Gerald Holton - Einstein, History, and Other Passions

Holton combines a number of essays and topics into Einstein, History, and Other Passions. His central thrust through all of these is that science is frequently misunderstood. Holton attempts to clear up these misunderstandings by providing the audience with a look at history and the reality behind scientific achievement. The book is divided into two main sections. The first section deals with a variety of issues. The second section uses the life and findings of Einstein to exemplify many of the ideas presented in the first half of the book.

Overall, I enjoyed this book but found a couple of problems. The first is Holton's idea in Chapter 1 that the biggest enemy to science are the 'postmodernists'. While there may be some in this category who are opposed to science, Holton avoids the main group of individuals and organizations that disparage the findings of science--namely, religionists who have a rigid dogma to defend. Some of these people may disguise their problems with science under the guise of postmodernism, but the underlying difficulty is the person's religious beliefs which conflict with scientific observations. Holton doesn't seem to think this is a large issue. Instead, when dealing with religion, he focuses on the more liberal strains of religiosity which have little or no problem with scientific studies.

Another problem I found with the book is the occasional philosophical jargon used and presupposition of the reader's understanding of scientific discoveries. The text is still very readable and contains many gems despite these minor problems.

I appreciated the middle and later chapters of the book the most--especially chapter 4 "Imagination in Science" and chapter 5 "Understanding the History of Science". Although science is generally thought to be (almost) completely technical, Holton shows us that creative thinking is a must for scientific minds. The final chapter entitled "'What, Precisely, is Thinking?' . . . Einstein's Answer" is particularly insightful on this subject of the imagination and passion involved in the scientific process. He quotes Einstein saying, "One must allow the theoretician his imagination, for there is no other possible way for reaching the [scientific] goal. In any case, it is not an aimless imagination but a search for the logically simplest possibilities and their consequences". (p. 203)

Along the way, Holton gives us a glimpse of Einstein's early personal and private life which was largely unknown until Holton fairly recently discovered a number of correspondences between Einstein and his first wife. We also learn that Einstein "continued to ask questions about the world that children eventually are taught not to ask." (p. 180) This (and Einstein's stubbornness) were the reasons behind many of his great accomplishments.

The title is very fitting. Anyone interested in Einstein, history, and/or passion should enjoy this work.

"One can do no better than reading Gerald Holton for exploring the scientific mind. [His book shows] a deep understanding of the scientific enterprise, the personalities of its practitioners, and a passion of communicating the history and culture of science."
-- Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams

"Holton stands almost alone in his ambidextrous ability to think and write as both a scientist and philosopher."
-- E.O. Wilson, Harvard University

"[Einstein, History, and Other Passions] will engulf the reader into the author's passion for science and his vision of its future."
-- Rosalyn Yalow, Nobel Laureate in Medicine

"... brilliantly informed, wonderfully written."
-- John Kenneth Galbraith

"In this brilliant and varied book, a distinguished scientist-historian provides us with profound insights. This volume merits the attention of both professional scientists and general readers."
-- Frederick Seitz, The Rockefeller University

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