Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Book Review: "Broken Genius"

I just finished reading a biography of William Shockley. Broken Genius was published in 2006 and author Joel Shurkin has gone to extraordinary efforts to dig deep behind the superficial sanitized history of the invention of the transistor that many of us may be familiar with.

In Broken Genius, he also covers Shockley's, well, shocking slide into racism and self destruction. None of this was sugar-coated either nor was Shockly blindly condemned for his views as many have done whether through personal conviction or political correctness. While Shurkin was careful not to be an apologist for Shockley's behavior, neither did he shirk from documenting the instances where some of Shockley's "abhorrent" racial theories later actually became part of mainstream science.

I picked this book up primarily to read about the story of the invention of the transistor and the man behind that effort. The story of Shockley's later-in-life delve into eugenics (or dysgenics as he referred to his theories) proved to be an unexpected eye-opener, both from the point of view of the story of his racist views and even more so that some of the ideas for which he was condemned have since been accepted and put into practice for the benefit of mankind!

Even the story behind the transistor wasn't what you might have been told. I already knew that this, certainly one of the most - if not the most - important invention of the twentieth century wasn't simply a lucky accident. Bell Labs scientists knew enough about semiconductor crystal theory prior to 1947 that they predicted that a solid state amplifier could be developed. A massive corporate research lab effort ensued to use that knowledge to develop that prize, the transistor, that they knew had to be possible. But the politicking, the infighting and the intrigue behind the public story, as dug out by the author, was fascinating both for the added dimension and drama it gave to this story and because it went to show that "the more things change the more they remain the same" - the same type of professional jealousy, petty rivalries and bad behavior that we condem today was just as present in the 1940s.

Perhaps most surprising to me was the story about how Shockley might not have been included in the Nobel Prize nomination. It was politics, with a dose of common sense that kept him included. Why? Well, who invented the transistor? Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain. We all know that. And in one sense it's true. But although Shockley supervised the group, Bardeen and Brattain did all the practical development work. And -- this was news to me -- Shockley's name does not appear on the patent, a fact that literally drove him to distraction!

Virtually every company in Silicon Valley -- the entire microcomputer universe -- is descended from Bill Shockley's first company Shockley Semiconductor. It was a collosal failure, due primarily to the rigidness of his scientific beliefs and his inability to manage his employees. But it was ground zero for all the electronic miracles that have been developed since.

Broken Genius is a gripping story about a genuine genius who came from a dysfunctional family, who alienated virtually all those he came in contact with and whose own children only found out about his death in the newspapers. A sad story for the most part, except for the legacy he left us in his inventions.

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