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Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age

By Joel N. Shurkin (New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2006); 308pp.; $27.95 Cloth; ISBN 1403988153

A CURIOUS PHENOMENON in the annals of science is that many of the great inventors in the field of electronics have been crackpots. Samuel Morse was an anti-Catholic zealot. Thomas Edison was so determined to prove that alternating current was more dangerous than direct current, he recklessly persuaded New York to use alternating current to power the state's first electric chair. Nikola Tesla wanted to communicate with extraterrestrials and had a romantic relationship with a pigeon (don't ask).

Then there was William Bradford Shockley: brilliant physicist, Nobel Prize winner for his research on the transistor--and ardent advocate of addled theories concerning race and heredity. Reading Joel N. Shurkin's biography, Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age, is like watching a successful, formidable individual commit a very public seppuku.

Born in 1910, Shockley was an only child who showed precocious talent for science. As an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology, Shockley immersed himself in Einstein's revolutionary theories of relativity and the new, even more startling work involving quantum mechanics. "One could not understand," Shurkin writes, "how electricity (the flow of electrons) is conducted without understanding this quantum universe. Shockley absorbed it all." Shockley married his first wife while in graduate school at M.I.T., received his Ph.D. in physics in 1936, and took a job at Bell Labs, the distinguished research arm of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.

During World War II Shockley assiduously contributed to the war effort as a civilian scientist, developing tactics for sinking U-boats and creating training procedures for bombers equipped with radar.

When Shockley returned to Bell Labs in 1945 he was chosen to develop a feasible semiconductor to replace the outmoded vacuum tube. Shockley assembled a team that included the physicists Walter H. Brattain and John Bardeen. Shockley's own foray into the field was theoretically sound, but Bell Labs couldn't make an actual working model based on his insights. Bardeen and Brattain worked closely together, with little input from Shockley, to ascertain where Shockley's conception had gone wrong. They hit pay dirt in 1947 with a functional semiconductor. Brattain and another associate came up with a name for it: the transistor.

Although Bell Labs assigned credit equally to Shockley, Brattain, and Bardeen, Shockley was jealous of his former colleagues. His new goal, as described in the book, was to "create a one-piece transistor, with all the physics packed into the crystal." In 1949 Shockley's marvelous invention, a viable junction transistor, was built by Bell Labs. Shurkin writes:
 Every transistor that powers the electronic age,
 the tens of millions now in our homes and offices,
 in our computers, watches, ovens, airplanes, CAT
 scan equipment, cars, fax machines, cameras,
 spaceships, and yes, our telephones, is a descendant
 of that device. Shockley's feat--whatever the
 motivation--was his life's greatest accomplishment.
 It changed the world.

Shockley, Bardeen, and Brattain won Nobel Prizes in physics in 1956. Each deserved the honor.

For whatever reasons, Shockley commenced more ominous pursuits after winning his Nobel. He became a proselytizer for eugenics (defined in the American Heritage dictionary as "the study of hereditary improvement of the human race by controlled selective breeding"). "Eugenics," writes Shurkin, "has a long and distasteful history." As examples he cites laws enacted in twenty-one states in the first decades of the twentieth century "calling for the involuntary sterilization of criminal elements, alcoholics, and the retarded." Overseas, "[b]y 1939, the Nazis translated eugenics into their 'euthanasia' policy, killing thousands of undesirables, including Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals."

Shockley became a willing, willful footnote to this squalid history. His contribution to the toxicity involved the quintessential quandary of American life: race. Given his reporter's diligence, biographer Shurkin provides enough examples of Shockley's racism to pervert, for me, everything Shockley had to say on eugenics. Here is just a sampling:

In an interview in U.S. News & World Report in 1965, Shockley said that he believed intelligence was very much influenced by genes. In Shurkin's words, Shockley contended that
 while the distribution of IQs among African-Americans
 (a term he would not have used in
 1965) includes people of superior intelligence,
 African-Americans as a group have a mean IQ
 15 points below the mean of whites. He pointed
 out that this was one standard deviation from
 the mean. "How much of this is genetic in origin?"
 Shockley asked. "How much is environmental?
 And which precise environmental factors
 are to blame? Again, a 'controlled' program
 of adoptions might give answers." He gave no
 details of how that would be done.

