BROKEN GENIUS: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age
by Joel N. Shurkin
Macmillan ₤19.99, 400 pages

William Shockley, one of three scientists who won the Nobel prize for the invention of the transistor, was a deeply flawed and, for most of his life, thoroughly unpleasant individual. As a child, he indulged in violent temper tantrums to intimidate his parents. As a young man, he played insensitive, sometimes cruel practical jokes on his lecturers and fellow students.

And as the head of Shockley Semiconductor, the Santa Clara valley’s pioneering silicon chip company, he was insufferable: his hand-picked, hugely gifted staff left en masse within months to form Fairchild Semiconductor, itself the catalyst for a diaspora of scientific talent that was to create the modern Silicon Valley.

In later years, Shockley betrayed his scientific principles, peddling unsound ideas about race and intelligence and earning the contempt and condemnation of both his peers and the public. He was the kind of man who could write to his mother to tell her he had been awarded the country’s highest civilian award for his contribution to the war, tucking away almost as an afterthought the fact that his wife had miscarried the twins she had been carrying.

Joel Shurkin’s Broken Genius is the first, full-length biography of Shockley and, in a sense, one wonders why he bothered. There is so little to admire in the man himself - and little to learn from his fall from grace as one of the most feted US scientists. He tells the story of Shockley’s life well enough, but makes only a token attempt to provide reasons for his appalling behaviour. In one brief paragraph he reports speculation that Shockley may have suffered from paranoid personality disorder, autism, Asperger’s Syndrome or obsessive compulsive disorder, concluding “We’ll never know.” Well, not for certain, but surely Shurkin could have roped in a rent-a-shrink or two to venture an opinion? There seems to be plenty of material to work with.

Shockley was born in London in 1910 of American parents; an only child devastated by his father’s death when he was 15. He was highly intelligent with an uncanny ability to see novel ways of solving problems. Nevertheless, he twice failed to score highly enough in IQ tests to be categorised as a “genius”, something which in no way prevented him from a misguided belief in the value of these tests. At 33 he wrote a suicide note saying “Most of my actions are the consequence of motives of which I am ashamed.” The suicide attempt failed.

He had a brilliant war, however, applying statistics and cost-benefit analysis to bombing missions and undoubtedly saving many lives. Back in civilian life, however, while managing a research team at the renowned Bell Labs, he suffered a terrible blow: his colleages John Bardeen and Walter Brattain invented the transistor without his help. Shurkin notes that, although he was able to claim some of the credit and inveigle himself on to the Nobel nomination, the event changed his life: “Fred Seitz, his oldest friend, believed his personality then began a transformation, a narrowing, an intensifying, an unbalancing.” As Bardeen and Brattain’s supervisor, Shockley was entitled to his share of Nobel glory, but the fact that he himself had not made the all-important breakthrough ate away at his self-esteem.

In the twilight of his career it was his attempts to prove that African-Americans were, on average, less intelligent than their white counterparts and his espousal of eugenics that finally tore his reputation apart. His mental state was not helped by a motor accident that left both him and his wife in constant pain. Nevertheless, Shockley, with only an amateur understanding of genetics, sought to create a theory of intelligence and inheritance from data that could never support such conclusions. Shockley the problem-solver should have realised that - and perhaps the only lesson from Shurkin’s sad tale is to beware good scientists with bad motives.

Alan Cane is the FT’s senior technology writer.

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