Saturday, January 7, 2012

Flawed genius

In 2006 Times Higher Education published a nice review by Phil Anderson of Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age. Here are a few extracts: 

Shockley called his method of thinking "try simplest cases". But that is really what many good theoretical physicists do when confronted with a complex problem; they try to find a simple model. Only Shockley elevated it to a mantra. He could see his way through the first few stages of any problem very quickly, but he rarely employed his talents to look further below the surface or to check his models against reality. Those who had this ability - for whom Shockley undoubtedly had a good eye - would almost inevitably go off on their own because Shockley could never allow them to follow their own instincts. He saw them as competition and a threat to his authority. I know, because it happened to me in a small way in 1950, and, like others, I survived and may have been the better for it.
.... What comes out of the book well is Shockley's importance. He arguably saved Britain from the U-boats during the battle of the Atlantic. He is certainly the true father of the age of silicon. He is even the inventor of the graphite-moderated nuclear reactor. Yet the public will remember his name as that of the nutty Nobellist who donated his sperm to a genius bank. Who would not want to hear his whole story?
This review is reprinted, along with several other fascinating ones, in More and Different.

1 comment:

  1. I heartily recommend Broken Genius. After reading this post I downloaded it from Amazon, which incidentally is not possible with More and Different.

    Anyway, it has stories of the early days of quantum mechanics, and of course the invention of the transistor. You get to know a little bit about so many other great physicists, naturally in the context of how they clashed with Shockley.

    Really interesting, fun reading. And very sad, of course.