Gerald Holton

Notice: We are in the process of migrating Oral History Interview metadata to this new version of our website.

During this migration, the following fields associated with interviews may be incomplete: Institutions, Additional Persons, and Subjects. Our Browse Subjects feature is also affected by this migration.

We encourage researchers to utilize the full-text search on this page to navigate our oral histories or to use our catalog to locate oral history interviews by keyword.

Please contact [email protected] with any feedback.

Image not available
Interviewed by
Katherine Sopka
Harvard University Physics Department
Usage Information and Disclaimer
Disclaimer text

This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.

This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.

Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.

Preferred citation

In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:

Interview of Gerald Holton by Katherine Sopka on 1977 January 11, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA,

For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location. 


Educational background: Humanistische Gymnasium in Austria (1930s); School of Technology, Oxford (1938-1940); Wesleyan University (1940-1942); Brown University (1942); Harvard University (1943-1948). Teachers and colleagues at Harvard University, including Percy W. Bridgman, Edwin Kemble, Philip Frank, John Van Vleck, Kenneth Bainbridge, Philippe LeCorbeiller; physics at Harvard University since 1940; General Education program at Harvard University; Harvard Project Physics; Daedalus, journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; vignettes about Philip Frank, Percy Bridgman, Wendell Furry.



This is Katherine Sopka speaking. I am visiting today, January 11, 1977 with Professor Gerald Holton in his office in the Jefferson Laboratory of Physics. In the interest of helping me to compile a history of the Physics Department in recent decades, Professor Holton has kindly consented to share with me his recollections of developments within the Department since he first came to Harvard as a student in the 1940's. Professor Holton, perhaps we can begin by asking you about your pre-Harvard background and the path that brought you to Harvard.


I think the important thing about such an interview is what light it throws on the department as a whole, and so I'll select from the question about my background that part which makes some sense when you then look at the Department's own history. I think the fact that I was brought up in Vienna and that I went to the Humanistische Gymnasium, instead of the Real gymnasium or Realschule (which is more typically the background of a future scientist), is of some importance, because many of the courses I've been teaching here, and I've been encouraged to teach here, drew in some way upon my having had a foot really in both of these camps. That is, in the Humanistische Gymnasium you get exposed to physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics constantly, but in addition you also get a large dose of languages, Latin and Greek, and of history and the humanistic disciplines in general. I should say that I can't claim to have enjoyed school greatly at the time, or that I was a brilliant student.

The teaching was pretty bad and my attention was not always what is should have been in those rather turbulent days in Austria. The schools were mostly staffed by people who could not get any adequate jobs in the universities. They had largely been hoping to be university professors and now they were down there in the trenches with those kids, and we were their visible evidence of failure. That was, I think, part of it, and the other part was that I really never found anybody, except possibly my Greek teacher with whom I really resonated. Nevertheless, my experience before Harvard was getting an exposure to both the sciences and the humanities. And there is something rather strange that happens to many who have gone through this type of school without liking it too much. Afterwards, when they are through with it and they have gladly forgotten about it for a time, it comes to life again and it hits them with a delayed reaction. Afterwards they find that they have become, as it were, imprinted. And this aspect was, of course, much reinforced by just living as the son of an attorney, a specialist in international law, and in a family that was much interested in the theater, literature, and music. So that the life of culture in the large sense just was a part from the very beginning. I say this because it needs some explanation.

Why I then ended up at Harvard teaching quite often in the General Education program, for example, or in the History of Science, or in philosophy of science, I'll speak in greater length in a moment. Another point that is essential for that part of the story is that once I got to Oxford in late 1938, then the only way to get any schooling was in the School of Technology, which was a city-run school, whose curriculum was set by the industries, really. It was a fairly low-level kind of activity. I did get a National Certificate of Electrical Engineering, and so I found myself heading for engineering, building I suppose on boyhood interests in, you know, making radios and things like that. But above all getting ready for a job. In Vienna I was obviously going to become a lawyer, and I knew the very space in the office of my father where I was going to sit once I got through the University. But once I left that and got to England, Law was out. And as a good alternative, I was happy to be able to get a scholarship to have a couple of years of very fast training in electrical engineering. And then coming to this country, I think the next important influence was in encountering Walter G. Cady, as a student at Wesleyan University, who was an absolutely lovely human being and a very good, and intuitive, physicist. He had a research position open so that as a senior at Wesleyan, my first year there, and as a graduate student for my second year, I was his assistant.

