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Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age Paperback – 5 Nov 2007

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Product details

  • Paperback: 378 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan; 2 edition (5 Nov. 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0230551920
  • ISBN-13: 978-0230551923
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.4 x 22.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,361,443 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


'At last, the definitive, unstinting biography of this hugely important historical figure - complete with all his contradictions and idiosyncrasies.' - Michael Riordan, coauthor of Crystal Fire
'Shurkin deftly tackles this complex figure - and his unraveling - and delivers an unflinching portrait of a tragic life.' - Seed Magazine

'Shurkin does a good job of portraying a difficult man - a vivid portrait.'- NewScientist

'The other wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to convey the excitement of scientific inquiry and invention.' - New York Sun

'Shurkin is a good storyteller, and better still as a researcher of the personal facts.' - Nobel Laureate Professor Philip Anderson, Times Higher Educational Supplement

'FIVE STARS: this gripping biography gives a balanced picture of the most bizarre of the great names of electronics. Recommended.' - Brian Clegg, author of The God Effect and Light Years

'I recommend it to people curious about the history of technology and the computer or anyone interested in a rise and fall of truly epic proportions.' - Cory Ondrejka, CTO Linden Labs/Second Life

'This portrait of a flawed giant reveals a man crushed under the weight of his own pathological insecurities.' - David Bodanis, Discover

'Masterfully walks the fine line between presenting Shockley as purely evil and legitimizing his more controversial theories - very readable.' - Physics World

'Shurkin reveals Shockley to be a fascinating example of an Aristotelian tragic hero - riveting.' - Nature

'This informed and candid biography asks, 'Why did a man so brilliant deliberately destroy himself?'' - Skeptical Inquiry

About the Author

JOEL N. SHURKIN is Science Writer Emeritus at Stanford University, USA, where he has written and taught for many years. He covered the moon landings for Reuters, served ten years as Science Writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer and was on the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for covering Three Mile Island, among many other awards. He has written nine books including Terman's Kids (Little, Brown) about the study of gifted students, Invisible Fire, on the eradication of smallpox, a science-fiction novel called The Helix (Norton) and most recently A Consumer's Guide to Psychotherapy (OUP). His definitive history of the computer, Engines of the Mind (Norton), is in multiple editions in several languages.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
William Bradford Shockley was born on 13 February 1910 to an eccentric American couple living in London. Read the first page
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on 3 Sept. 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This could have been an excellent story, but is unfortunately let down by the author.
This is the story of William Shockley - the Nobel prize winning apparent inventor of the transistor. I say apparent because there were other members of his team who actually invented it and previous scientists almost got a transistor working. However, it is William Shockley who has his name on the patent and thus the Nobel prize for the invention of the transistor.
The story is constructed from a series of notebooks, diaries and letters of William Shockley (hence there is a huge reference section at the back of the book to confirm the authors remarks). The story of William Shockley is fascinating, but the way in which the author describes it is disappointing and lacks detail. For example, the key part of the story about the invention of the transistor and how it works is covered in small paragraph. I had to research elsewhere on the internet to find more details, but this then highlighted the fact the description in the book of the operation of a transistor is not correct.
Other key parts in the book are mentioned and passed over quickly, but items of not much relevance are described in more detail.
I think the main problem is that the book is written by a journalist - the story definitely has the feel of a journalist, rather than a pure author. It's disappointing as a story, but it is interesting to anyone wanting to know about Shockley or the invention of the transistor.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This was a very good read. A nice biography on a person who was not very nice and a wonderful piece of science and industrial history.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 18 reviews
34 of 42 people found the following review helpful
Vindicated genius 29 Aug. 2006
By Donald B. Siano - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Joel Shurkin has done a reasonably good job in this book, and it is well worth reading if you have an interest in the history of technology and the forces that shape our times. Shockley was a very important player in the development of the transistor at Bell Labs, and his story has a lot to inform the reader about how scientists in an industrial laboratory work together in a situation that demands cooperation to get to the objective, and the competitive personalities that are found in people who excel. The story is usually told in a very oversimplified version like this: "Bardeen and Brattain invented the transistor and their boss, Shockley took the credit. He later went off the deep end into eugenics and racism." Shurkin shows that there was a whole lot more to the story and presents a much more nuanced and sympathetic portrait of this complicated man.

