We return now to a topic and an area where I have personally experienced significant growth in recent months. Perhaps I am growing wiser as I get older! I have come to realize there is a good bit of value to be found in learning from leaders in the past. I've also come to realize this is not necessarily the same as studying history (I still struggle with that 'history' one myself). Instead, I see there is value in learning more from those who envisioned great things, and who believed the world could be greater. In particular, I believe those thinkers who are not immediately recognized or well-known have some unique experiences and thinking for us to learn from, in part because they are not the well-published or bragged-about successes from the past.
I recognize there is a significant skewing of my Thursday Thinkers focused on those involved in technology, mathematics, or physics. Given my fields of interest, background, and expertise I find this to be a natural fit. I promise in the future to broaden my horizons and include thinkers from various other backgrounds and industries. This week however will not be the start for this shift as I have been studying the life and times of a man responsible for theorizing and subsequently creating the underlying mechanism beneath most of today's modern technology.
John Bardeen (1908-1991)
Today's Thinker is a man who has some amazing success and a story that is unlike anyone else's in history. In fact, John accomplished something never done before and never done again. I'll give you the background of his life first and then we'll explore his contributions upon which all of our technology is built.
John was an American physicist and electrical engineer. Although he was not completely obscure in history (he was listed in LIFE's 100 Most Influential Americans of the Century) he did not receive the accolades and ongoing legacy as some of his more vocal peers. He was never one to seek the spotlight and was known to look for others with which to share the credit.
"The combined results of several people working together is often much more effective than could be that of an individual scientist working alone."
- John Bardeen
But John's greatest accomplishment which makes him singularly unique in the world and sets him in a league of his own is his monumental achievement of being awarded two Nobel Prize in Physics. While historically there have been five others who have gained the recognition of two Nobel's, no one else in the world has ever achieved this twice in the same field.
But what did John contribute? What did he do for the world? What was his great thinking? Here are the two contributions which changed the course of human history and laid the groundwork for all of modern technology.
The Transconductance Resistor
Did you read that title twice? It's a bit of a mouthful, which I would imagine is why John did something else, he made up a word. (Apparently I'm not the only one!) You may be more familiar with the term, transistor, which was quickly adopted and used by everyone. Now, this work was done alongside two others, but John's contributions were instrumental in this invention and its success.
In case you need a brief review, the transistor took a form factor of only 1/50 the size of the vacuum tubes of the day. This decrease in size changed the final form factor for all types of electrical devices.
But this was only the first of the two contributions Bardeen made to our world. The second proved to be even greater. And this second creation stands to be of even more importance due to the fact that John was leading the charge, in thought leadership. And now you see why this second item is the contribution which I believe elevates John to a Thinker.
Even the title of this section suggests what John did was revolutionary and forward thinking. John created a theory. He formulated an idea based on his knowledge around him and what he perceived to be next in the world. His theory was based on the concept of the microscopic effect caused by condensation of Cooper pairs into a boson-like state resulting in a state of superconductivity.
I know there's a lot of scientific words in that last paragraph, but the physics are too interesting to leave out. I have a predilection towards these topics but I'll save the quantum and string theories for another post.
This theory of superconductivity introduced some fundamental ideas dealing with the relationships with transistors but also with quantum liquids and more. This early theory set the stage for much of what we understand and have further developed about superconductivity (and even today we struggle to fully explain and understand the effects and consequences from these theories).
And just to be clear, this work and theory in both transistors and superconductors set the stage for all of modern electronics; from phones, to computers, to microchips. John's legacy was well-recognized by some and the Chicago Tribune even made the following statement:
"...what greater honor can there be when each of us can look all around us and everywhere see the reminders of a man whose genius has made our lives longer, healthier, and better."
However, as time has passed many have forgotten the contributions made by John and others like him. Not only did he create innovative new building blocks, such as the transistor; but he wasn't afraid to think. His ability to "see the future" makes him a Thursday Thinker.
"Science is a field which grows continuously with ever expanding frontiers."
- John Bardeen