The Baffling Descent of a Nobel Prize Winner
In 2002, John Robert Schrieffer posed for ads in national newspapers and magazines touting scientific research in Florida. “When you have a 34-ton magnet, you attract some of the brightest research minds in the world,” the ad read, extolling the Nobel Prize winner who had become chief scientist at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee.
Florida State University recruited Schrieffer from UC Santa Barbara with the kind of full-court press usually reserved for collegiate sports stars. Lawton Chiles, who was then governor, pitched the job to him personally in a call from a state airplane. When Schrieffer signed on with the school in 1991, university officials rhapsodized over their catch, with one of them telling reporters that the hire reflected “a realignment of the nation’s scientific resources.”
But Schrieffer’s appearance in a Santa Maria courtroom this week stood in shocking contrast to his reputation as one of the greatest scientific minds of his generation. Tearfully, the 74-year-old physicist apologized to the surviving victims of a crash he caused by roaring down U.S. 101 at more than 100 mph. Schrieffer has pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter in the accident, which killed one and injured seven.
Nobody knows just why Schrieffer, who taught at UC Santa Barbara for 12 years and headed its Institute for Theoretical Physics in the 1980s, was driving down the coast so recklessly. His lawyer, Roger Lytel of Santa Barbara, said his client had fallen asleep at the wheel. A few friends and colleagues allude to long-standing medical problems and powerful medications. But whatever really happened, those who know Schrieffer are perplexed and saddened by the downfall of a man they consider a giant.
“This is not the Bob I worked with,” said Leon Cooper, who, with Schrieffer and John Bardeen, was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1972. “This is not the Bob that I knew.”
“He’s a sober and cautious person,” added Cooper, a professor at Brown University who fondly recalls a drive he took with his old friend decades ago from the Netherlands to Paris.
Schrieffer’s friends describe the fatal crash last September as a catastrophic aberration, a tragic fluke that has shattered not only the lives of the victims but also that of the grandfatherly-looking man at the wheel of the speeding Mercedes-Benz sports car.
“Those of us who know him recognize that this is not some extreme personality who happens to be a brilliant scientist,” said Dan Hone, deputy director of UC Santa Barbara’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. “He’s a wonderful, charming person.”
Yet Schrieffer had piled up nine speeding tickets since 1993, most of them in the last few years, prosecutors said. At the time of the accident, he was driving on a suspended Florida license, and he initially fabricated a story about a truck forcing him off the freeway.
In his plea, Schrieffer, who has at least seven honorary doctorates, made no mention of any illnesses that influenced his judgment or his ability to drive. He was ordered Monday to Wasco State Prison for 90 days, where he will undergo physical and mental evaluations before his scheduled Nov. 7 sentencing by Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge James Herman.
Schrieffer is now on leave without pay from his $220,000-a-year position at the lab in Tallahassee, where he leads an international crew of top scientists in research using one of the world’s most powerful magnets.
His passion for technology showed even during high school in Eustis, Fla., where he shot homemade rockets over the orange groves and tinkered with his ham radio at home. After special instruction in trigonometry and other subjects that weren’t ordinarily offered at his high school, he made it into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then into graduate school at the University of Illinois.
As a research assistant, he demonstrated the kind of wry humor that has been his trademark, friends said. At a show for graduate students, he spoofed the droning style of one of the science faculty’s most distinguished members, telling his classmates from the podium: “You are falling asleep ... You are falling asleep....”
The faculty member was John Bardeen, who won the Nobel Prize in 1956 for research leading to the development of the transistor. Bardeen went on to win his second Nobel 16 years later with the help of his old students Cooper and Schrieffer.
Together, the three developed what has come to be known as the BCS Theory, an explanation of superconductivity, a phenomenon that had baffled scientists since it was discovered in 1911.
In New York City for a meeting as a 26-year-old graduate student, Schrieffer was jolted by an insight into the problem while he was on the subway.
“I suddenly got this idea and that evening sat down and wrote out the mathematics for it,” he told a Florida State publication in 2002. “When I returned to Urbana, I met Cooper at the airport and told him how excited I was.”
Although he later described the theory as “very simple, compared to what people thought it would be,” it proved to be a development of historic proportions, prompting a host of other breakthroughs in fields as diverse as astrophysics and neurobiology.
It also led to the Nobel, a prize that Schrieffer said never changed his life. For years, in fact, it was in fourth place on his resume’s lengthy list of scientific honors. As further evidence that he didn’t let the Nobel go to his head, Schrieffer insisted on teaching a class that other top physicists might shun.
“He loved to teach physics for people without a background in science,” said Hone, his colleague at UC Santa Barbara. “You only do that if you’re truly interested in teaching.”
Schrieffer, who referred to the class as “physics for poets,” revels in his disdain for computers, preferring to write endless mathematical formulations the old-fashioned way: in chalk on a blackboard.
“Computers -- you put garbage in and you get garbage squared,” he once joked to a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.
Schrieffer is married and has three grown children. In 1958, he met his wife, Anne, while he was on a fellowship in Copenhagen, later telling friends that he knew he wanted to marry her just 10 minutes into their conversation.
Two years later -- after virtually no contact -- he showed up at her house in Denmark with a new Mercedes-Benz sports car, dated the 18-year-old for a little more than two weeks and proposed.
It’s the kind of poignant story that friends dwell on as they contemplate what Schrieffer did and what awaits him. “It’s really a puzzle as far as I’m concerned,” said William Moulton, a Florida colleague. “Everyone really loves Bob Schrieffer.”