Two-time Nobel winner not stereotypical 'genius', biographers say

November 27, 2002

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Americans take verbal shortcuts to say someone is intellectually underwhelming -- he's no brain surgeon, no rocket scientist, no Einstein.

These shortcuts imply that people know a genius when they see one. Most expect a man with superhuman gifts, who is self-taught and unbalanced -- maybe a bit mad -- and is, in addition, a recluse whose relationships with people are troubled. Think of John Nash, the mathematician who won a Nobel Prize in economics, or Will Hunting, the fictional character portrayed in the movie "Good Will Hunting."

But in a new book, University of Illinois historian Lillian Hoddeson asks readers to disabuse themselves of the widely held notions about what does or does not constitute "true genius." According to Hoddeson, "The stereotype does not fit most true geniuses in science."

One of the ways she and co-author Vicki Daitch demystify "the genius" is by focusing on a scientist who "didn't fit the mold," yet became the only person to receive two Nobel Prizes in physics -- one for the transistor (in 1956, with Bell Lab colleagues Walter Brattain and William Shockley), the other for the theory of superconductivity (in 1972 with Illinois colleagues Leon Cooper and J. Robert Schrieffer).

"True Genius: The Life and Science of John Bardeen" (Joseph Henry Press) reveals a clearly brilliant but really nice guy -- a humble, calm, soft-spoken Midwesterner who had plenty of friends and who liked to play golf and have picnics with his family. A professor of physics at Illinois for 40 years, Bardeen also was passionate about his work, highly focused, motivated and persevering, and a master at breaking complex, even intractable, problems into small parts, usually delegating some parts to colleagues. This latter set of qualities, which most people can cultivate, "helped Bardeen solve two long-standing physics riddles and thus become a genius," Hoddeson said.

Without the transistor, the electronics revolution -- which led to desktop computers, supercomputers and microelectronics -- "would still be the stuff of science fiction," Hoddeson said. And without the theory of superconductivity, high speed "mag-lev" trains, superconducting atom smashers and other technological wonders, similarly, would be waiting in the future.

Yet because Bardeen "differed radically from the popular stereotype of genius and was uninterested in appearing other than ordinary, the public and the media often overlooked him."

The authors acknowledge that the public is confused about genius partly because a few of the greatest scientists have enjoyed playing to its popular image. "The wild-haired Einstein, who mugged for the camera with his tongue sticking out, engaged reporters less with his revolutionary physics than with his eccentricities and controversial politics," Hoddeson and Daitch write.

While the road ahead for scholars of genius and creativity remains arduous, "the problems they face are not insurmountable," the authors write, "because their subjects are real people, like John Bardeen, highly motivated to develop the elements of genius that exist potentially in all of us."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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