That introduced me to research, and rescued me from electrical engineering, or from the alternative which always was somewhere in the background, namely possibly get a degree both in Physics and in English Literature; by the time I got to Wesleyan, I really was actively flirting with this idea. This was changed by being assistant to Cady, helping him in the writing of one or two chapters of Piezo-electricity, the big book which he was then writing. His graduate students generally were allowed to help in the research, and it helped them enormously to formulate an idea of what the life of a physicist was like. Then from Wesleyan I went on to do my doctor's work initially at Brown University, at the suggestion of Cady, because he was friendly with the acoustics people at Brown, particularly Lindsay. It was thought at that time, that while the War was really coming along rather fast, there would be an opportunity for research, war research, and then eventually a thesis if that worked out. But I got to Brown in '42 and found that everybody had left, with destinations unrevealed, and so I did some teaching in the Army-Navy program and then the next year I came to Harvard in '43, in the spring of '43 to work in the war-time acoustic laboratory run by Leo L. Beranek, the Sound Control Labs, and at the same time also to sit in on graduate courses as far as they were still available. I also ended up teaching at the invitation of Chaffee in the Officers' Radar Course … electrical engineering once more.

These were then the pre-Ph.D. kind of activities. It ought to be remarked that all the time, as a researcher or as a teacher of people usually twice my age in the radar officer's training or later, I sat in on as many courses as I could, particularly in the philosophy department, given by people like Demos, Williams, Quine … although I'm not sure that Quine wasn't a bit later … Ralph Barton Perry and C. Lewis. I had quite a good exposure over the years and, in fact, I became the president of the Philosophy Club while I was in graduate school, doing my physics graduate work under Bridgman. As soon as the war was over, I did graduate work here for an MA and then took courses from Kemble; from Bridgman in crystal physics and thermodynamics; Van Vleck's course introduced me to quantum theory. And Chaffee's course on power tubes … Mimno's course on electric circuits because I always kept in mind that I was interested in electrical engineering enough to keep a foot in this and it ended up being a good thing for my thesis work afterwards which was experimental and used pulse circuits.

When I had to choose a thesis topic, the combination of having an experimental physicist and a philosopher of science right on the premises, namely Bridgman, was very appealing. I didn't dare for a long time to walk in and ask him for a thesis problem, which I thought was the thing one had to do. When the time finally came I screwed up my courage. I really knew of a thesis problem that I wanted to do, which was to work on the elasticity of crystals under high pressures, using what then was called super-sonic (ultra-sonic) waves under high pressure range. And I thought that this technique, which gives you elastic constants from wave propagation, could be very useful to check on theoretical models. Also it was appealing to me to use some modern technology on this, which then, at the end of the war, was becoming available. I remember asking Bridgman to let me do these things, and he was quite pleased. It turned out that asking him to let me do something I wanted to do was the key to his heart; otherwise he probably would have thrown me out. He had very few graduate students and I think they generally had to have something of their own in order to intrigue him enough to let them get some space from him. And so he let me go ahead. As it happened, in setting up this system, I never got to the crystals except to use crystals for the generation of ultra-sonic waves and I ended up working on molecular relaxation in liquids. But the initial idea of crystal physics goes back to working under Cady, who was working on crystal physics; that was still the initial motivation.