Apportioning credit in a group effort in an industrial setting is difficult and can be contentious even despite the best intentions of all concerned. Documentation is sketchy, memories often fail, lawyers are involved, and management has its own axes to grind. I've seen all this at first-hand in a large industrial laboratory, and have participated in endless lunchtime conversations on the twists and turns the patent process takes. Sometimes hard feelings in supposedly mature scientists sour relationships and even sever productive friendships. Bruising, but inevitable, in a way...

Shockley actually had three major phases in his working life as a scientist. In the first, he was an important and productive worker in the then new field of operations research applied to warfare in WWII. He led groups of men who studied the available data involved in the battle of the Atlantic, drew conclusions, and managed to get the military to take them seriously enough that they had a real impact on the outcome. Later in the war, he worked with the air-force to devise a practical training program for B-29 crews, and was awarded the Medal of Merit for it. Throughout the rest of his life he was a consultant to the armed services and the government on scientific matters. Shurkin tells the largely forgotten story of Shockley's independent invention of the nuclear reactor and the fission bomb. Amazing stuff.

Shockley then returned to Bell Labs as a group head of seven men who were assigned to apply the recent developments of quantum mechanics to the physics of solid state semiconductors. Shurkin maintains that Shockley, probably rightly, wanted to be included in the patent for the point-contact transistor, contrary to the popular myth. And it was Shockley who continued to work in bringing the junction transistor to life for many years afterwards, while Bardeen and Brattain went on to other things within the year. Shockley really understood the importance of the invention, and wrote the seminal book on the science of electrons and holes in semiconductors.

In his later years, after he left the field, he became interested in the genetics of intelligence, race and IQ, eugenics and dysgenics. He was much before his time on all of this, but in the following decades he has been largely vindicated, at least among those who actually know something about it. This part is a sad tale of a courageous man, living in difficult times, where truth-saying is hardly rewarded.

I was disappointed though, that Shurkin does not include a bibliography of Shockley's scientific papers, nor of his many patents. Nor is there enough about the science itself to suit me, but nevertheless I found the book to be rewarding and entertaining to boot. The pictures added a lot to the book. And I was comforted to realize in the end how inappropriate the title really is.
26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
Very bright, and more than a little strange 15 May 2007
By Jeremy M. Harris - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
William Shockley generated some mild controversy as a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for the transistor, and a firestorm of controversy as an investigator of supposed linkages between race and intelligence. Mr. Shurkin sheds considerable light on both disputes, as well as on those facets of Shockley's personality which occasionally drifted from merely difficult into the scarier modes of overbearing and compulsive. The author's own attitude toward his subject leans, quite understandably, toward an uneasy blend of admiration and exasperation.

The transistor Nobel was awarded in 1954 to Shockley and his Bell Labs colleagues John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. A problematic aspect of the choice to honor all three was that although Shockley nominally led the research group, his direct involvement in the original (point contact) transistor invention was minimal. He did, however, have a legitimate conceptual claim to the later junction-type device, which became the practical transistor we know today. Shurkin's description of the contentious priority issues involved, and the human interactions among the principals, is fascinating.

One might say it's ironically fitting that a self-assured, iconoclastic, socially tone-deaf character like Shockley would blunder into the potential minefield of race/intelligence studies. On top of that, he chose the most politically radioactive combination possible -- white vs. black. The spectrum of opinion on that topic was (and is) bracketed at one end by bigots who just knew there must be an intelligence gap, and at the other end by knee-jerk egalitarians who just knew there couldn't possibly be one. The bigots embarrassed Shockley with unwanted support, and the egalitarians excoriated him for even looking at the question. The most recent and reasonable consensus seems to be that racial differences, genomically speaking, are too trivial to account for intelligence variations beyond the normal and expected spread due to both intra- and interracial gene mixing.

