Modern advances present a democratic society with a paradox. The citizenry has the right—and the burden—to make decisions about the future of science and technology. Yet its increasingly esoteric nature places a second burden on the public, since it is difficult, if not impossible, for the public or its representatives to make informed decisions.
Gerald Holton's latest collection of essays, which, with the exception of the Jefferson Lecture are all revisions of previously published popular pieces, addresses a variety of issues. Several essays identify factors that played a role in the great theoretical advances of 20th century physics. Others focus on the emergence of the United States as a world leader in science-based technology. Also included are essays discussing the burdens that the rapid advancement of science and technology place on a free, democratic society.
While each essay in the volume develops its own valuable and interesting thesis, taken together they clarify the roots of the current problems facing democratic science policy-making, and show the urgency of meeting these problems head-on.
The focus of Holton's essays on conceptual change is the "themata" or presuppositions that consistently guided Albert Einstein throughout his life. Einstein's work was motivated first and foremost by a specific vision of a theoretical science that comprehends "the universe not simply piecemeal or by fragments, but somehow as a whole." Einstein himself characterized "the supreme task of the physicist" as the construction of a "simple, unified, coherent, and complete scientific world picture."
Like other great European scientists of his day, Einstein was aware of the interaction between science and philosophy. In particular, Einstein stressed the importance of epistemology for science, and articulated a model of theory construction that served as an important "thema" in his scientific work. On Einstein's model, the axioms of a theory are not initially induced from experience, but are a "free creation of the human mind," and they must satisfy aesthetic criteria of "internal perfection" in addition to empirical criteria of "external validation."
The relevance of Einstein's approach to science for the predicament in which American society finds itself today is clear in light of Holton's other essays. At the turn of the century, American physical science was dominated by the pragmatic approach of experimentalists rather than by the more philosophical approach of the German theoreticians. The pre-World War II immigration of Einstein and other great European scientists gave American scientists a "new style of research" that combined the "know-how" of the experimentalist with the great vision of the theoretician.
Holton's essays suggest that something important was lost in the American synthesis of experimental and theoretical science. American scientists are at root pragmatic, and not given to private or public self-reflective philosophizing. While this may be good for science in some sense, it is not good for the public's understanding of science. In the absence of such self-analysis, the American public perceives science as having only instrumental value as an empirical basis for technology. Einstein's vision of science as a creative activity, a resource for the building of a unified worldview and thus an enterprise with intrinsic cultural value, has been lost.
If a moral is to be drawn from Holton's essays, it is that science and technology must be made more accountable to their public, but not at the cost of stifling the creative spirit of theoretical science. The American public should heed Jefferson's advice that the chief safeguard against tyranny is the "wide dissemination of liberal education," and awaken to the need for improved science education. Holton needs to emphasize more strongly, however, that the burden of modern science and technology should not be borne only by the public, but also by a more self-reflective scientific and technological community.