Now I also should mention Philip Frank. He was here a very endearing and sweet human being and a wonderful physicist and philosopher to talk with. Very amusing and very profound and tolerant. And the center for many graduate students like Jeremy Bernstein and myself and a few others, who sort of found in him a missing component in the University. He had only a rather temporary Lecturer status; indeed for a time I shared an office with him as a teaching fellow in his course. So we had quite a lot to do with each other and personally had a good, harmonious relation. I saw a lot of him and that kept reinforcing my interest in philosophy of science. Kemble, here, of course is another important factor, because he saw it his duty during the war years to go into introductory teaching and particularly to develop, right after the war, ideas on General Education, that is, education for those students who are not necessarily destined to become science students. And he became interested in the history of science in this connection because the General Education program, of course, was largely directed toward a historical view of our "heritage" as it was put in those days in that war-spawned document, the Red Book. And seeing him teach himself the history of science and share that with everybody around him (I was for a while his teaching fellow too) was really very nice, to get to know him and his family and to get to know him as a person, was extremely important in my life, I must say. I can state that I have had incredible luck to know people like Cady, Bridgman, Frank, Kemble, Oldenberg, Van Vleck, Purcell, Schwinger, Pound, Ramsey, Bainbridge, Street, all these amazing singularities among mankind, every one of them both a great person in his own field and a real gentleman in the good sense — that is, both gentle and well integrated man, a "cultural carrier" to use a German term, in addition to being a scientist.

So this combination is quite astounding to have stumbled into. I always was aware that this was a strong formative or role-model — opportunity for me, and at the same time I actually worked with these people. I shouldn't leave out Beranek and Chaffee who after all hired me for my very first job, and Philippe LeCorbeiller, this was another great person of the same kind as Frank. Very urbane, however, very witty, had read everything and marked up the margins of all his books which he would lend me. It was an education just to be near these people. Now all this has a lot to do with the way I would like somebody who studies the Physics department to see the Physics department. It was the way I saw it. I think it is not such a wrong view of the department as a whole. It's a very peculiar and lovely oasis really; in the academic life. The academic life is not peopled to a large extent by the kind of persons I have named. Certainly not even in this University can one say that other departments (who need not be named) have that kind of harmonious influence upon their students, or harmony among the people who make up the department. This is a small very well-functioning department. As a young instructor one could be in those weekly faculty meetings which I think are very important for the formation of the sense of identity of the members of the department with the department as a whole. You just walk in on Monday at lunch and you sit with anybody.

There never was the feeling that there was hostility or fighting over small things. It was not that everything was unanimous, but I remember only one severely split vote. And that was when Van Vleck brought up the question on behalf of the American Physical Society Editorial Board whether one should capitalize Maxwell and Hertz in the units to be printed in the American Physical Society journals or whether they should be lower case. And there for once we had quite a debate and I think it was a very narrow vote. But generally we just didn't have any votes. It was consensus, or if we did have votes it was just pretty unanimous. That type of life and growth of a department I think is possibly gone. I believe that life has changed for an academic institution. One has to remember that the people that I named, I think that none of them had contracts, or if they had contracts, they were miniscule. Bridgman had three hundred dollars a year from the American Academy to publish in its Proceedings, and sums of money of that order of magnitude. The same was true for the physics department in other parts of the country, before the war and perhaps at the very beginning of the war. But most of the people that I knew were brought up in a period before big science came in and before there was a big load of graduate students. Before it became rare for such people to give recitation sections and before graduate students took a lot of this over.

So life in the department was very different, and very harmonious, and, I think very productive as a result, although they weren't necessarily working as scientific collaborators. Well then finally, just a few remarks about my view of Bridgman as a graduate student. Like all the other graduate students, I didn't have much of a view of him, because he kept pretty much to himself. He would come to my room every now and then and say "Have you put the pressure on yet?" or "I think you really ought to put another layer of steel around that place; it looks weak to me" and I didn't ever know how he intuited that because I had lots of layers of steel around the thing that I thought would go, but he knew some that would which nobody else knew. His interest was casual, I think. The problem I had selected was not the problem that was burning in his mind. He had rather a classical view about problems in physics. His view of liquids was essentially as billiard balls weakly coupled. He had put that down into his papers, and it did everything that he wanted to do. The way I went about my work was very strange to him too, because I used AC instead of DC. I mean most of his laboratory was DC with Kelvin Bridges for measuring a change of resistance under pressure, things of that sort. I was using pulse circuits. I think he had a tryrotron in one of his temperature control instruments and that was about it in terms of electronics. I once told him that many of the things that he does, he could do so much more conveniently with some electronics. He said "Well, if it is absolutely needed I certainly can learn it, I think, but just prove to me that let's say my viscosity measurements would be improved considerably if I use the torsion of cylinders of Piezo-electric crystals and get the viscosity through the damping that way". A little calculation showed that he got accuracy of about the same order of magnitude as he would maybe by dropping balls down a cylinder which he laboriously had to tilt back and forth, in a very primitive way. He would have gotten about the same accuracy. "So there, you see", he said to me. But I told him you could get it as a function of frequency, not just for a very slowly falling ball. "Well," he said, "I'm not interested in having it as a function of frequency". And that was it. If he was going to be interested in this, he was going to do it some way, whatever way was necessary; that was clear. So I can't say that he was a great, great help, other than teaching you some of the experimental tricks or sharing Mr. Abbott or Mr. Chase, his two assistants, and allowing you to use some of their time and their interests. They were always magnificent. If anything, they would have loved to help right in the experiments themselves, because they were so interested in the material.

