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Gerald Holton: The Discovery That Scientists Are Also Philosophers Should Not Depend On Accidents

He Wants Nat Sci 7 to Relieve 'Physics' Public Image and Make It 'Irresistible'

By Linda J. Greenhouse

Gerald Holton walked across his office to a convenient blackboard and drew a picture of a funnel. "Kids start out as a very non-homogeneous mix," he commented, sketching oddly shaped particles floating over the wide end of the tunnel. "Octohedrons, decahedrons . . . but" -- he elongated the funnel -- "by the time they get through high school and college, they are all the same."

He drew drops running out of the funnel.

"They are all spheres -- some green, some red, some yellow maybe, but all spheres."

It was last summer, and Holton was explaining that the 50 students who would take the first year of his new gen ed physics course, Nat Sci 7, woud be hand-picked for their eagerness without regard to aptitude. "We don't want to file them all down to spheres," he said. "We want to exploit their variety."

Closed Door

Nat Sci 7 tries to relate physics to the interests of its non-scientific audience. It is an experiment. As with any other experiment, Holton, who will not take over the teaching until next semester, does not like to talk about its progress. "You know, with an experiment you keep the door closed until it's over and you can come out," he smiles wryly.

At first glance, the statement seems out of character. Holton, as a physicist and Faculty member, does not usually close doors. Nat Sci 7 is in fact designed to open the door that locks science off from the rest of the world. Holton recalls telling some students about a science fiction story he enjoyed. "They were surprised to find out that a scientist is not just a person in a lab or on a platform. What is sad is that they had to find out by accident."

It is the image, not the substance, of science that locks the door, Holton is convinced, and he puts much of the blame on science teaching. "It is hard for people to find out that scientists are human because they teach only the public science, not the private kind of science that they spend their lives thinking about. We expect students to wrap themselves around a core of, say, physics like ivy around a tree. That's all right if students are already committed, but otherwise it won't work -- they're the wrong kind of ivy."

Holton's vision of his own "private science" has often led him far away from the five-man research unit on the structure of liquids which he heads in the Physics Department. It has led him into liberal politics; he stumped last summer for Thomas Boylston Adams, Massachusetts peace candidate for the U.S. Senate. For seven years, Holton edited Daedalus, the publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences which grew under his direction into a widely praised and read journal. He is vice-chairman of the Faculty Committee on General Education and guided the $4.5 million federal program for science teaching called Harvard Project Physics.

Yet despite the range of this activity, Holton's "private science," his self-image as a physicist, is still pivotal for him. There is something about his field, Holton is certain, that demands this kind of activity. "There are many of us who realize that life is short and who want to do something relevant."

Physicists have historically been the most politically active group in science, and their recent voting patterns show that it is still true. Holton attributes this pattern to physics' natural link with philosophy. "Physics after a while stops standing on its own and starts asking the unanswerable questions -- what is time? what is space? Eventually a physicist has to start asking -- what can I know? what can I do? He has to look beyond his own science for the answers. More applied scientists can find immediate answers to their questions in their test tubes from day to day."

It is not surprising that Holton divides his teaching time between straight history and philosophy of science. (He also holds an appointment in the History of Science Department and is chairman of the Committee on Physics and Chemistry, a small department which graduates proportionately more summas than any other in the college.) Holton's Harvard Ph.D. advisor and mentor, Nobel laureate P. W. Bridgman '04, made some of the same combinations. "He showed me that you can be both, that physics can be a basis for philosophy," Holton recalls. Holton's own field is an area of physics which has relatively fewer researchers than nuclear physics, and it attracted him because of its inter-disciplinary applications to chemistry and biology.

His work is supported largely by a grant from the Office of Naval Research. Myths about federal direction of basic research are another cause for lay suspicion of science, Holton thinks. But he notes that at Harvard, government relations have never been a major problem. For one thing, Harvard never contracts for classified government research; for another, "Harvard antedates the federal government, and they know that we could say no to their terms if we wanted to, and still survive."

Until last year, Holton was on one of the advisory panels of the National Science Foundation, which in 1963 called 40 physicists from across the country to Washington to discuss the decreasing number of students taking physics courses. NSF asked the scientists to submit some solutions to the problem. Holton's proposal, the one that was accepted, became a new introductory physics course called Harvard Project Physics. It involves 30 physicists throughout the U.S. and is being tried out for the first time this fall by 2600 students in various forms in colleges, junior colleges, and high schools.

This project, too, is an experiment; as with his gen ed course, Holton is reluctant to issue mid-term progress reports. "We always want to leave open the option to say, at the end, that we failed," he says. "But I think we're on the right track." The new course, he says, tries to focus on "the basic and beautiful ideas of physics, to show why anybody -- I mean everybody -- should take them seriously."

He will have more than enough opportunity to develop new courses as the gen ed program moves into full operation. Holton, who was a member of the Doty Committee for a year, and was on sabbatical and didn't sign the report, is happy about the outcome of the two-year Faculty debate. "They got it right when they decided to let the ideology come after the courses. It makes sense, because, after all, you don't first decide what nature is and then impose a rigid pre-conception on your experiments."

Holton ,as vice-chairman of the Gen Ed Committee and head of the sub-committee on science, is optimistic about the future of the program. "It will help ensure the excellence of Harvard College education as well as Harvard departmental education. If there is not balance and interaction between these two, a college atrophies. Harvard must keep providing the tools for an education as well as for a trade." He notes that increasing numbers of Faculty members have already been induced by the system's flexibility to offer new courses.

He will be doing some of the inducing, especially with new science courses. With Nat Sci 7 as an example, he hopes that these courses can "make science irresistible."

There is a tone of idealism and engagement that emerges from Holton's approach to his field and its teaching. In person, he manages to hide it behind a convincing skepticism toward anything about himself, but the cynicism does not run deep. "Everyone would occasionally like to retreat into his research for two or three years," Holton reflects. "But a university appointment is a great place from which to get involved. A scientist's life here can be almost kalaidoscopic. It doesn't have to be, but the bounds of human experience can be very wide."

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