The biography is well-written and consistently interesting, but there are too many glitches to ignore. For example, "Schrodinger's atoms" on page 25 should be electrons, and the claim that Shockley wrote "the first textbook of the electronic age" (p.122) sounds preposterous to anyone who remembers vacuum tubes. Perhaps the author meant solid-state electronic age. For a similar reason, the book's subtitle needs revision. On page 105, the translation of 0.04 centimeter to 0.16 inch is too high by a factor of 10. The name of the strength program a youthful Shockley modeled for is spelled "Trelor" three times on page 18, but the ad reproduced on the same page conspicuously says "Treloar."
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
A good chronicle of William Shockley's life. 2 Mar. 2009
By lector avidus - Published on
Format: Paperback
Joel Shurkin, a science writer and author, has written this informative but hardly authoritative biography of William Shockley, a Nobel laureate and scientist whose accomplishments include:

- helping the US Navy to win the Second World War with his spectacular work in Operational Research,
- his pioneering work on nuclear fission that was suppressed because it was an embarrassment to the government labs he beat to the punch,
- his invention of a transistor,
- his close proximity to the invention of the first transistor, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize,
- his being an accomplished professor at Stanford
- and his unhappy championing of a link between race and intelligence, which brought him into the close proximity of eugenic thinking, and made many deeply dislike him, such that his public appearances were often accompanied by demonstrations.

I enjoyed this book as a chronicle of Shockley's life, but found it to be disappointing in that I felt that it failed to explain why Shockley did what he did, most particularly, why did Shockley insist on publicly discussing his eugenic views? Was it because he lived for the notoriety? Was it due to a form of egomania? Can it be attributed to his political views? Shurkin doesn't tell us.

Shockley was, by all accounts, a very difficult, even insufferable, person, who, by the time he breathed his last, had few friends. To my mind it's clear that he suffered from what psychologists would describe as a personality disorder, and maybe even something similar to Asperger's. Shurkin explains these facts in a single paragraph; yet perhaps more than any other fact, they explain the trajectory of his life, the purported focus of this book. Why is more space not given to explaining what these means, and what it meant for Shockley, and, even, to what extent his seemingly irrational choices were not even voluntary acts on his part?

While this book offers a great deal of information about Shockley's life, in my opinion it is regrettably, even woefully, short on analyses and appraisals of the information it has to offer.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Pleasant and quick read 3 Jan. 2007
By Arthur Zatarain - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am an engineer with particular interest in William Shockley because I was once barred from hearing him speak. This book presents an excellent recap of Shockley's entire life, concluding with the events that led to his downfall among the general public. I found the coverage to be generally fair and unbiased. Although the book provides the expected analysis of Shockley's later years, ample coverage is provided of his most productive years which, even under close scrutiny, show him to have indeed been a genius in several technical fields.
18 of 24 people found the following review helpful
The Rise and Fall of William Shockley 29 July 2006
By Wayne Klein - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Shockley who helped give birth to the transistor (with John Bardeen, Walter Brattain and a couple of others who remain uncredited to this day) and a founding father of Silicon Valley became obsessed with issues of race, IQ and Eugenics towards the latter part of his life. Whatever achievements were in his past failed when it compared to the issues that dominated the bulk of his later career. He managed to alienate many of his contemporaries with his attitudes and beliefs.

He could be quite petty and belittle the accomplishments or try and steal the glory of others if he felt his own reputation was in danger. His life offered much potential that he wasn't able to always deliver on. As author Joel Shurkin points out his promise, life and fall would have given Greeks the perfect material for a great tragedy.

Later in life when he was a professor at Stanford he faced public ridicule and protests from students, faculty and critics over his stated views. A keen man with great insight into many things except himself he that would frequently throw tantrums if he was proven to be wrong. Shockley founded a company that would help provide the template for many of the companies that flourished in Silicon Valley later. In fact many of the best and brightest that he wooed to join his company would later go on to found Intel and other major U.S. companies that had a major impact on the computer world.

Shurkin had access to a number of previously unavailable papers in the Stanford Library to create this well rounded, insightful biography of a man as flawed as he was brilliant. Illustrated with rare and some previously unseen photos Shurkin's biography gives tremendous insight into Shockley, his accomplishments and failures.
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