Gerald Holton Wins Pais Prize

By Daniel M. Siegel, Chair, Pais Prize Selection Committee, and David C. Cassidy

2008 Pais Prize winner Gerald Holton

2008 Pais Prize winner Gerald Holton.

The American Physical Society and the American Institute of Physics have chosen Gerald Holton to receive the 2008 Abraham Pais Prize for the History of Physics “for his pioneering work in the history of physics, especially on Einstein and relativity. His writing, lecturing, and leadership of major educational projects introduced history of physics to a mass audience.” Holton joins previous winners Martin J. Klein, John L. Heilbron, and Max Jammer in receiving this distinguished prize, which will be awarded to him during the April 2008 APS meeting in St. Louis.

After receiving a certificate of electrical engineering from the School of Technology, City of Oxford, Holton earned his B.A. degree at Wesleyan University in 1941 and his doctorate in experimental highpressure physics at Harvard in 1948, as a student of Percy W. Bridgman. During World War II, he was an instructor at Wesleyan, Brown, and Harvard; he also served in wartime laboratories and taught naval officers about radar. In 1947 Holton joined the Harvard faculty, where he has remained ever since. He has also served as a Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1976–1994), where he was a founding faculty member of its Program on Science, Technology and Society. He is currently the Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.

While continuing his research on high-pressure physics at Harvard, Holton pioneered the introduction of physics history into the teaching of physics with the 1952 publication of his now-classic textbook, Introduction to Concepts and Theories in Physical Science. This book was followed in 1958 by Foundations of Modern Physical Science, written with Duane H. D. Roller. The first book is still alive and well in a revised edition (with Stephen G. Brush) titled Physics, the Human Adventure: From Copernicus to Einstein and Beyond (Rutgers, 2001). These texts served as the framework for the well-known Project Physics Course, which began in 1964 as an NSF-sponsored national curriculum-development project co-directed by Holton. With its textbook, films, laboratory exercises, and other materials, the Course brought physics, as seen through its history, to some 200,000 high school students a year. The book still exists in a revised edition titled Understanding Physics (Springer, 2002), coauthored with David Cassidy and James Rutherford. This project not only influenced an entire generation of physics students and educators, but it also inspired recent initiatives by the NSF, the National Research Council, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science to improve U.S. science education. Holton’s most widely admired study in the history of modern physics is his seminal work, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: From Kepler to Einstein (Harvard, 1973; revised in 1988). The innovative concept of thematic analysis he presented there has provided a new tool of thought, used not only in his own work but also in that of many other scholars. Holton’s treatment of Einstein’s relativity theory in this book established his standing as a major interpreter of Einstein’s work and its background; it has shaped scholarly discourse in this critical area of the history of physics for more than a generation. Thematic Origins also presents other often-cited studies, such as on the philosophical roots of Bohr’s complementarity principle. This book displays one of Holton’s major strengths: his attention to the humanistic and societal context of scientific research.

Among Holton’s other books are The Advancement of Science and Its Burdens; Einstein, History, and other Passions; and Science and Anti-Science. In these works, he provides technical as well as humanistic analyses of the work of Poincaré, Millikan, Fermi, Heisenberg, and other physicists, reaching back even to the science of Thomas Young and Thomas Jefferson, and he gives an often-needed defense of the scientific enterprise against antiscientific movements.

Throughout his career, Holton has been active in building and improving a variety of projects and institutions beneficial to the history of physics and related sciences. Working with Edward Purcell in the early 1960s, he was instrumental in initiating and supporting the jointly sponsored APS project, Sources for History of Quantum Physics. The project results have served ever since as a major repository of primary archival sources for the history of quantum mechanics and atomic physics. Similarly, Holton played a key role in preserving the Einstein Archive and in launching the Einstein Papers Project at Princeton University Press. He helped establish the APS Division (now Forum) on the History of Physics, serving as one of its founding chairs and as a frequent member of the Executive Committee. During the early 1960s, he also chaired the AIP committee that initiated the Center for History of Physics. As president of the History of Science Society during the early 1980s, Holton established over a dozen new programs, made possible by a funding drive that he initiated to raise a substantial endowment for the Society.

Holton remains active today with speaking engagements and a new book underway on the history of twentieth century physics. His recent research has also led to publications on the career problems of women scientists, on science policy, and on the fate of the children who came to the United States as refugees before World War II, with special attention to those who became scientists.

Among his many other honors and awards Gerald Holton was selected to deliver the Herbert Spencer Lectures at Oxford University. He was the first historian of science to deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has been awarded the Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society, the Oersted Medal, the Joseph Priestley Award, and the AIP’s Andrew W. Gemant Award, plus eight honorary degrees.

Editor’s Note: I am personally delighted by this selection, for I have used Holton’s Thematic Origins as a text in all the course I’ve taught in the history of 20th century physics at Stanford and the University of California, Santa Cruz.