Gerald Holton (Berlin, 98 years old), professor emeritus of physics and history of science at Harvard University, was awarded the Boundaries of Knowledge Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences category awarded by the BBVA Foundation, for his research on how scientific knowledge affects the building of culture and how this in turn limits the creation of scientific theories and models. Throughout his career, the German researcher has dealt with different fields of study. His research work began on the classification of Albert Einstein’s documentary legacy, he fought pseudoscience (or what he calls anti-science) and even investigated the value of rationality and objective knowledge in the face of the social glorification that caused totalitarianism and oppression. Minorities and exclusion. In the last years of his career, the researcher devoted himself to delving into the role of women in science through what is called Getting to the project. A previous winner in this category was the American linguist Noam Chomsky.
“Science is completely intertwined with its context,” said the winner, who said that science provides rationality and tools for any society to solve its problems, in addition to generating economic growth and improving technological efficiency. He pointed out that “science should be cherished by history, and the study of history should be a treasure of science.” Although Holton does not detract from the role of art and literature as elements of culture, he considers the role that science plays as essential in shaping ways of thinking and acting, both individually and collectively.
The role that science plays is essential when it comes to shaping ways of thinking and behaving, both individually and collectively.
He entered the work of Albert Einstein shortly after his death in 1955, when a colleague suggested that he prepare a story about the physicist’s discoveries for a party in his honor. During this assignment, Holton realized that studies related to Einstein’s research were very rare, so he began to compile and analyze the more than 40,000 documents preserved at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, as Einstein passed the final stage of his career. Holton sometimes commented: “I thought it was my moral duty to put all of this in a file that investigators could use.”
This is how Hulton specified the ThemataA series of general ideas that appear in the thought of the most important scholars in history and that show the imprint of culture in science. “I realized that Einstein obeyed a cognitive compulsion, like many other scientists, to see science as if they were looking through certain locks, certain lenses,” he explained. “I named it Themata Subjects – any thoughts so ingrained in their mind that they may not be completely aware of them. These ideas define the basic structure upon which all his work is based.
In many of the works, the researcher insisted that despite the advancement of science and the better technologies of society, this does not guarantee that the general culture will develop in the same direction. As an example, Holton refers to the case of Nazi Germany, where despite great scientific progress in many areas, values and ideas contrary to scientific reasoning sprang up in society, on the basis of transcendence and emotions. In his work Science and anti-science (1993), the author notes that irrationality, mixed with populism and nationalism, usually leads to totalitarian currents and regimes.
All the great scientists had a series of general ideas that showed the imprint of culture in science. Hulton called these ideas “themata.”
During the last stage of his career, Hulton began with the so-called science sociologist Gerhard Sönert Getting to the project, Which was reflected in two publications. One of the main conclusions of these studies is that scientists used to choose more complex problems, but they devoted a lot of time to the study, while men chose simpler and faster problems to solve and thus spread more. “We asked a group of scholars to submit what they considered their best work, remove their signatures, and we asked a group of distinguished scholars to rate their quality. We found that the jobs were good on average. […] For the men, the important thing was their career, while their science career was more important for the women, ”Hulton explained.
Holton himself, the son of a lawyer and physiotherapist, was forced to flee Nazi Germany with his family, which marked his investigation. They were welcomed in England and later in the United States, where he trained as a physicist and historian at Wesleyan University in Middletown (Connecticut). During World War II, Holton was invited to participate in the development of the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb, which he refused. His participation in the war was limited to teaching Navy officers how to use radar. After the war, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1947 for his research on the structure of matter under high pressure. To this day, at 98 years old, Hulton is still associated with this university.
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