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 on 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.
Because he felt his interests were in theoretical science, Dr. Bardeen resigned his position at Gulf in 1933 to take graduate work in mathematical physics at Princeton University. It was here, under the leadership of Professor E.P. Wigner, that he first became interested in solid state physics. Before completing his thesis (on the theory of the work function of metals) he was offered a position as Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He spent the next three years there working with Professors Van Vleck and Bridgman on problems in cohesion and electrical conduction in metals and also did some work on the level density of nuclei. The Ph.D. degree at Princeton was awarded in 1936.
From 1938-41 Dr. Bardeen was an assistant professor of physics at the University of Minnesota and from 1941-45 a civilian physicist at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in Washington, D.C. His war years were spent working on the influence fields of ships for application to underwater ordnance and minesweeping. After the war, he joined the solid-state research group at the Bell Telephone Laboratories, and remained there until 1951, when he was appointed Professor of Electrical Engineering and of Physics at the University of Illinois. Since 1959 he has also been a member of the Center for Advanced Study of the University.
Dr. Bardeen’s main fields of research since 1945 have been electrical conduction in semiconductors and metals, surface properties of semiconductors, theory of superconductivity, and diffusion of atoms in solids. The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded in 1956 to John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William Shockley for “investigations on semiconductors and the discovery of the transistor effect,” carried on at the Bell Telephone Laboratories. In 1957, Bardeen and two colleagues, L.N. Cooper and J.R. Schrieffer, proposed the first successful explanation of superconductivity, which has been a puzzle since its discovery in 1908. Much of his research effort since that time has been devoted to further extensions and applications of the theory. Dr. Bardeen died in 1991.
This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.
John Bardeen died on January 30, 1991.
Their work and discoveries range from cancer therapy and laser physics to developing proteins that can solve humankind’s chemical problems. The work of the 2018 Nobel Laureates also included combating war crimes, as well as integrating innovation and climate with economic growth. Find out more.