An Interview with Rush Holt
It’s not every day you meet a five-time “Jeopardy” winner, not to mention Congressman for the Twelfth District of New Jersey.
But what many people don’t know about Congressman Rush Holt, former Assistant Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, is that he has been fascinated by science from the time he was in the first grade. Well before America sent a man to the moon, Holt thumbed eagerly through the pages of 1950s textbooks, and what started out as child-like enthusiasm for dinosaurs and the solar system, eventually grew into a passion for empirically based theories and scientific inquiry.
In fact, his background has equipped him with a unique perspective as a policy maker. Holt has helped to secure more than $700 million in new federal funding and technology research for the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Department of Energy. A patented inventor in the field of alternative energy (he patented a solar energy device), Holt has also been vocal about exploring alternative energy sources, as well as adamant about protecting open space.
The man recently awarded, “Biotech Legislator of the Year” and named by Scientific American as one of the fifty national “visionaries” contributing to “a brighter technological future.” has a soft spot for Quark Park, as well as his collaborator in the project, physicist Freeman Dyson. Holt’s involvement in and support for Princeton’s Quark Park, which celebrates science through artistic interpretation, demonstrates his ongoing concern about scientific education (for children of all ages) on both the local and national level.
Were you always interested in science?
Yes, in the first grade I remember reading books on dinosaurs, geology, and the solar system, and I was hooked. This was back in the 50s when science was getting quite a lot of attention. One of the things that has bothered me since is that, well really, ever since the launch of Sputnik and the educational reforms that followed that, we’ve been telling Americans that science is for scientists.
Well, the wonderful thing about the Quark Park is that it flies in the face of this idea. It tries to integrate science into parts of life that are often not thought of as scientific. I thought it was a wonderful idea. I had visited the Writer’s Block, the earlier art exhibit here in this vacant lot, and I thought that was inviting and entertaining. I was delighted when I heard they were organizing something similar but with a science theme.
How did you become a part of Quark Park?
When they asked me to participate I was really honored, as they had so many outstanding people lined up. It was really a treat to sit down with Freeman Dyson, for example. He is a scientific hero to many people, including me. He is just brilliant and creative in so many different ways—artistically as it turns out, as well as mathematically and scientifically. So when I was approached, I jumped at the chance.
This project combines the scientific side of the brain with the artistic side of the brain.
I’m not sure I buy the different sides of the brain approach to science or art or literature or whatever. Clearly there are some physiological differences, but I think science should be fully integrated into life. I’ve spent much of my career, of my life, really struggling against the notion that science is for scientists only and that non-scientists should stay out of the way.
And this chasm between scientists and non-scientists is every bit as great as when C.P. Snow said in the 1950s that they were two cultures. I think this view not only diminishes our quality of life, it means lots of non-scientists—80% of the population—are deprived of the pleasure and satisfaction of knowing and thinking about science.
One of the wonderful things about Quark Park is that it really tries to integrate science into life and into art, an area that is often thought about as non-scientific. But, in my view, art shouldn’t be thought of as non-scientific any more than science should be thought of as non-artistic.
How do you feel about Quark Park being a temporary exhibit?
I can’t decide whether the transient nature of this adds to it or whether I should regret that in a few months, this will all be gone. In our installation here, we are trying to capture a sense of movement, a sense of progress because we have a giant sundial in effect that will show the sun or its shadow. The shadow will move not just from hour to hour but from day to day. Part of the park will also always be changing because plants grow and change and maybe even die but I hope not during the life of the park. And of course, the sun will similarly demonstrate motion and progress. So maybe it will be good that we can set some mark that the sun will reach at the end of the life of Quark Park.
Does your background as a scientist affect your approach to policy making?
You mean: Does the science affect my work as a congressman? Oh sure. In part, my point of view comes from my training as a scientist, which I think helps in problem solving. It also means that I’m alert to some aspects of public policy issues that non- scientists choose to ignore because they say, ‘Science is not for me, I’m gonna stay away from it.’
