Fredonia Shakespeare Club hears paper on Nobel Prize in Physics 1956

The eighth meeting of the Fredonia Shakespeare Club was held on Dec. 5, hosted by Mary Croxton. President Lucille Richardson welcomed 13 members.

Priscilla Bernatz read the minutes from the Nov. 21 meeting. The minutes were approved as written.

Next year’s officers were unanimously accepted. President – Mary Croxton; Vice-President – Dr. Lisa Mertz; Secretary – Gail Crowe; and Treasurer -Nicki Schoenl.

In-coming President Croxton read her paper “Nobel Prize in Physics 1956” which is summarized as follows:

When you think of a Nobel Prize winner you don’t generally think about someone controversial. William Shockley, the co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956, at numerous times in his life was divisive, notorious, and contentious. He was born in London, England to two American parents in 1910. His mother, the first United States deputy mineral surveyor in Nevada, graduated from Stanford.

Shockley’s father was a mining engineer. Both parents traveled extensively and spoke seven languages.

The Shockley family settled in California where William went to California Institute of Technology for his Bachelor of Science degree and then went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his Ph.D. He graduated in 1936 and the same year he joined Bell Telephone Laboratories in Manhattan. With the outbreak of WWII, Shockley took a leave of absence from Bell Labs and worked for the Navy’s new Anti-Submarine Warfare Department. He also worked as an expert consultant for the Office of the Secretary of War. His work on the effectiveness of B-29 bombing campaigns enabled the nighttime bombings of Tokyo and other Japanese cities in 1945. In July of 1945 he issued a report recommending a new method for estimating the possible casualties from a land invasion of Japan (he was an expert statistician). He conjectured that such an invasion could result in 1.7 million American casualties and 400,00 to 800,000 deaths. People debated whether these statistics influenced the decision to drop a bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One researcher found no evidence that the decision to drop the Atomic Bomb by the upper levels of the Truman Administration was influenced by this report. There was another article which was not cited that stated the report did influence the decision. Dr. Shockley must be credited with being a significant participant in the efforts to defeat Japan.

After the war, Shockley returned to Bell Labs. Three researchers were assigned to find an alternative to the cumbersome vacuum-tube. Dr. Shockley worked on a team with John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. Their work resulted in the birth of the transistor. However, only Bardeen and Brattain were given the patent for the invention. The reason Shockley’s name was left off the patent was that his contribution “the field-effect concept” already had a patent in Canada. That patent was never put to practical use so Shockley maneuvered unsuccessfully to have only his name on the patent.

This maneuver angered Bardeen and Brattain. They refused to work with Shockley and never worked on transistors again. Meanwhile, Shockley pursued a separate line of research developing the “junction transistor” in 1951. He did receive patents for this and subsequent work. For this work Dr. Shockley began to receive sole credit for the development of the transistor, since he was the most prominent and most public of the researchers. To Shockley’s credit, he publicly acknowledged the teamwork of Bardeen, Brattain and himself on the development of the transistor. In 1956 the three researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. There is some evidence that the three reconciled after the award.

Dr. Shockley partnered with Arnold Beckman to build semiconductors in Northern California. This area is now known as Silicon Valley. Shockley brought together a group of brilliant and creative people to work for him. In less than a year after he won the Nobel Prize, eight of his best researchers, including Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce, quit. This was because Dr. Shockley was a terrible manager. He was arrogant, unwilling to listen, tactless, and some feel paranoid. The irony is that Moore and Noyce went on to form Intel. All around him, companies directly descending from Shockley Semiconductors sprang up. His company, bereft of talent, floundered. If Shockley had been a better manager, he would have been one of the richest people in the world. He was the father of Silicon Valley. In the ultimate irony, today’s transistors are based on Shockley’s original field effect design. However, he never manufactured any transistors.

His company finally became non-existent after being sold so many times. He began teaching at Stanford and by most accounts was a superb teacher who taught creativity and problem-solving. He even worked with public school teachers to help them teach science.

Physics was starting to bore him. He began giving speeches on population, an issue that had interested him since his wartime trips to India. In his speeches he suggested that people least competent to survive in the world were the ones reproducing the fastest, while the best of the human population was using birth control and having fewer children. In an infamous speech he gave at a Nobel Conference, “Genetics and the Future Man,” he warned of “genetic deterioration” and “evolution in reverse.” He stated that modern civilization allowed those of lower social capacity to overbreed. He suggested that this dysgenic effect was more pronounced in groups other than Caucasians. Despite having no background in genetics, psychology, or biology, he was given funds by the Pioneer Fund to further his studies.

Despite this funding, Dr. Shackley, according to William Tucker a psychologist and historian, “conducted little to no research.” Most of the money was used for self-promotion. The more he was challenged by scientists and citizens, the more extreme he became, until the debate became about him and not about genetics. People who knew Dr. Shockley remember his focus on racial differences and not the transistor. In the end, he was vilified, ridiculed and humiliated. He died at the age of 79. His children reported reading about his death in the newspapers.

Leanna McMahon assisted at the tea table.


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