Remembering John Bardeen, a Madison native whose scientific achievements affect our lives in more ways than the latest Johnny Depp movie ever will

March 8, 2008

John Bardeen StampIt’s not often a Madisonian is honored with a postage stamp, so I rather expected there to be a bit of a fuss – maybe a mayoral proclamation, a small ceremony with overly-long speeches and sheet cake. But as far as I was able to determine, there was very little local interest in the issuance of a commemorative stamp honoring John Bardeen, winner of two Nobel Prizes in physics – one for the discovery of the transistor (1956), shared with Walter H. Brattain, and William Shockley; and one for the development of the theory of superconductivity (1972), shared with L.N. Cooper and J.R. Schrieffer.

The Badger Herald had an article about the stamp honoring Bardeen, but I couldn’t find a mention of the Bardeen stamp (one of four in a Distinguished American Scientists series) elsewhere in local media.

The only other Madisonian that I’m aware of who has been honored with a commemorative postage stamp is Thornton Wilder, who was born here, but grew up elsewhere and graduated from high school in California.

Bardeen, in contrast, was not only born in Madison (on May 23, 1908), he attended Madison schools and graduated from Madison Central High School in 1923. He subsequently graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1928. When Bardeen died, he was buried in Madison’s Forest Hill Cemetery.

Grave Marker at Forest Hill Cemetery for Nobel Prize-Winner John Bardeen and his wife, Jane

When the USPS issued the Thornton Wilder stamp in 1997, there was a public ceremony in honor of the occasion in the Madison Newspapers auditorium. Wilder’s father, Amos, was the owner and editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in the late 1890s, so perhaps that explains the hoopla.

Bardeen’s father, Charles Russell Bardeen also played a role in the early years of Madison’s history – and he stayed in Madison a lot longer than Amos Wilder. Charles R. Bardeen was the first dean of the U.W. School of Medicine. The Bardeen Medical Sciences center was named after him.

Two men born in Madison: One wins two Pulitzer Prizes but has only a fleeting connection to the city of his birth; the other wins two Nobel Prizes for Physics and lives here for several decades. Madison seems to have had little effect on the work and career of the writer, but it played an important role in the life of the physicist, whose first introduction to quantum theory occurred at the University of Wisconsin when he studied with Professor John Hasbrouck van Vleck, another Madison Central High School graduate (Class of 1916) who won a Nobel Prize in Physics (1977).
Why does Thornton Wilder seem to be remembered and John Bardeen, if not forgotten, certainly neglected? Is art more important than science? Is “Our Town” more important than the transistor? Do you receive more attention if your father is a newspaper editor?

While the first three of these four questions are topics for discussion and have no “correct” answers, the answer to the last seems to be a resounding “yes!”

It’s perhaps worth noting that while the Wisconsin State Journal honored the son of one of its editors, The New York Times once honored Bardeen because the son of one of its editors thought Bardeen deserved more recognition. The result was the newspaper’s decision to publish a special “Live Well Lived” edition of its Sunday magazine section on January 1, 1995:

WHEN JOHN Bardeen died in 1991, a scholar said, “There are very few people who had a greater impact on the whole of the 20th century,” and he was right. Bardeen was a co-inventor of the transistor, heart of the electronics revolution. He was a pioneer in superconductivity physics. He was the first person to win two Nobel prizes in the same field. Reading all that in his obituary made a film director named David Frankel wonder how someone could be so important yet not be better known. Shouldn’t there be some way, he asked himself, to recognize lives that have had special impact on the world?

The question wouldn’t go away. Ultimately, Frankel shared it with friends at The Times Magazine; this issue is our answer.

In case you haven’t made the connection, David Frankel’s father is Max Frankel, former executive editor of The New York Times.

Interestingly, after searching The New York Times Archives, it appears that Bardeen was not among the 40 “Lives Well Lived” featured in the magazine. However, the life of another Madisonian, Kathryn Clarenbach, was among the 40 who were honored – and I wonder how many people in our city still remember her.

These days it seems as if who you know and what you wear (or neglect to wear) are more likely to garner attention than what you’ve accomplished in the laboratory or the classroom. Celebrities get more ink than scientists and teachers. In Madison these days we seem more interested in Johnny Depp sightings than honoring the people whose work has truly changed our world. Just remember, John Bardeen’s role in the invention of the transistor – a fundamental part of the computer you’re using to read this post – is probably more important to the way you live and work than an admittedly talented actor such as Depp will ever be.

Joe Cerniglia March 18, 2008 at 5:22 pm

Add the name of Professor Steenbock to the list of Nobel Prize winners who attended Central. He discovered vitamin D.
How many schools can boast of one Nobel Prize winner, let alone three? This would make for a very interesting feature in the local newspapers.
Keep up the good work. I, for one, appreciate what you’re doing. I think it’s important.

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