Broken genius – the case of William Shockley

William Shockley (1910-1989) was a remarkably talented physicist, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford University and a pioneer of research into semiconductors, the materials which comprise the building blocks of semiconductor electronic components. He was the co-inventor of the transistor, the invention that amplifies and switches electronic signals. The implications and applications of the transistor were immense, washing over the fields of electronic communications, computing and general electronics. It is safe to say that without the transistor, the modern electronically-based age would be impossible. Shockley, along with his co-inventors and fellow physicists, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956. While Bardeen and Brattain were the ones that directly worked on the research that led to the first point-contact transistor, Shockley was their supervisor at Bell Laboratories, the leader of the solid state physics group, and his semiconductor theories and research work paved the way for Bardeen and Brattain. The transistor replaced the outmoded and inefficient vacuum tube, and boosted the field of electronics tremendously. It is no exaggeration to say that today, nearly every home in the industrialised countries has countless transistors, applied in various forms of electronic machinery. The transistor led to integrated circuits, and then the ubiquitous microprocessor. The latter, combined with the computer, made possible the exponential growth and application of computers to nearly every branch of industry, from finance to telecommunications.

Shockley’s achievements were not limited to the field of electronics; he did important work for the United States military during World War Two, applying his immense mathematical knowledge to the war effort. He worked on a team that calculated the statistical improvement of air power, and advised the US Air Force on how to increase the efficiency and accuracy of its bombing campaign. His work also influenced the US Navy to better target the menacing German U-Boat, the latter engaged in harassing North Atlantic trade between Britain and the United States.

Shockley’s post-World War Two start-up company, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory, provided the basis for a group of scientists and researchers that seeded what  is known until today as ‘Silicon Valley’, the home of the largest computing and technology corporations. Two of the scientists that Shockley employed went on to found Intel Corporation, today the largest manufacturer of microprocessors based on semiconductor technology. Shockley recruited the electrical engineers and physicists that form the core of the companies that began in the Santa Clara Valley, Northern California.

But if Shockley is remembered today, it is not for his work on the transistor. From the 1960s onwards, Shockley became an outspoken advocate for racial eugenics. Shockley was hardly alone in proposing a genetically-based definition of human intelligence. He was certainly not the first to attempt classifying people into distinct, biologically-determined categories called ‘races’ and endow them with social and behavioural attributes. But Shockley was not just anybody – he was an outstanding scientist and inventor, winner of the Nobel Prize. Venturing out of his field, he proposed that intelligence was largely determined by heredity, and that heredity was reflected in racial categories. The US has a long history of applying the pseudo-science of eugenics, and applying policies on that dubious basis, such as implementing immigration restrictions. In the 1960s, racial theories, and the associated biological determinism that regards the variety of human behaviour as having a genetically-determined foundation, was under attack from the rising civil rights movements, the growing anti-Vietnam war campaigns and the increasing student radicalisation on campuses. Equality between the so-called ‘races’, an assertion of African-American, (and native American) identity and dignity found their reflection on universities through the opening of research departments and courses teaching the history and philosophy of racism, African-American history and literature, colonialism and anti-colonial struggles.

In this charged environment, Shockley, whose stated concern was the quality of human life, steps up and expresses the viewpoint that the reason African Americans consistently score lower on IQ tests is because they are not as genetically-endowed with intelligence as their white American counterparts. He stated that the ‘less intelligent’ were multiplying, and this condition threatened the quality of the human race. Proceeding from his insistence that intelligence is genetically determined, and that races are immutable categories, he was concerned about the ‘retrograde’ effect of allowing the lesser-intelligent stock out-breeding the mainly white, cognitive elite.

Shockley was never an out-and-out Ku Klux Klan-style white supremacist, but his views about the racially determined categorisation of intelligence in humans crashed against the intellectual currents of the 1960s and 1970s. He was absolutely convinced that the future of the human species could be improved by stopping the ‘imbeciles’ from breeding. Shockley was proposed what he called ‘raceology’, the study of races and their inherited intelligence.

