John Bardeen Speaks About His Early Years

From a 1977 interview by Lillian Hoddeson

Early Scientific Interests

In high school, Bardeen was interested mainly in mathematics and chemistry:


Q: Did you also do some experimental work, or any work with radio or things like that?

Not so much with radio, though I built a “cat’s whisker” detector radio, that most boys were doing at that stage. They were easy to build. Some of them went as far as putting in vacuum tube amplifiers but I never got that far. My main project, I guess, in high school days was doing chemistry projects in the basement laboratory… basement at home. I got interested in that from reading a book on “Creative Chemistry” by Slosson. During the First World War we were shut off from importing dyes from Germany, so the organic chemists in this country had to learn how to produce the dyes. And that was described in this book. So I got interested in how dyes are made, and I made some. I dyed materials with it, and also made experiments on injecting dyes in eggs, seeing how you get colored chickens, and things of that sort. Nothing too elaborate..

A First Try at Superconductivity

Bardeen's first attempt at a theory was never published.

Q: What were you thinking about most deeply in that period?

I was working on superconductivity primarily. The only thing published was just an abstract. I sent around a few preprints for comments. I wrote a paper and sent it around for comments. It looked like quantitatively, it was off at least by a factor of ten or so. And so I never published the full paper.
Bardeen as a young man

About that time I left to go to Washington to work for the Navy, so that got stopped. But some of the ideas are carried over into the present theory, that there is a small energy gap covering the entire Fermi Surface, and that was the basis for this sort of a model. But the way the energy gap was obtained was different than it was at that time.

Q: Was this a subject that lots of people were very interested in at the time?

I sent around preprints to people who were interested, like [Frederick] Seitz and others, and got comments from them.

Bardeen left university life to work on military projects in 1941 as American entry into the Second World War looked increasingly likely.

Historical Study (Hoddeson) >