Thursday Apr 02 2009
Media Life:Auburn park’s Nobel Prize-winning donor has dark side
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
Ainsleigh defends naming park after eugenics proponent
No doubt about it. William Shockley was one of the smartest humans on the planet. He was the co-winner of a Nobel Prize in 1956 for his groundbreaking work on transistors and Time magazine chose him as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. He was also a racist who thought whites were intellectually superior to blacks and, because of his standing in the scientific community, became the go-to genius for white supremacists and Nazis to point toward when looking for some supportive comments from the academic world. By what seems to be a quirk of circumstance, his estate included 28 acres of undeveloped land in Auburn and after his widow died in 2007, it was offered to the Auburn Recreation District as a passive park site. The bequest was approved last week by the board, without any discussion on its donor’s racism. This past week, Journal News Editor Michelle Miller-Carl wrote a story about the parks district’s acceptance of the forested land off Auburn Ravine Road and did a Wiki search on the Web to find out more about the famous benefactor. Some disturbing facts about Shockley emerged to go with the story of his landmark scientific discovery. “NASTY OLD MAN” As Joel Shurkin, author of the 1996 Shockley biography would say, the Nobel laureate and so-called father of Silicon Valley was one “nasty old man.” Shurkin’s biography about Shockley is called “Broken Genius: The Rise and Fall of William Shockley, Creator of the Electronic Age.” No one doubted that Shockley was always the smartest person in the room. Even his enemies said he was one of the smartest people they’d ever met, Shurkin would say. His list of enemies was a long one, including the two scientists who shared the Nobel with him. Shockley’s name isn’t on the Bell Labs patent for that first transistor because he lightly oversaw the actual work. He did go on to develop a different, more effective transistor that became the foundation for the electronic age. His biographers agree that by the time the Nobel was awarded, he was estranged from the co-creators. Several sources have detailed how Shockley tried to cash in on his genius with electronics by starting his own lab. He was good at hiring people but quickly lost those best and brightest minds as they dealt with his jealousy and paranoia, writers like Shurkin have documented. Two of his employees went on to help found Intel while Shockley’s enterprise floundered. EUGENICS PROPONENT Shockley began to publicly embrace the theory of eugenics in the 1960s and became one of its most prominent proponents. Technically speaking, eugenics is the name of a movement devoted to improving the human species through the control of hereditary factors in mating. Some of Shockley’s proposals were shockingly discriminatory. It was recorded that he didn’t dislike blacks and didn’t advocate discriminating against them, but advocated stopping compensatory programs for educating African Americans because of what he believed was their genetic inferiority. That was wrong on many levels and he suffered for that. And he suffered for suggesting that people with an IQ below 100 be compensated if they underwent voluntary sterilization. Shockley has never been described as anti-Semitic but his attempts to steer debate into the mainstream forum of ideas destroyed his reputation. Then, as now, discussion cannot get past the fact that Nazi Germany used eugenics to justify the Holocaust. Shockley died in 1989, despised by even his own family. His children were estranged and read about his death in newspaper obituaries, his biographer said. His wife, Emmy, lived until 2007. Where does the Auburn park fit into this odd tale of genius? BEQUEST REQUIREMENT Well, it comes down to a requirement of the bequest. To receive the 28 acres, the recreation district board had to agree to name the park “Nobel Laureate William B. Shockley and his wife Emmy Shockley Memorial Park.” The board debated the cost of upkeep before voting 3-2 in favor of accepting the gift, plus $50,000 to help maintain the land. But Shockley’s casual bigotry and racism were never addressed. Kahl Muscott, district administrator, only learned about Shockley’s racism and ties to eugenics when Media Life presented him with the facts. Director Scott Holbrook opposed the park bequest but said he had no knowledge of Shockley’s dark side. Director Gordy Ainsleigh, who favored the bequest, said he was probably the only board member who knew about Shockley’s eugenics views. But he decided not to mention them to the others. Almost everyone has some dirty laundry in their closets and in the case of Shockley, “I think we should let it go,” Ainsleigh said. Media Life gave Ainsleigh an opportunity to respond to criticism that naming the park after Shockley would be a serious mistake. AINSLEIGH COMMENTS Here are his unedited comments. You can judge for yourself: “Regarding Dr. Shockley's views on genetics: It is a solid scientific fact that the genetics of all life forms, from bacteria to humans, are formed by the environment in which our ancestors existed and survived. “For instance, in Norway, where many of my genes come from, you see a remarkable ability to produce an organized and orderly home, community and society, because people who wouldn't or couldn't function cooperatively simply were weeded out of the gene pool by the severe winters. Italy, on the other hand, has a much kinder climate that didn't weed out those who were less organized and acted spontaneously on emotion. Italy's government doesn't work nearly as well as Norway's does, but Norway didn't produce Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, either. “So Shockley's view that blacks from equatorial Africa have different genetic abilities than whites from northern Europe is unquestionably correct. Where I disagree with Shockley is in his narrow definition of intelligence. Is the proof of intelligence a government that functions intelligently, or the presence of geniuses like Michelangelo and Leonardo?” Ainsleigh wrote. “DIFFERENT TIMES” “It's also important to judge people by the context of their times and society. Shockley died of old age twenty years ago. He grew up and spent his most productive years in a world where blacks were not allowed to fight beside whites in the military, sit at the same table, or use the same toilet. And all the commanding officers were white. Shockley was a product of his society, and perhaps didn't evolve as fast as his society evolved - a very common human trait. “Still, he is a Nobel Laureate, and I trust the Nobel committee enough to believe he deserved that prize just as much as Linus Pauling, Ernest Hemingway or John Steinbeck. With all Shockley's awkward realities, Auburn is honored to have been the home of the family that produced a Nobel Laureate. “Colfax has managed okay after being named after one of the most notorious scoundrels in American political history. I'm sure we will do fine with a park named after a Nobel Laureate who was ahead of his time in electronics and behind his time in sociology.” Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.