In the same interview, Shockley also recommended that welfare recipients of the second and third generations be sterilized. After the interview was published, he maintained he wasn't advocating forced sterilization.

As a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Shockley suggested at a 1966 meeting that "the NAS and other national scientific organizations ... rise above the argument of racism and study what effects genetics had on the problems in America's slums." He proposed an "Hindex" to measure, for instance, how much white blood was present in African-Americans. Shurkin cites a 1967 speech called "City Slums and Research Taboos--A National Sickness Diagnosed," in which Shockley asserted there was no way one could address the environment-heredity problem without getting to the "Negro Problem," and suggesting, Shurkin writes, a "racial difference in intelligence, genetic in origin."

When Shockley was interviewed in Playboy in 1980 he was asked if he believed that whites were intellectually superior to blacks. "Statistically, yes," he answered, "but not in individual cases." At another point in the interview he said, "Prejudice that is not supported by strong facts is both illogical and not in accordance with truth." Shurkin elaborates on Shockley's views: "On the other hand ... if it turns out there's sound statistics behind those feelings, well then prejudice might not be an evil--it's not by definition prejudice. If you found a breed of dog was unreliable and temperamental, why shouldn't you regard it in a less favorable light?"

William Shockley's eugenics crusade was castigated by other scientists in print and at public events. Faculties and students pressured college administrations to withdraw speaking invitations tendered Shockley. He became a scandalous figure on the American scene--and he reveled in his infamy. Indeed, he became devilishly adept at exploiting the press. Shurkin quotes a public relations staffer who worked at Stanford while Shockley was a member of the faculty. "He knew that he got more coverage when he debated African-Americans than when he shared the platforms with whites, so he tried to entice them into debates. He learned quickly how to milk demonstrations into maximum coverage."

Shockley died of prostate cancer at the age of seventy-nine in 1989, alienated from his two sons (he also had a daughter) and many old friends, a symbol of bullheaded bigotry. His final public persona had eclipsed the striking scientific advances that first made him famous.

Broken Genius is Joel N. Shurkin's eleventh book. He was one of the Philadelphia Inquirer reporters who won a Pulitzer Prize for covering Three Mile Island. It's to be expected then that this biography would be well researched, and it is. A science book written for nonscientists should also be as simple and straightforward as possible. Shurkin does reasonably well with genetics, but the technical discussions of semiconductor research are frustratingly opaque.

Shurkin works hard to be as evenhanded as possible about Shockley's observations on genetics, trying to separate what was legitimate from what wasn't: "The underlying concern [flaws in genes]--forget race for a moment--did not ooze up from a sewer of bigotry. The issue Shockley raised was one accepted by other respected academics and had real--if inconclusive--science behind it." Shurkin also presents many eminent scientists (such as the geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza) who picked apart Shockley's theories, so that in the end readers may find it impossible to disentangle eugenics issues from their hideous antecedents.

Shurkin never really explains what prompted Shockley's eugenics campaign. A possible explanation can be derived from the idea that the only way Shockley was able to express himself emotionally was through rather nasty practical jokes. While at M.I.T. he rewired an elevator so that, say, pressing six would cause the elevator to stop at four. And during a distinguished scientist's lecture Shockley secretly propelled a lumbering and quacking mechanical duck across the stage, causing pandemonium. Perhaps Shockley's eugenics venture started off as just another malicious hoax. When he was execrated by fellow scientists and the public, his intellectual vanity wouldn't allow him to stop. The prank came to manipulate the prankster.

Shurkin calls Shockley's life a Greek tragedy. It was actually a peculiarly American one (think also of Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, or Richard Nixon): hubris inducing a fall--into lurid buffoonery.

Howard Schneider is a writer and editor in New York City.
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Title Annotation:Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age
Author:Schneider, Howard
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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