Tuesday, 4 July 2006

Broken Genius – Joel Shurkin *****

We are used to tales of the billionaire geniuses of Silicon Valley – this gripping scientific biography gives a balanced picture of the most bizarre and atypical of the great names of electronics, William Shockley.
Still widely thought of as the “father of the transistor”, Shockley’s role in the nascent electronics industry was much more complex. Consider two simplistic and frequently parroted versions of the Shockley myth. William Shockley was the man who invented the transistor. Wrong. Alternatively, Shockley had nothing to do with the invention of the transistor, but managed to bulldoze his way into the limelight, refusing to allow the real inventors to get visibility and muscling in on their Nobel prize. Also wrong.
Joel Shurkin, with access to a huge archive of material, takes us back through Shockley’s coldly administered childhood to his discovery of the joys of quantum mechanics, and the possibility of practical application of the theory to solid state electronics to replace the fragile and errant valve (vacuum tube). In those early years it became apparent that Shockley truly had an element of genius – he could see solutions instantly that others would take an age to work out, particularly in the statistical field. Probability and statistics are essential to quantum theory, and also to Shockley’s work during World War II, which, inspired by the British physicist Blackett’s development of Operational Research, resulted in Shockley and others producing the US equivalent, Operations Research – effectively the application of mathematical techniques to problem solving.
This problem solving aspect would remain with Shockley as he moved on to the next phase of his life and the Nobel prize for the development of the transistor. Here the complexity arises. The work resulting in the prize was largely done by Bardeen and Brattain. Although some of the original theory was Shockley’s there were plenty of others who could be included on that basis. His role in the actual project was as a hands-off project manager. Shurkin shows, though, that however unwarranted the award, B&B’s original transistor design was hardly practical, where the first effective design of a totally different kind of transistor was Shockley’s.
After the transistor, Shockley set up his own company which effectively started Silicon Valley, both in its location, and in its initial staff, who would go on to seed many of the hardware names of the Valley, notably including the founders of Intel. Shockley’s company was a failure, thanks to his bizarre management style that seemed to expect everyone in the organization to be his mental inferior. He then went on to totally destroy his reputation by discussing his belief that intelligence was hereditary, and it was important for the survival of the race that we prevent too much breeding from those with low intelligence (and, he implied, of inferior races).
One aspect of Shockley’s argument is true. The building blocks of intelligence are genetic (though what you do with that intelligence is largely influenced by environment). But that doesn’t mean, as many seemed to assume, that the children of people who haven’t done very well for themselves aren’t going to be intelligent. For that matter it doesn’t mean that intelligent parents will have intelligent children – simply that the child’s mental capabilities are determined by a combination of genes from both parents. Shockley, perhaps rightly upset by the way the social sciences tried to pretend there was nothing even to think about in the genetic aspect of intelligence, reacted by getting more extreme, and digging himself a pit from which he would never escape. Fatally, he not only supported the idea that the intelligence of an individual is linked to his or her genes, but also the unfounded concept that different racial and social groups have different levels of intelligence. It was, as Shurkin points out, a classical example of hubris resulting in nemesis.
The only fault in an otherwise great page-turner of a scientific biography is that Shurkin is either a little unsure of his history of science, or in the attempt to simplify to make the book readable (and it certainly is readable), he takes some of the facts over the border between simplicity and inaccuracy. For instance, he makes it sound as if Young was the first to challenge Newton’s idea of light being particles, where in fact there were plenty of Newton’s contemporaries like Huygens who believed light was a wave. In another example, we are told that Gilbert Lewis, who coined the word photon, was a British physicist. In fact he was an American chemist.
But this is a minor problem, and mostly occurs in the early part of the book where the scientific background is established. Shurkin had a dream subject in a man with such strong conflicting characteristics – and he made the most of it. After reading this book you’ll have a better idea of where Silicon Valley came from, but more importantly you’ll have an insight into the nature of an important scientist who is almost always described as a caricature of the real man. Recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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