Of course, when one really had a problem on one's mind, one could just simply walk in and get Bridgman at the proper moment, when he wasn't right at the pump, let's say, perhaps toward the end of the day when he was sort of cleaning up. So my view of Bridgman was, I think, the very active, solipsisitic operationalist doing what he did so well, and allowing his students to come to his house and sharing at odd moments surprising facets of himself, whether it was some color photography or mushroom gathering or whatever. He always knew everything about it, taking it as a project for himself for summer. And learning one thing at a time. So that was magnificent for us. These are them … my, I am much too rambling, and much too long on remarks on the first topic. We'll have to go faster now on the rest. You may want to interject before I go to the next.


You mentioned one tradition — that of the weekly luncheon. I wondered if you have a recollection of how long the tradition of the colloquium has been in existence. Does that go far back in your memory?


Oh, I think so. I will not swear to that but it seems to me that, as far as I remember, there were always teas — not that they were terribly important. It's not like the Cavendish Lab tea queue where people come and for relatively few minutes it turns out (the tea queue of Cavendish Lab is very short). Nevertheless they are very intensely talking to each other. Here this was rather bigger and much more informal and not so crucial in the history of science. When you look at The Double Helix you discovered the tea queue was very important. I've never has quite that feeling here. Partly because people possibly are more accessible at other times. They saw more of each other; they saw each other during those weekly luncheons which I find are rather unique. That is, I've been during sabbaticals at other universities for research leaves and generally they don't have them. You won't find them meeting with each other regularly. Or if they do, it may be in groups here and there; but it's harmonizing influence to have these meetings. OK, now to the next one. You've written down for me, as an option, I guess, my perspective as a historian of science and a member of the physics faculty, of the pursuit of physics at Harvard since 1940. Well I think that my view on this grows out of what I've just said, which was perhaps the reason why I allowed myself to ramble on it as long as I did.

The physics as pursued here matched somehow the kind of people that were brought together — people such as I've named, who worked very hard, but worked more or less alone or with a couple of students. Bainbridge's long work on improving the accuracy of the mass spectrograph is typical. It was not a huge operation. It was generally he and a machinist or even perhaps a kind of a post-doc type of person and possibly a graduate student. He worked very meticulously and was always ahead of everybody else really, although it wasn't always the way that everybody else would have wanted to solve this problem. But that was the type of work done also Van Vleck's theoretical work which was never with a very large group of people around him. It was the old style of doing physics, in the good sense of the old style, where the people just simply were close enough to the work, day to day, to really master it, instead of farming out details. Of course, there were exceptions. The building of the cyclotron which was before my time, must have been a much bigger operation, but this did not loom very large in the minds of the people when I joined and became an instructor. I guess it must have been around '45, '46 or thereabouts. The department never went in, until the days of the CEA, for the big and, one might say, flashy or risky kind of enterprise. Risky in the sense that funds might dry up and suddenly you're there without an operation, as in fact happened.

