James Bardeen, who helped elucidate the properties and behavior of black holes, setting the stage for the so-called golden age of black hole astrophysics, died June 20 in Seattle. He was 83.
His son William said the cause was cancer. Dr. Bardeen, a physics professor emeritus at the University of Washington, lived in a retirement home in Seattle.
DR. Bardeen was born into a renowned family of physicists. his father John twice won the Nobel Prize in Physics, for the invention of the transistor and the theory of superconductivity; his brother Wilhelmis an expert in quantum theory at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois.
DR. Bardeen was an expert in unraveling the equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. This theory attributes what we call gravity to the warping of spacetime by matter and energy. Its most mysterious and disturbing consequence was the possibility of black holes, places so dense they became bottomless one-way exit ramps from the universe, even consuming light and time.
DR. Bardeen would consider the exploration of these mysteries, as well as related mysteries about the evolution of the universe, to be his life’s work.
“Jim was part of the generation where the best and brightest were working on general relativity,” said Michael Turner, a cosmologist and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, who taught Dr. Bardeen as “a gentle giant”.
James Maxwell Bardeen was born on May 9, 1939 in Minneapolis. His mother, Jane Maxwell Bardeen, was a zoologist and high school teacher. After his father’s work, the family moved to Washington, DC; to the Summit, NJ; and then to Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where he graduated University of Illinois Laboratory High School.
He attended Harvard and graduated in 1960 with a degree in physics, despite his father’s advice that biology was the wave of the future. “Everyone knew who my father was,” he said in an oral history interview recorded by the Federal University of Paraguay in 2020, adding that he didn’t feel the need to compete with him. “It was impossible anyway,” he said.
Working under the physicist Richard Feynman and the astrophysicist William A Fowler (who would both become Nobel Prize winners), Dr. Bardeen received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1965. His dissertation was on the structure of supermassive stars with millions of solar masses; Astronomers began to suspect that they were the source of the tremendous energies of the quasars that were discovered in the cores of distant galaxies.
After postdoctoral positions at Caltech and the University of California, Berkeley, he joined the astronomy department at the University of Washington in 1967. A keen hiker and mountaineer, he was drawn to the school for its easy access to nature.
Until then, what the Nobel Prize winners Thorne statue, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, says the golden age of black hole exploration is in full swing, and Dr. Bardeen was drawn into international meetings. Once in Paris, in 1967, he met Nancy Thomas, a junior high school teacher in Connecticut who was trying to brush up on her French. They married in 1968.
Next to his son Wilhelm, Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer of The New York Times Company, and his brother William, Dr. Bardeen’s wife survives him along with another son, David, and two grandchildren. A sister, Elizabeth Greytak, died in 2000.
Dr. Bardeen was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, as were his brother and father.
Although he was fast at math, Dr. Bardeen wrote no faster than he spoke. William Press, a former student of Dr. Thorne is now at the University of Texas and recalled being sent to Seattle to complete a thesis that Dr. Bardeen and he should write. Nothing had been written. Dr. Bardeen’s wife then ordered the two to sit on opposite ends of a couch with a pad of paper. Dr. Bardeen would write a sentence and send the pad to Dr. Press who would either reject or approve and then return the pad. Every sentence, Dr. Press said it took a few minutes. It took them three days, but the work was written.
One of the epoch-making moments of those years was a month-long “summer school” in Les Houches, France, in 1972, attended by all the leading black hole scholars. Dr. Bardeen was one of half a dozen invited speakers. It was during this meeting that he, Stephen Hawking the University of Cambridge and Brandon Carter, now at the Paris Observatory, wrote a seminal paper entitled The Four Laws of Black Hole Mechanics, which became a springboard for future work, including Dr. Hawking’s surprising calculation that black holes could leak out and eventually explode.
In another famous calculation in the same year, Dr. Bardeen deduced the shape and size of a black hole’s “shadow” as seen against a field of distant stars — a ring of light surrounding dark space.
This form became famous Dr. Thorne said of the Event Horizon Telescope’s observations of black holes in the galaxy M87 and at the center of the Milky Way, as well as visualizations in the movie Interstellar.
Another from Dr. Bardeen’s passion was cosmology. In a 1982 publication he wrote, Dr. Turner and Paul Steinhardt of Princeton described how submicroscopic fluctuations in matter and energy density would increase in the early Universe and lead to the galaxy pattern we see in the sky today.
“Jim was delighted that we used his formalism,” said Dr. Turner said, “and was sure we did it right.”
DR. Bardeen moved to Yale in 1972. Four years later, dissatisfied with the academic bureaucracy in the East and longing to be outside again, he moved back to the University of Washington. In 2006 he retired.
But he never stopped working. DR. Thorne recounted a recent phone conversation in which they recalled the hiking and camping trips they used to take with their families. In the same conversation, Dr. Bardeen described recent ideas he had about what happens when a black hole evaporates and suggested that it might turn into a white hole.
“That, in a nutshell, was an aspect of Jim,” said Dr. Thorne wrote in an email: “He thinks deeply about physics in creative new ways until the end of his life.”