An Unregulated Flow of Paranoia
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Midway through this fetid chronicle of genius and madness, “Broken Genius” (Macmillan, 298 pages, $27.95), Joel Shurkin reminds us that in classical Greek tragedy the hero’s life is divided into three stages: moira, named for one of the Fates who controls destiny; hubris, the pride that precedes the fall; and nemesis, for the god of retribution who demands payment for hubris.It’s certainly appropriate to a biography of Nobel Laureate William Shockley, who quite literally put the silicon in Silicon Valley, but will be most widely remembered for his peculiar racial views and passion for eugenics.
As the rakish newspaper columnist Herb Caen memorably put it when Shockley revealed that he was donating to a sperm bank for geniuses, “Shockley’s donating sperm is proof that masturbating makes you crazy.”By that point, Mr. Shockley had long abandoned his most significant work in the fields of physics and engineering and was organizing a one-man public relations campaign to limit procreation among the “lower orders,” of whom there were demonstrably too many. He was, of course, reliably pro-procreation for himself and others he deemed appropriately elite.This despite fathering skills that were, in Mr.Shurkin’s telling, virtually nonexistent.
It would be easy to dismiss Shockley as a nut-case with attitude, and it is to Mr. Shurkin’s great credit that the scientist is treated, wherever possible, with respect and understanding.This is a book about a great fall, and its import depends on a measure of greatness in the protagonist. King Lear’s undoing would be far less interesting if he were not a great king with a fatal flaw.
The other wonderful thing about this book is that it manages to convey the excitement of scientific inquiry and invention. Mr. Shurkin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who knows his way around a laboratory. And while “Broken Genius” is hardly “Science for Dummies,” it does expose the scientific process in effective and entertaining language for the layman. In a society that is increasingly divided between people who can do the math and the rest of us, this is a valuable contribution.
William Shockley did not really invent the transistor, it turns out, although many people familiar with the history of science might think so. Two scientists working for him at Bell Laboratories hold the patent on the first contact transistor. What Mr. Shockley did do was perfect the transistor,enabling it to be miniaturized and transform the world in profound and consequential ways. For this, he and his two colleagues won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956.
As with many earthshaking breakthroughs, the importance of the transistor was only dimly apprehended at first. But the application of this new technology in the emerging computer industry created enormous value and untold wealth. Although Mr. Shockley benefited only modestly from these developments – primarily because of his abysmal management skills and talent for alienating almost everyone – his earliest colleagues became the proprietors of Intel and other behemoths of computerdom. And, boy, did he resent it! So much so, that Mr. Shurkin suggests it aggravated a paranoid tendency Shockley inherited from his mother, May, a remarkable piece of work who probably rates a book of her own.
Somebody ought to do an exhaustive study of only children whose mothers mistakenly think their child is flawless. It would be interesting to discover the distribution among that population of criminals, saints, tycoons, and other assorted go-getters. May Shockley never lost faith in her little genius and, in later years, took to referring to herself as the “grandmother of the transistor.” But he was so ill-tempered as a child that her child-rearing techniques are summed up by Mr. Shurkin as “surrender.” “I’ve got dark eyes,” he is said to have told his father when he was 2-anda-half. “I can frighten people.” Cue the theme music from “The Omen.”
One of the greatest ironies in Shockley’s story is that while he ended up insisting that breeding was best left to the very, very smart, his own IQ probably fell short of 130. His genius lay in determination, creativity, obsession. Still, as the megalomaniac he almost surely was, this irony was entirely lost on him.
The one thing this book lacks is a broader perspective on the dismal “science” of eugenics. While Mr. Shurkin dutifully reports on doings from the fever swamps of the loony right in this country and, most notoriously and horrifically, from Nazi Germany, there is virtually no mention of the influence eugenics had on the thinking of Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger, and other mandarins of the left. Predictably, they get a hall pass. That’s a pity.
Mr. Willcox last wrote for these pages about HBO’s “Baghdad ER.”