It had a stunning impact upon the whole department when the CEA suddenly disappeared not so many years ago. (A lot of energy was put into trying to get it funded to the end instead of having it disappear.) Therefore, the pursuit of physics really came out of the total sense of self of the department members. Plus their easy comfortable associations with each other. Under the surface, I think that (I should make it a footnote) there may have been some longstanding hard feelings here and there. I have only once or twice caught a glimpse that a particular person was perhaps in some conflict with another. But it just simply didn't figure in the departmental work and the departmental polity. So I think that the study of this department is an interesting case. I don't really know myself whether it is typical of departments in universities of this size or departments of this size. You know, of course, that we are one of the smallest departments of the top group in terms of turning out graduate students. It had only of the order of ten or twenty full-time equivalent people at the tenured level. Some of it, of course, is a miscalculation in the sense that we always ought to keep the astronomers somewhere in there, and the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics in there — in its various forms. They are colleagues; but we really didn't see very much of them from day to day. There may have been other things that you wanted to bring out on this topic of perspective on the pursuit of physics.


Well no, I was trying to probe for your ideas.


I think that the administration ought to be mentioned here, particularly the early one under Conant. Conant perceived, correctly, the need to increase the number of people in the Physics Department. He was, I think, influential in increasing it much beyond what the Graustein chart arrangement for Harvard would have allowed physics to grow into after the war. For example, the acquisition at about the same time of Schwinger, Purcell and Ramsey. The story always goes that in an ad hoc committee there was a deadlock between hiring Ramsey or Purcell and on the way out Rabi said "I'm glad nobody brought up a young man at Columbia that I have my eyes on named Schwinger" and Conant, on hearing this, got enough data so that he ended up getting all three. Well, I think that this probably can be disproved by looking at the phasing of these appointments. But it is true in the sense that that's the atmosphere that emanated from the top of the administration in those days.


It appears, from what I have discovered elsewhere, that Conant involved himself with the Physics Department to a greater extent than I would have expected the president of a university to do. On several occasions he seems to have taken the initiative.


Yes. Well, that has to do with the present type of presidents and perception of what a president should be, which I think is an unfortunate one compared to the President that Conant was. Conant was a very exceptional man. He wrote, for example, a joint paper with Bridgman, so from that point of view he already had a feeling for the research that was being done by at least part of the department here. And he was always both a man who kept his interest in science and a man who did creative teaching himself. He went into the classroom if for no other reason, in order to show the faculty that General Education ought to be taken seriously. He influenced people in this sense. And he was simply a very smart and well cultured person.

The story is told that every Wednesday he was in Washington, not accessible. That was what was told to every visitor who wanted to get a Wednesday appointment. But it was later said that actually he had stayed at home, didn't even get out of bed or shave or anything. He just worked on his books and papers and background reading. And that was necessary to be a president. It may no longer be possible because you may have to go to Washington to fight for big overhead, more affirmative action, or less affirmative action, or whatever they're fighting for. But the presidents in those days were different, just as the physics department faculty was different. It's not to say that these were the good old days, but it just simply was different. As a historian one must expect those differences, and particularly try to keep the context within which these things were done naturally, instead of feeling that they were done at some straining effort. It came fairly naturally to both the President and to the Physics Department to collaborate with each other. And now, the third item is the rise of the General Education Program at Harvard University.

Of course, I was still a graduate student when the report on the basis of which the program was initiated was being written and I didn't have anything to do with that although ultimately I became vice chairman of the General Education Committee in the sixties, a position I then resigned when Mr. Dunlop became dean and obviously showed he had no interest in General Education at all. He was Chairman of it, and so I ended up being vice chairman of a program that was being allowed to essentially go to hell. At one point in fact, under his instruction, it was being voted out, and luckily we reversed that. That period was really bizarre. But in those earlier days, the General Education program really had a very large degree of faculty interest behind it. Not unanimously, by any means. The record of that is interesting itself. My view of it was that Harvard did conceive of itself as a leader of educational reform. Many of the people in the administration and in the faculty had been involved in the war effort and had come back with a view that the Western tradition had been tested severely and now had to be firmed up in the minds of future leaders whom we might be training here, so that at no time in the future would there be any doubt that it is worth preserving again. It was really, as I said, a war spawned document. Therefore "Western tradition", "heritage" and all these things were stressed. There was not, for example, anything about Eastern tradition in this. One had this feeling that there is something worth preserving, and people can come to agree on what it is and it has to be presented to the young future leaders. Now, the question you really are interested in is the role played by myself and Kemble and others such as Kuhn, Nash, Cohen and LeCorbeiller according to your note.