Shockley was met with vociferous protests, his colleagues shunned him, he was ostracised by the scientific community, and attacked by student groups whenever he spoke on university campuses. In the early 1970s, a group of students at Stanford University burned Shockley in effigy. The anthropologists and cultural theorists wrote articles attacking his pseudo-scientific theories, and even biologists and geneticists were criticising his racialist views on intelligence.

How did such a prominent scientist, a pioneer in his field and respected, winner of the Nobel Prize, have such a dramatic fall? That is the subject of a fascinating biography of William Shockley by Joel Shurkin. The book is called ‘Broken Genius: The rise and fall of William Shockley, creator of the electronic age’. Shurkin does not engage in a straightforward demonisation of his subject, but rather attempts to understand why such a successful and prominent scientist could fall from grace so publicly and remain unaware of the impact of his views. Shurkin is an articulate writer, and he offers a vivid portrait of the man and his milieu. When the book was published back in 2006, Shurkin was interviewed by the ABC’s Radio National. Shurkin had access to Shockley’s personal archives and diaries, and speaking during the interview, described Shockley as follows:

He was a nasty old man. One of his friends actually described him as having reverse charisma; he would walk into a room and you instantly took a disliking to him. He was, at one time, a young man, a nice young man, not a particularly lovable young man. He was, among other things, extraordinarily bright, brighter than anybody he’d ever run into and he knew it, he was a bit arrogant about it. He lacked socialisation, his parents were, let’s say eccentric, kept him out of school until the 8th grade, so he grew up not knowing how to handle and deal with other people.

Shurkin, taking advantage of the Shockley diaries, portrays a man who was remarkably intelligent in scientific and technical matters, but sorely lacking in social and people skills. Shurkin details the struggles of Shockley’s subordinates who frequently bore the brunt of his criticism and stinging attacks. Shockley was a brilliant man, but lacked what we would today call emotional intelligence. In fact, the core team of scientists that Shockley recruited for his company eventually got so exasperated and frustrated by Shockley’s authoritarian and overbearing managerial style, that they all basically left his company and founded their own ventures which led to the formation of Silicon Valley. Shockley referred to this group of scientists as the ‘traitorous eight’. Shurkin details the attempts by Shockley’s employees to find a compromise solution, to work out their differences – all to no avail. Even Shockley’s Nobel Prize co-winners, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain, sensed that Shockley harboured a certain jealousy or animosity that they had directly worked on the research for the first transistor, even though Shockley’s contribution as the overall project leader is obvious and cannot be denied. Brattain and Bardeen had increasing difficulties dealing with Shockley when they were at Bell Labs, even though, as Shurkin documents, the two of them stated that ‘there’s enough glory in this for everybody’.

Shurkin, an outstanding science writer, admirably details the scientific technicalities of semiconductor and transistor research, while also conveying the complexities of the nature-nurture debate with regard to human intelligence. He examines the responses of other psychologists and anthropologists on the ‘gene-versus-environment’ controversy, a debate that still resounds to this day. Sadly, Shockley’s views invited attacks as a racist and ignoramus in the field of biology. Psychologists and biologists currently regard the controversy as outdated, and speak of the interaction between genes and environment. We realise our nature through our nurturing environmental influences. Shockley, by advocating such genetic-determinist views on race and intelligence, seemed like an atavistic throwback, to a time in America’s history when immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (particularly Jewish immigrants) were screened out because of their alleged intellectual inferiority to the superior Nordic races. Shockley’s technical brilliance in opening up the field of semiconductor research was overshadowed by his pronouncements on race. Shockley’s scientific reputation was corrupted, and his considerable achievements were largely forgotten in the maelstrom of controversy about his racial views. Shurkin avoids the temptation to dismiss his subject as a lunatic, but rather attempts to identify the trajectory that Shockley followed from public admiration to condemnation.


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