with Dr. W.H. Brattain, the Buckley Prize of the American Physical Society (1955) and D.Sc. (Hon.) from Union College and from the University of Wisconsin. He received the Fritz London Award for work in low temperature physics in 1962.

In addition to his university work, Dr. Bardeen also served on the President's Science Board from 1959 to 1962, and on the White House Science Council in the early 1980s. He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1965, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976, and the Lomonosov Prize from the Soviet Academy of Sciences in 1988. Bardeen was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the American Philosophical Society.

Bardeen receives the first Graduate Alumni James Madison Medal

Physicist John Bardeen GS ‘36, the only individual ever to have received two Nobel prizes in the same field, was in the vanguard again at the Alumni Day ceremonies when he received the first Graduate Alumni James Madison Medal in 1972.

The 64-year-old Bardeen accepted the award, named for the fourth U.S. president who was also Princeton's first graduate student, from President Bowen for "having served with distinction in his professional career, in the service of higher education, or in the service of the public.” Bardeen the recipient of a Ph.D. in mathematical physics from Princeton, was awarded his second Nobel physics prize just two months earlier. Following his first Nobel prize in 1956, with this second honor Bardeen joined an elite group of double Nobel-winners which has only three other members —Marie Curie, Linus Pauling, and the International Red Cross. Curie and Pauling, however, each received their two Nobels in two different fields of work, making them unable to share Bardeen’s distinction.

Princetonian John Bardeen GS '36, who helped invent the modern transistor and won two Nobel Prizes in physics, died Jan. 30 1991 at the age of 82.


The Nobel Prize in Physics 1972.

John Bardeen – Facts.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 1952.

John Bardeen – Facts.

Nobel Lectures, Physics 1971-1980, The Nobel Foundation 1972.MLJohn Bardeen – Biographical.

Nobel Lectures, Physics 1942-1962, The Nobel Foundation 1956: John Bardeen – Biographical.

Physicist Bardeen Receives Madison Medal; Philanthropist Rockefeller Wins Wilson Honor by Andy Pollack and Jamie Hess. Daily Princetonian Special Alumni Day Issue, Volume 97, Number 16, 24 February 1973

PAW: Memorial

Grad School Alum Bardeen Dies; Co-Inventor Of Modern Transistor by David Contract, Daily Princetonian, Volume 115, Number 1, 4 February 1991


PAW: Mathematics makes strange quantum bedfellows, probably


PAW: Princeton Postage

PAW: The List

John Bardeen in Wikipedia

University of Illinois Urbana Champaign

National Academy of Sciences