Well, Professor Kemble has told me his view on it, and he mentioned in particular how much he enjoyed these weekly meetings with the young people and how much he learned from them, and from you in particular.


Oh yes. Well, my side is, I think, quite symmetrical. My view of this is, first of all, that Kemble, I think, had given up research during the war and then after the war did, I suppose, relatively little of that, for he decided it was part of his duty to be the person in the department who was going to develop a General Education program. He had been of great importance in getting it passed through the faculty, partly of course because he spoke for it and that is something that is worth noting. One wishes one had a videotape type of record of Kemble getting up in the faculty meeting and saying something, because that was really something. He was the only man who didn't realize what was going on, but when he would get up and in his strange, halting way really, with that wonderful smile and that strong voice, and would say something very rational; everybody just was convinced, practically everybody was convinced. He wouldn't speak often and he would speak only when it was absolutely necessary and then something came through. If people have souls, and I think a few have, it shows, and in this case, it does, very much. That is, there came through a contact with reality and with a moral sense about one's mission, which generally is lacking at faculty meetings.

They don't bring out necessarily the best in all of us (here I'm speaking about the big faculty meetings, not the lunches). So he had risen at a strategic moment (I was not there, I was not a member of the faculty, but it was known) and had essentially proposed how the sciences ought to involve themselves, even at some sacrifice, in the original plan. Then he was on the line so to speak, and made it work as best he could, as did of course Conant and others. And he was, in his very gentle and not politically cunning way, the man who, I think, did in the physical sciences what was needed to get the program going and to keep it going. And so one of the things that he did was to bring together the younger people, like Nash who was teaching with Conant; Kuhn who was teaching with Conant; LeCorbeiller who had a course of his own, a bit younger than Kemble but not very much, a mature man who had a vast amount of information in some historical matters. And Cohen also, I. B. Cohen, then a young instructor and ready to do a course of his own. So Kemble had, I'm not sure this was weekly, but it certainly was frequent, a Faculty Club lunch at which there might be an agenda - some historical point would be discussed or a matter of interest to him was being asked for.

He was then in the course of writing that large, long book of his on general education in the physical sciences and many editions were being produced by mimeograph. And he would come across some puzzle that would be perhaps part of the discussion at lunch. But it was substance oriented and everybody learned an enormous amount. And Kemble's personality really kept it all together. Because as to the others, people like Nash, Kuhn, Cohen and myself, we really did not agree that much on our various mission in let's say General Education or even the History of Science. But he was the nucleation agent for the ideas that were introduced there. He gave us homework. He would say "Now you, I would like you next week to start a presentation on such and such a point". "What was the Vienna circle really like?" he once said to me. So I had to go get some fifteen minutes worth of discussion ready for the next luncheon. It was not rather difficult to do, partly because the Vienna Circle was right here, with Frank present, partly because Bridgman was sort of a social member of the Vienna Circle. His book had influenced me enormously. I remember the very spot in the library where I took The Logic of Modern Physics off the shelves. And started to browse through it and just didn't move until I had finished it.


At what age were you then?


I was just coming in as a graduate student. So, it was tough to do this in fifteen minutes, but that was typical of Kemble, I mean. You did these things for him. Then I became his teaching fellow and he was eternally worried about the lectures. He would give most of the lectures. I would give some. But he would give them the night before to an empty class, with all the equipment set up to make sure it would work and fill the blackboard to make sure there was enough blackboard space, and time. And he worried eternally whether he would get across to these freshmen. He would call me up sometimes in the middle of the night or very early in the morning with yet another point. Shouldn't we do it a different way? And you just simply lived with that and liked it, because there was somebody truly struggling with a worthy problem. His students never really appreciated it all, anywhere near what they should have appreciated what he was doing … as freshmen often don't. Well … That, I think, is enough about the General Education Program. In those days, before it was then made wide and wider, as the original mission lost its impact, he phased out and I took over that course (Nat. Sci. 2) from time to time. and I put in another one for the seniors (120) from time to time, because I thought there ought to be two kinds of general education: one essentially civilizing the heathens at the very beginning, and then at the end to show the physics seniors why it was all physics when they took it in their various courses, like thermodynamics here and electromagnetism there.


