"Have you ever done the charged electron experiment?" asks Gerald Holton, physicist, historian of science, founder of two intellectual journals, philosopher of sorts, coordinator of one of the more lucid introductory physics texts, and Jefferson lecturer.
No, never done it.
"Now, you see," he says smiling, hand outstretched, "you should have done that." the voice is fatherly, a bit German-accented, admonishing more your school system than you.
When should it have been done?
"When you were 14. Have you evern seen the moons of Jupiter?"
Yes, through a telescope. Breathtaking.
"Well, it's just like seeing the moons of Jupiter," Holton says triumphantly of the charged electrons. "It's a must."
He should know. He's taught it, and he's thought about why more of us don't know about the charged electron experiment and why more of us may not really care about the charged electron experiment -- or, specifically, why more humanities-trained people feel alienated from the study of science and technology. That was part of what he wanted to talk about during the 10th Annual Jefferson Lecture last night.
Holton, a professor of physics as well as of the history of science at Harvard University, is the first natural scientist invited to give the lecture, which is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and carries a $10,000 stipend.
This year it also carries a suite at the Hay-Adams with powder-blue velvet furniture. "I'm amazed at how Washington lives," he says in his husky voice, grinning. The brows are dark and lend the eyes intensity. The dark hair is thinning and graying. "I'm a youthful 40," he says coyly when asked his age. (He's 59.)
"The Jefferson Lecture Award if a very remarkable thing," says Holton, "because it immediately humbles you . . . you know that it carries the name of Jefferson and you can't possibly live up to it."
The lecturer should combine "the virtues of thinker, scholar and citizen -- the Jeffersonian ideal," according to the NEH. Holton meets some of those criteria if only for making it through the famed post-World War I Viennese high school known as the Gymnasium.
"It was no fun to go through," says Holton, settling back on a couch. Behind him, through a window, is the gray sky of Monday morning. "I didn't enjoy it. I don't think they enjoyed me. It was meant to be rigorous. In Europe, childhood was a period of wretchedness and tests for adulthood -- when there would be responsibility and fun. With the accent on fun. Here in America, it's reversed. There's a great deal of freedom as a child, often with an onerous, very tough life as a professional later."
He left Vienna at 16 in 1938, during Hitler's rise to power, for England and then the United States. "I had done Greek and Latin, medieval German and French," he says, "but one of the few things I didn't have to do was learn English. But once I came here I fell in love with the language." w
After picking it up at Oxford first. "I had a bit of luck," he says. "When I got to England, there were two retired professors who got interested in me and another boy who had just arrived. One was a professor of theology, and he gave us the King James Bible in the morning for an hour. Another was in classical literature, and he gave us Shakespeare in the evening for an hour." He grins. "This gave us rather noticeable vocabularies for two newcomers to the country. Our sentence structure was fine, but they decided we shold go back to more rudimentary study."
At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, he couldn't decide whether to major in physics or literature. He chose physics, although he had enough credits for both.
Since then he's maintained studies in high-pressure physics as well as pursued the history of science -- study of how scientific ideas change through time, why they change, and how they fit in with everything else going on in society. Why do people pursue the study of the history of science? "Oh, it probably means you're not very good in something else," Holton says with a cavalier smile.
"It tells us where we are going," he says. "It's as important as studying the history of religion. Nowadays to participate in national decisions, you have to have technical understanding. The arms race is a perfect example."
And what of the fear that we're going to blow ourselves up?
"Ummm, that was Faulkner's question," he says.
"I think it's an ominous question to ask scientists. They're not in charge.
If they were, they would be more persuasive in making plain the technical facts."
The government funds allocated to the study of the relationship between technology and society are meager, writes Holton, "equivalent to the replacement cost of a couple of helicopters." And even those funds, he says, are now being abandoned.He thinks it's a crime. "A case of self-mutiliation," he says in a draft of the Jefferson Lecture, " as irrational as smashing the headlight of your car just when you are going faster and faster into rougher and darker terrain."
And finally, the charged electron experiment: First, get some very small oil drops and watch them drop. "While they drift down," says Holton, "you watch them through a microscope. They're already charged through friction with the air. You apply an electric field [two parallel horizontal plates, each hooked up to a different terminal of a battery] and bring the drops back up and watch the charges on them. You do this many, many times [with varying amounts of electric field.] You find what the values of the charges are on the drops.
"It's very much like going around asking people how much money they have," says Gerald Holton.