Arnold Arons: A Life Truly Worth Living

Gerald Holton, Harvard University

The first and most powerful concept that comes to my mind when thinking about Arnold Arons is that he was the very exemplar of what it meant to be a faculty member of a Liberal Arts College: Devoted to teaching, mentoring, and aiming to make the students love the subject of the course; constantly thinking about better ways of doing it; writing as a scholar and educator, also on subjects beyond an early, narrow professional definition; being an honored and honorable role model; and all this with highest standards for his College, his students and himself—without sentimentality.

I recall with pleasure several telling episodes in which Arnold and I collaborated. The first was early in my career. Still as an Instructor I had to teach one of those large introductory physics courses at Harvard, but rebelled against the use of the usual narrow physics texts for the students. Instead, I wrote my own, emphasizing the humanistic aspects, including the history and philosophy of science.

Out of the blue, Arnold contacted me from Amherst, where he said he was using my book for his course. At his invitation I went there to give a lecture in his physics course. From the moment I entered the class room with him, I could sense that there was a special, warm rapport between Arnold and his students. It was an enjoyable event for all. Above all, it was my introduction to Arnold, and we quickly became good friends.

Some years later, Arnold had a sabbatical leave, and decided to spend it writing his own text book. He suggested, and I quickly agreed, that he do so while on a long visit to Harvard. I was glad to have him share my office with me. In fact, he asked if he could incorporate the three chapters on philosophy of science of my text into his. It was gladly done.

More years later, when I started the national curriculum called The Project Physics Course, again on the model of my first book, Arnold kindly accepted the invitation to come to Cambridge to join our team and help with the writing of the new materials.

Finally, on his invitation, my whole family came to Woods Hole on a memorable visit. He piloted his ship to the Elizabeth Islands. My family still reminisces about Arnold's generosity, his expertise on oceanography, and his stories and insights of the maritime surrounds on that day. To the memory of a man who made his life count.

Gerald Holton is Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, Emeritus. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and several Learned Societies in Europe.

Disclaimer – The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.