I suppose that your subsequent activity with Harvard Project Physics was extending that kind of an approach to those who never went to college, or before they get to college.


Yes, Yes. I have always been a bit interested in education of that sort, that is what Project Physics was doing. I first had done a textbook which came out of teaching, first in Kemble's course and then doing it on my own. It was published in 1952. That was great fun to write, and in fact, it just came out in the new edition a couple of years ago. So it has had some life of its own. But then later on, I thought back on my high school days, and how awful the physics was being taught then, and I discovered it was still being taught very badly for my children when they came to take physics. And I heard it everywhere. So there was a possibility about doing a little educational work. It grew in a way I hadn't foreseen it into Project Physics, because of the national pressure in October '63 when the National Science Foundation called a meeting in Washington to get people to start a national program now that they had one of the programs, the PSSC program and found it essentially was taken by something like 4% of the high school seniors. They wanted to have a second one, just as they had two or three in Chemistry and Biology. When the time had come to have a second one, in Physics I mean, I was foolish enough to say yes at that time.

So that's how I got into Project Physics. A good deal, of course, of that approach comes right out of my 1952 book, in fact even the division of chapters often follows it. While we are speaking about these parenthetical matters, what Project Physics is on one end of the spectrum, Daedalus is on the other. It is really an adult education effort which I found myself doing in, I think, 1956-57, when the Academy needed a new editor and I accepted that on being elected to the American Academy and then discovered that it had no publication program worth its name. I'd always felt that there was a great lack for a medium by which adults, academics can learn something new, which is very tough in this country, or any country, I suppose. So the idea came to me that you ought to combine essays on one topic and every quarter year confront your captive audience, namely the members of a few thousand or so with a new subject, about which they should know something about. The first issue, in fact, was an issue coming out of a celebration for Bridgman and Frank, who were just retiring at that point. We brought together some people to give some talks about the kinds of things they were interested in, and persuaded both Frank and Bridgman to talk too.

These essays became the first of the Daedalus issues, and then similar ones were organized every quarter. Well, these are all then general education programs, and again because that's what we're interested in here, was an ideal place to do that. I remember going to McGeorge Bundy (he was then dean) and asking him would he help out, for the Academy has made me editor and I have this crazy idea of there being a quarterly. Previously, they had had one or two experimental issues, binding up the talks which were given in the Academy and bringing it out about once a year. McGeorge Bundy had been a Junior Fellow and then became the Senior Tutor in Winthrop House where I was assistant senior tutor. So I was his staff, I was the first member of this staff, and maybe even his "Viet Cong". He tried out his skill in administration on me first. So we grew up together in a sense in those early days and had a very pleasant relationship. But when he became Dean, he was in a position to help out with Daedalus because I didn't want it to be run out of the Academy house but nearby.

So I visited him and he just simply made an oral agreement right then and there to furnish the necessary space for the journal, to be run from here, right in the Physics Department on this corridor, with Katherine Strelsky as my assistant. In fact, she was the second one; there was first a young woman who did just typing for a while. Nina, my wife, helped me with this for a while, because she knew about publishing and had editorial experience. When I asked him how much it cost, McGeorge just simply said "There is no problem about the rent. When your ship comes in then let's talk about money." So that was just part of the ease of doing things in those days when everything was expanding, before the present period when everything seems to be contracting. The big argument now is how many Xerox machines must be removed to balance the budget. But that earlier atmosphere helped General Education, helped all the other aspects, including one's research. Funds were necessary. One somehow could raise a few hundred or even a couple of thousand of dollars in the university for doing one's research. Well. Now. To the last couple of topics here: "Vignettes": You think of individuals as Philip Frank. He had been brought here by Bridgman really. He happened to be in this country when Czechoslovakia was overrun, and therefore couldn't go back to his post at the University of Prague. Bridgman, who had known about him, persuaded the university to give him, I think, a very small amount of money, sort of a part-time affair. But his presence here gave an exemplification of what a good philosopher of science is like.

