AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIX , No. 2, Fall 2007

New “Moments of Discovery” Web Exhibit Explores Superconductivity Theory

A sample of the new "Moments of Discovery: Superconductivity" exhibit.
A sample of the New “Moments of Discovery: Superconductivity” Web exhibit. Photos of John Bardeen (left) and Leon Cooper (right) accompany a transcript of J. Robert Schrieffer’s description of the office where they worked.

You are probably familiar with the advertisement that itemizes the high cost of planning a major event and ends “How do theorists make discoveries?” A new Web exhibit by the Center for History of Physics opens a window into the little-understood world of modern physics theorists. Visitors to the Web site will find a lively account of the origins of an outstanding discovery—the BCS (Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer) theory of superconductivity, published in 1957. The centerpiece of the exhibit is an interview with Robert Schrieffer, the youngest member of the team. Visitors can read the edited text, listen to voice clips, and view photographs as Schrieffer recalls events in the University of Illinois’ “Institute of Retarded Study” (as his fellow grad students named the floor they inhabited in the physics building). He describes the ideas each member of the team contributed, the social interactions that were crucial to their success, and how a breakthrough inspiration came to him on a subway in New York.

For background and further explanation, the Web site includes a short account of the history of superconductivity theory up to 1957, explained by the noted theorist Charles Slichter (available as both text and voice download). Slichter also provides a lively “dance hall” analogy for the superconductivity mechanism revealed in the BCS theory. The entire story is told in detail in a historical essay by Lillian Hoddeson, Bardeen’s biographer. The Website also offers brief voice clips of Bardeen talking about his first interests in science and superconductivity, suggestions for how teachers can use the materials, and references and links.

The exhibit becomes a new unit within the Center’s popular “Moments of Discovery” exhibit. This already has a unit on the discovery of fission, featuring the voices of many of the pioneers of the 1930s and 1940s, and a unit on the discovery of an optical pulsar, featuring an accidental tape-recording of the voices of the astronomers during the very minutes that they realized they had found what they sought. An associated unit developed in association with PBS, “Transistorized!” explores yet another type of discovery. These three units all include extensive Teachers’ Guides. Please visit

The fission, optical pulsar, and superconductivity units were all prepared in the 1970s by Joan Warnow (later Joan Blewett) and other Center staff and consultants. Tested in high school classrooms, the superconductivity unit proved too difficult to serve as a complete hour-long lesson for students, and it was not developed further. The problem is solved by the Web, with its accessiblity to many audiences, each selecting only what interests them. The Schrieffer interview, for example, could be used by itself for a short classroom presentation at high school level. Most of the other materials can be fully understood only by people with some physics background, but they can provide insights to anyone with a serious interest in how theorists actually do their work.

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