The BCS theory (the acronym formed from the first letters of its creators’ surnames) applies specifically to low temperature superconductors. Schrieffer, however, was also involved in research focusing on developing an equally successful theory of high-temperature superconductivity.
Born in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1931, Schrieffer moved during his youth to Manhasset, New York, and again, about seven years later, to Eustis, Florida, where the family settled. Schrieffer graduated in 1949 from Eustis High School, then headed back north to major in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In his third year at the school, however, Schrieffer changed his major to physics, earning a bachelor’s degree in the subject in 1953. He continued to study physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he became a research assistant in the laboratory of John Bardeen.
Schrieffer’s initial focus as a research assistant was on surface physics. But in 1956 he began to investigate superconductivity with Bardeen and Cooper, who was also an assistant in Bardeen’s lab. After Cooper discovered that electrons in a superconducting material are attracted to one another and organize themselves into pairs (termed Cooper pairs), Schrieffer began seeking a mathematical description of their behavior. In early 1957 he developed the necessary equations, which considered the activity of all Cooper pairs simultaneously, rather than as individual pairs. Later that same year, the BCS theory was completed and announced. For his doctoral dissertation, Schrieffer gave an account of his theoretical work on superconductivity.
After receiving his Ph.D., Schrieffer traveled overseas on a year-long National Science Foundation fellowship. At the University of Birmingham in England and the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, he extended his work with superconductors. He returned to the United States and began an assistant professorship at the University of Chicago. In 1959 he joined the faculty at the University of Illinois, and a few years later embarked on an academic career at the University of Pennsylvania. Schrieffer married Anne Grete Thomsen in 1960, with whom he would have three children. In 1964, his Theory of Superconductivity appeared in print, and in 1980 he accepted a post at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There he advanced steadily, from professor to chancellor professor to director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics.
In the early 1990s, Schrieffer moved to Tallahassee, Florida, where he was a university eminent scholar professor at Florida State University and a chief scientist at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory before his retirement in 2006.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Schrieffer received many other honors. Among the most notable are the Oliver E. Buckley Solid State Physics Prize, the John Ericsson Award from the American Society of Swedish Engineers, the Comstock Prize of the National Academy of Science and the National Medal of Science. Schrieffer is also a member of several prominent scientific academies and organizations. He served as the president of the American Physical Society and as chair of the Scientific Council of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste.
Schrieffer died in July 2019 in Tallahassee.