His course, a two-part course, introduced one to the philosophy of science of modern physics and was very, very interesting. He rambled completely. He didn't have any lecture notes. He never really did calculations on the board. He just told stories and he sometimes repeated them the following lecture, almost verbatim. Although that was, I must say, rare. It was completely disorganized. And yet somehow there was a person that everybody, not only loved, but was delighted to be able to argue with. Very lucid. He had really absorbed European philosophy of science and brought it here. You just asked him and he would tell you at first-hand what people thought, how they had gone about it and then, in addition, a few sometimes rather humorous anecdotes to make it all come to life. That was one thing. I was, as I said, his teaching fellow for a little while and he was the person that really introduced me to this whole research on relativity, through his own writing of a book (Biography of Einstein) which he sometimes involved other people down at Princeton, the Estate of Einstein, Helen Dukaes, and got me interested in working on relativity. The other person, Bridgman as a thesis advisor I mentioned. His attitude on theory and on experiment is really well-known. He was very elementary on theory because he could get away with it.

There was no reason to be more highfalutin on it than necessary. He would deal with theory at whatever level it was necessary. But generally he was interested in experiments and he somehow mischievously perhaps, was interested in those experiments which tended to show that the current state of theory at its most highfalutin level wasn't really so good. His typical annual colloquium talk would be on fifty-five alloys and their pressure characteristics and then he would say somehow during the talk, "Of course you realize that none of the curves I show have anything to do with the current theory. In current theory they all go the other way." And he would be rather pleased with it. That was the days before modern solid state physics and of course he also was dealing with a rather complex material which to this day are not easily handled by any theory.

Now as to the Wendell Furry case that you noted down here. I must say I know very little about this. Somehow this was carried on in such a way that the Junior Faculty was not much involved. I had a feeling that the faculty, the Senior Faculty was very united on that and supportive of Wendell, even where Wendell was sometimes not always cooperative with those that wanted to coach him how to be most effective, and they were sometimes not as patient as they might wish to have been. But certainly the Furry case did not loom as an enormous thing among the Junior faculty. We were all disturbed by the way the Harvard Corporation seemed to be going at it, and on related matters. It was also clear that if it hadn't been for people like Paul Buck, without whom General Education also wouldn't exist, the Furry case also would have been handled in a much more destructive manner. So I have really very little new light to throw on this. I hope that Wendell Furry gets interviewed and is willing to speak at some length about that.


He is scheduled to but unfortunately he is going into the hospital tomorrow night. He is hoping to be out and back soon.


Yes. Well by all means, I would try.


He is willing to speak about it now.


The politics of this faculty I think was … well, physics departments are generally liberal Democrats. You know, there is a study by Lipset and his co-workers on the politics of academics. And this pretty well reflects the difference between, let's say, physical scientists on the one hand, or the physicists more properly on the one hand, and medical people and engineers on the other, who are predominantly Republican. Actually in this department the politics was a little bit more mixed, because I think there are people like Van Vleck, Bridgman and Street, who seem to me generally to be rather conservative in their politics. You did not have this feeling of let's-go-and-sign-manifestos, across the board. Although we did have quite a bit of that during the days of the fallout petition and the work against bomb shelters and so on. Quite a number of department members did sign those things. And Kemble, incidentally, always was much in the forefront (as he was in his church, to which he also introduced me: I always wanted to do some singing, and didn't really have time for a glee club; he made some arrangement with his local church to let me come on Sunday and sing in their choir, which I enjoyed enormously.) But as I say, he was in on this too. Kemble, was, on political matters, much in the forefront, very liberal, and at great risk, I think, to some of his friendships which, however, survived that very well. When it came, however, to Wendell, I didn't have the feeling that there was any split at all in the Senior Faculty, from what we could see from our position below.


Well thank you very much and I think this has been very helpful.


Professor Holton has asked me to add a note calling attention to his written account of some of the influences which shaped his intellectual development, in the Acknowledgement section of the Introduction to his book Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973). Those of particular interest in relation to the preceding interview include two shop clubs, one on The Unity of Science under the general leadership of Philipp Frank and P. W. Bridgman, and the other started by J. B. Conant in connection with the General Education teaching program. These are in addition to the frequent working lunch meetings arranged by Edwin Kemble for a group of junior staff members with an interest in the History of Science.