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Frontiers of Knowledge Award to Gerald Holton for revealing the cultural dimension of science

The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Humanities has been awarded to the physicist and historian of science Gerald holton. The jury recognizes “his innovative contributions to science teaching, his decisive role in the preservation of the documentary legacy of Albert Einstein and his studies on the fate of the children who had to leave Nazi Germany ”.

In addition, Holton has developed “an argued analysis of the complex phenomenon of anti-science, and its role in totalitarianism ”.

Holton, Professor of Physics and History of Science at Harvard University (USA), is a central figure in the analysis of how science influences the shaping of the culture of society, and also how, in a continuous interaction , the cultural matrix of each historical period intimately conditions the scientific practice, by influencing the creation of theories and models.

In his work Holton has tried to show “how science is fully intertwined with its context, rather than as if it had fallen from the sky or emerged on its own

As the winner himself has explained, in his work he has tried to show “how science is fully intertwined with its context, instead of as if it had fallen from the sky or emerged by itself”. His differential style of making the history of science is characterized by focusing on its conceptual and cultural dimension. “Science,” he has written, “should treasure its history, and the study of history should treasure science.”

Gerald Holton was born in Berlin in 1922. The rise of the Nazism would force his family to move to Vienna, where Holton spent most of his childhood and adolescence, until at the age of 16 he was forced to flee again after the annexation of Austria by Germany from the Third Reich, first to the United Kingdom and two years later to USA. It is in this country that welcomed him that he has developed his entire academic career. He is part of the meager 7% of Jewish children – out of a total of 1.6 million – who survived the Holocaust, an experience that has latently influenced all of his work.

Science shapes culture, and vice versa

Holton’s work analyzes and vindicates the role of science as a modeling agent of the culture of each age, but without ever slipping into it scientism, the idea that outside of scientific language, there is only irrationality and nonsense.

He has been one of the first voices to advocate during the last half century for the imperative need to transfer scientific culture to the general public

Holton has always argued that there are many other fields, such as the art and literature, fundamental to give shape and content to the culture of a society, but it considers that science is an essential civilizing element because it contributes not only to the economic growth and well-being of a society, but – in a more profound way – to the configuration of the ways of thinking, to make decisions and act in each period, both individually and collectively.

The physicist and historian awarded the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Humanities has also been one of the first voices that, from a fine perspective and respectful of other sources of general culture, has advocated during the last half century for the imperative need to transfer scientific culture to the general public.

The risks of ‘anti-science’

The winner is also one of the authors who has analytically enlightened the most, while alerting him to the risks that the phenomenon of “anti-science” entails, the most observable expression of which is the emergence of true “anti-scientific” social movements.

In several of his works, he has insisted that although science is advancing in research centers and, in society, through technology, this does not guarantee that the general culture of society will develop in the same direction.

Holton saw Nazi barbarism grow directly in an apparently cultured society

Holton saw Nazi barbarism grow directly in a seemingly cultured society, and from that early experience he has reflected with the greatest force and clarity – particularly in his work Science and Anti-Science (1993) – that the exaltation of irrationalityWhen it meshes with populism and nationalism, it is an equation whose result usually leads to totalitarian movements and regimes.

Teaching science as part of culture

At age thirty, in 1952, Holton began running his own high pressure physics laboratory. But he also taught an unusual subject, an introduction to Physics as part of culture, with purely scientific content but also on the history and philosophy of science. It was the embryo of his first book, Introduction to Concepts and Theories of Physical Science, now considered a seminal work that focuses on the history of science, the nature of discovery, and reasoning and concept formation as fascinating subjects in themselves, not just as form to make the content more attractive.

Decades later Holton would publish a revised edition of that seminal work that he titled Physics, The Human Adventure (2001), where it abounds in the value of including content specific to the humanities, such as history and philosophy of science, in the curriculum of scientific education. Holton attributed his integrative vision of science and culture to the humanistic education he received during his adolescence in Vienna.

He was the first scientist to deliver, in 1981, the prestigious Jefferson conference

Scientific culture as a pillar of society

His passion for the history of science fueled his conviction that scientific culture is one of the pillars of society. In 1956 Holton entered the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was entrusted with editing Daedalus magazine, which he wanted to become a “voice of the intellectual community,” connecting this publication with current issues, such as disarmament or ethical issues. of human experimentation.

In the mid-1960s, he thus vindicated the importance of strengthening the scientific culture to face the challenges to which society was facing: “We must change our culture so that it generates enough intelligent managers, educators, etc., because they are necessary to operate the accelerated global scientific revolution without which we are not likely to survive the main threats.”

He noted the low presence of women in most areas of science and, together with the sociologist of science Gerhard Sonnert, started a research project called Project Access

Holton was the first scientist to pronounce, in 1981, the prestigious Jefferson conference, which the US government agency for research in the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), commissioned after a selection process and chaired the Society for the History of Science.

Successful Women Scientists and Immigrants

The last stage of his career is no less fruitful. In the 90s Holton noticed the scarce presence of women in most areas of science, and together with the sociologist of science Gerhard Sonnert began a research project called Project Access and reflected in two publications: Who Succeeds in Science ?: The Gender Dimension (1995), and Gender Differences in Science Careers: The Project Access Study (1995).

Another topic on which Holton has conducted pioneering research is how immigrants they can transform society. Together with Sonnert, Holton undertakes an exhaustive study of the life trajectories of children who came to the United States fleeing the Nazis. Both researchers declare themselves surprised by the conclusion they reached: despite the terrible obstacles that these children had to overcome, [como media] they ended up being very successful professionally.

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