Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age ,
Few physicists have been as controversial as William Shockley (1910–89), and few have been as influential in defining the contours of the electronics industry. Shockley headed the team that made the first point-contact transistor at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey. Shockley later invented the bipolar transistor and seeded the semiconductor industry in California’s Silicon Valley. But he was also known for his racist theories of intelligence. Because of his views, he became a reviled public figure and a pariah in the US scientific establishment.
In Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, Joel Shurkin offers the first biography of this important and troubled physicist. His book is a pageturner, which is rare for a scientific biography, but editing problems at times distract from the book’s engaging story. Relying on a collection of Shockley’s extensive private papers at Stanford University, Shurkin paints a nuanced portrait of the physicist, highlighting his scientific achievements and personal shortcomings. To explain the trajectory of Shockley’s life, Shurkin reveals much of his subject’s childhood and family background. According to Shurkin, Shockley was raised in a family that had a strong paranoid streak, which might explain Shockley’s own mental disorders. His father, a mining engineer, encouraged his son’s scientific interests. Shockley’s childhood was also a lonely one, which left him with a severe lack of social skills.
Shockley was educated in physics at MIT and Caltech and later joined the technical staff of Bell Labs. During World War II, he made his first significant contributions to the area of operations research. Applying statistical techniques to the conduct of warfare, he greatly increased the efficiency of flight crews hunting German submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. His research also played a pivotal role in the firebombing of Japanese cities. According to Shurkin, Shockley’s work in operations research might have been his greatest professional achievement. But the war was also a time of personal strain, which led Shockley to a suicide attempt and increasing alienation from his wife, Jean.
After the war, at the request of management at Bell Labs, Shockley organized a new research group to develop a solid-state switch. Among his top recruits were John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. Shurkin claims that Bardeen and Brattain’s discovery of the point-contact transistor was the turning point in Shockley’s life. Shockley, who had not been involved in Bardeen and Brattain’s day-to-day work, was afraid that he would not get any credit for the invention of the transistor. As a result, he isolated himself in an effort to reassert his intellectual primacy. Competing with his own group, Shockley invented the bipolar transistor, and he also produced a seminal textbook, Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors: With Applications to Transistor Electronics (Van Nostrand, 1950). Although his research landed him the Nobel Prize in Physics, his tactics also alienated his collaborators and convinced Shockley’s superiors that he was not of management caliber. As a result, it became increasingly clear to Shockley that his future at Bell Labs was limited.
In the early 1950s, Shockley experienced a mid-life crisis, along with amplified mental and behavioral problems. He divorced his wife, who was then fighting cancer, and married a psychiatric nurse, Emmy Lanning. He also decided to go into business for himself and established the Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory in California. The business was a dismal failure, partly because of Shockley’s propensity to compete with and offend his own staff. But the startup was also the origin of the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley, as the remarkable group of scientists Shockley had recruited went on to establish major firms such as Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel Corp. By the mid 1960s, Shockley, humbled by his business failure and by the successes of his staff, joined the electrical-engineering faculty at Stanford.
The most interesting part of Shockley’s biography is Shurkin’s discussion of his racist theories of heredity. Using his Nobel Prize fame and showing great skill in manipulating the press, Shockley became the most vocal and visible proponent of eugenics in the US. From the late 1960s through the 1970s he advocated the ideas that intelligence was hereditary and that blacks as a group were less intelligent than whites. He also claimed that the less intelligent should be prevented from having children. His views, expressed during the civil rights movement, led to considerable public outrage, and he was also attacked and vilified by the scientific establishment. His reputation destroyed, Shockley became increasingly isolated and reclusive until his death in 1989.
Broken Genius has a lot going for it. It offers interesting insights into Shockley’s remarkable rise and fiery demise. Yet the book’s production should have been handled with greater care. The biography is riddled with factual mistakes and misspelled names. The narrative is also disjointed at times and would have benefited from more careful editing. In short, Shurkin’s book is an interesting and enjoyable read, but one could have hoped for a better-crafted biography.