By the time of Holton’s birth, in 1922 Berlin, fascist gangs were already attacking Jewish politicians and intellectuals, a dramatic situation that led his family – the father a lawyer, the mother a physiotherapist – to take refuge in their native Austria. Holton grew up in Vienna, but by 1938 the tentacles were spreading, as evidenced by the terrifying Night of Broken Glass.
By pure chance – children’s destination was decided by a draw – Holton, his brother and a further 10,000 children were able to leave without their parents for the United Kingdom, with the aid of the Quaker organization Kindertransport. There Holton studied electrical engineering until in 1940 he was able to rejoin his family in the United States. At the time some American universities were offering places to European refugees, and Holton was able to enroll at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where he earned a physics degree in 1941, and a master’s in the same discipline in 1942.
During the Second World War he was invited, as were many other physicists, to join the Manhattan Project working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos (New Mexico). Holton turned it down, a decision he ascribes to his respect for the spiritual values of the Quakers who had cared for him in Britain. He did, however, contribute to the war effort in what he considered a defensive role, teaching navy officers how to use radar, and forming part of the military research team stationed at Harvard.
After the war, in 1947, he obtained his PhD from Harvard with a study on the structure of matter at high pressure, under the supervision of Percy Williams Bridgman, a brilliant scientist distinguished with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1946. His association with Harvard has continued to this day.
The citation refers also to “his innovative contributions to science education, his decisive role in the preservation of Albert Einstein’s documentary legacy, and his studies into the fate of children forced to flee Nazi Germany.”
Holton, a professor of Physics and History of Science at Harvard University (United States), is a towering figure in the study of how science shapes a society’s culture, and the ways in which the cultural matrix of each historical period intimately conditions the practice of science by informing the elaboration of theories and models.
The new laureate explains that he has sought to show in his work “how science is infused with its background, instead of treating it as if it had come down from heaven all by itself.” His way of practicing science history is to place the focus on its conceptual and cultural dimension. “Science,” he has written, “should treasure its history and historical scholarship should treasure science.”
Gerald Holton was born in Berlin in 1922. The rise of Nazism forced his family to move to Vienna, where he spent most of his childhood and adolescence. At age 16, he found himself fleeing once more after Austria was annexed, first to the United Kingdom and two years later to the United States, which became his home and where he has spent his entire academic career. He is one of the bare 7% of Jewish children, out of 1.6 million, who survived the Holocaust. An experience that underpins much of his later work.
Science shapes culture and vice versa
Holton’s work upholds the role of science in shaping the culture of each age, without ever falling into scientificism, the belief that beyond scientific language lie only irrationality and meaningless. On the contrary, he argues that many fields, art and literature among them, are instrumental in giving form and content to a society’s culture. He sees science, however, as an essential civilizing force, contributing not only to economic growth and societal welfare but also, at a deeper level, to the configuration of modes of thinking, decision-making and behavior in each time period, on both the individual and collective plane.
The pillars of science – he reminds us – are truthfulness, objectivity and the generation of knowledge that is not immutable but subject to scrutiny by others, and therefore always subject to revision in the light of new evidence or more elegant and general conceptual models. So as well as health, economic growth and technological efficiency, science fosters rationality and thus adds to society’s ability to solve its problems. Yet his work has also shown how science itself does not develop in a capsule, isolated from the cultural (not just socioeconomic) fabric, but rather permeates through it in breadth and depth. Or as Holton puts it, “science is part of a tapestry, it is woven into a culture.”
The physicist, historian and now Frontiers of Knowledge laureate in Humanities was one of the first voices calling for an urgent and imperative effort to relay scientific culture to the general population, a cause he has advocated for over half a century in a way that is both perceptive and respectful of other sources of general culture. And not just because of the immediate utility of technoscientific knowledge, but of how scientific thought can aid in cognitive orientation, and the construction and development of society’s mental maps or mindset. Holton’s extensive body of work has foregrounded the fundamental role of scientific culture as a unifying force for all humanity.
“Themata” in Einstein and other great scientists
As a scholar of science history and how scientific discoveries are made, one of Holton’s greatest contributions has been the identification of what he called “themata,” the crystallization of very general ideas that emerge recurrently – often unconsciously from their place in the underlying cultural fabric – in the thought of history’s most creative scientific minds; among them symmetry, causality and the search for the unity of fundamental forces.
Holton picked up on these “themata” in the course of studying Albert Einstein’s papers, which he was the first to archive and make available to the scientific community. Following the death of the German physicist in 1955, a colleague at Harvard had suggested he prepare a history of Einstein’s discoveries for a forthcoming tribute event. Finding that there had been little work done on the subject, he approached the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where Einstein spent the closing years of his career and where all his writings and correspondence were kept (a total of over 40,000 documents).
With the aid of Einstein’s secretary, Helen Dukas, Holton spent two years classifying and analyzing this material. Realizing its incalculable value, he became the first researcher to study this legacy from the standpoint of the conceptual history of science. “I thought, it’s a moral obligation to try to put this into an archive that scholars can use,” he recalled in an interview. In fact through his study of the great man’s scientific publications, correspondence and other papers, Holton would make Einstein himself an object of study, as Newton or Darwin were before him. It was while doing so that he identified the themata that show the stamp of cultural ideas and metaphors in scientific thought, the footprint of culture in science.
“It became clear to me – to my surprise, I was not prepared – that Einstein obeyed an inner epistemological compulsion, as do so many scientists, of seeing science through certain keyholes, certain lenses. I called them themata – themes – namely, ideas which are so imprinted in them that they may not have been fully aware of them; these determine the basic underlying structure of their work.”
In Einstein’s case, among the most repeated concepts were the search for unity in nature’s forces; formal rather than phenomenological explanations; causality; completeness; and continuous versus discrete phenomena. These same concepts are at the core of the work done by other great scientists, from Johann Kepler to Niels Bohr, as Holton documented in his book The Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought (Harvard University Press, 1973).
Themata, in sum, are constructs emanating from each scientist’s particular cultural matrix, which they incorporate, at times unconsciously, into their work, and that condition their style or manner of thinking. Holton defines them as ideas that act as a kind of conceptual template, allowing a scientist to focus on certain objects, phenomena or connections.