A Biography of David Bardeen
David Bardeen is renowned for his theories on superconductivity, for which he and co-authors Robert Schrieffer and James Cooper shared the 1972 Nobel Prize. However, David also made important contributions to other areas of physics as well.
Bardeen was an accomplished scientist who enjoyed his profession. He played a leading role in creating institutions that promoted collaboration between scientists and industry, as well as aiding physicists from the Soviet Union to find jobs in America.
Early Life and Education
Bardeen earned his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1928 and went on to graduate school at Princeton, studying under Eugene Wigner.
His studies at Princeton laid the foundation for him to become one of the first American physicists to apply quantum mechanics to real materials rather than ideal ones. Additionally, he collaborated with Frederick Seitz – a graduate student of Wigner – and Conyers Herring.
In 1930, he relocated to Pittsburgh and joined Gulf Research Laboratories – the research arm of Gulf Oil Corporation – where he developed methods for the interpretation of magnetic and gravitational surveys. He remained with Gulf until 1933.
Bardeen made significant contributions to condensed-matter physics, superconductivity, many-body theory and transistor technology. He was one of the first American physicists to apply quantum mechanics to real materials.
He was one of the first to receive two Nobel Prizes; one shared with Walter Brattain and William Shockley for inventing the transistor, while the second went to Leon Cooper and J. Robert Schrieffer for their explanation of superconductivity (BCS Theory).
After joining the University of Illinois in 1951, Bardeen focused his research on superconductivity. His special interest lay in developing new tools to address electron-electron interactions within superconductors.
Achievement and Honors
Bardeen’s accomplishments in physics include developing the first microscopic theory of superconductivity, which led to greater understanding of materials’ properties. He is one of only a few American physicists to have won two Nobel Prizes for his work on transistors and BCS theory of superconductivity.
He was an expert in black hole physics and contributed to Einstein’s general relativity, which accounts for gravity by describing how matter and energy bend spacetime. During the 1960s, he spearheaded an important black hole research community; later that same year, he published “four laws of black hole physics,” considered a seminal work by many within this field.
Bardeen was raised in Madison, Wisconsin and earned his Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin in 1928.
Bardeen never felt satisfied with his life despite its success, and even after becoming a father and husband he felt the need to share his enthusiasm for science with his children. Despite all that success, however, he remained unsatisfied in many aspects of it.
As a result, Bardeen turned down President Ronald Reagan’s invitation to serve on the White House Science Council in 1981 and opposed President Clinton’s Strategic Defense Initiative program as he believed it could lead to nuclear war.
Bardeen’s career as a physicist captured the public’s imagination, leading him to twice receive the Nobel Prize for Physics (1956 and 1972). Unfortunately, Bardeen suffered from chronic depression and his health began to deteriorate.
Bardeen amassed a substantial net worth over his career, mostly from research funding and consulting contracts. He was an esteemed figure in solid state physics, especially superconductivity. He began his professional career at Princeton University and then joined the solid state physics group at Bell Labs in New Jersey. For most of his life, he lived in America but made occasional trips abroad to teach. He served on several national advisory panels and founded the Midwest Electronics Research Center to facilitate industry-university cooperation. On January 30, 1991, at 82 years old, he passed away peacefully at Forest Hill Cemetery in Boston, Massachusetts, surrounded by his loving wife Jane Maxwell.