There are important aspects of policy issues that don’t get the attention that they should. And sometimes I can recognize these issues, and bring some attention to them. I guess I’d also say that my background influences the way I approach many issues—though I’d like to think that other people also approach questions with the same kind of skepticism and well-framed questioning that I try to. But I think it may be that scientists do a better job of framing questions so that they can be answered empirically and verifiably.
This is a project that has been built on a vacant lot, and there are many other vacant lots stuck between dormancy and development around NJ. What do you think of temporary exhibits, which you’ve talked a little bit about, and combining community development with the aesthetic?
Well, this took a lot of effort and a fair amount of money so maybe it won’t be replicated in every vacant lot in NJ. But I sure would like to see this tried out in community after community. I mean it suggests a kind of intellectual firmament and intellectual liveliness. I mean not just the marriage of science and art which is something I think we need to do more of, but it suggests a kind of community spirit and liveliness that not every town shows. Maybe I would expect no less from Princeton and I’m glad they’re doing it and I hope others will try to copy it in their own way.
Can you speak a little bit to the visionary behind the Writer’s Block Peter Soderman, and his partner, Kevin Wilkes?
They are relentless. I’m sure there were plenty of discouraging words spoken and they didn’t quit. And there were any number of times that I thought this wasn’t going to come together but they’re persistent and it’s such an appealing vision that evidently there were a lot of people who just couldn’t say no. And here it is, a great, if temporary, addition to Princeton.
Scientific illiteracy is a well-known problem in America. How can science in action and exhibits like Quark Park help children get excited about science?
Well I hope there will be many things here that will involve children. Freeman Dyson, I’m one of his partners in participating here, had the vision that Quark Park should be a place for grandparents and their grandchildren to see, to look, to think, to explore, and I hope that all of these grandchildren and maybe some of the grandparents will leave thinking that science can be for everyone; not that everyone’s going to be a professional scientist any more than someone who enjoys novels or visual arts has to be an novelist or a visual artist; but science is something to be appreciated, should be appreciated on some level, by everyone.
If we can get some of these grandchildren on that track, when we teach science in schools we won’t leave behind 80% of students. Not everyone will become a professional scientist, but to teach all sciences to all Americans, then we will be better off.
What is a Quark?
(Laughter.) Well some of the other scientists here could probably explain it better than I could, but it’s actually a word that James Joyce used. It was borrowed or appropriated from Joyce to apply to structures that are the components of the sub components of atoms.
Quarks make up the neutrons, protons that then go to make up atoms. Quarks don’t exist in a free form, but they exist in combination with each other. And they are, therefore, hard to describe. It’s hard to describe something that doesn’t have an entity in itself—it has an entity only in combination with other things. But it is more than just a mathematical figment or a means of describing something. It could be said to have reality, but I think mostly it was chosen here because it has a great sound, which is I presume why Joyce used it.
In 2006, Kimberly Nagy founded Wild River Review with Joy E. Stocke; and in 2009, they founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC. With more than twenty years in the field of publishing, Nagy specializes in market outreach and digital media strategies as well as crafting timeless articles and interviews. She edits many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
Kimberly Nagy is a poet, professional writer, and dedicated reader who has interviewed a number of leading thinkers, including Academy-Award winning filmmaker, Pamela Tanner Boll, MacArthur Genius Award-winning Edwidge Danticat, historian James McPherson, playwright Emily Mann, biologist and novelist, Sunetra Gupta and philosopher Alain de Botton.
Nagy is an author, editor and professional storyteller. She received her BA in history at Rider University where she was influenced by professors who stressed works of literature alongside dates and historical facts–as well as the importance of including the perspectives of women and minorities in the historical record. During a period in which she fell in love with writing and research, Nagy wrote an award-winning paper about the suppression of free speech during World War I, and which featured early 20th century feminist and civil rights leader, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Nagy continued her graduate studies at University of Connecticut, Storrs, where she studied with Dr. Karen Kupperman, an expert in early contact between Native Americans and the first European settlers. Nagy wrote her Masters thesis, focusing on the work of the first woman to be accepted into the Connecticut Historical Society as well as literary descriptions of Native Americans in Connecticut during the 19th century. Nagy has extensive background and interest in anthropological, oral history and cultural research.
After graduate school, Nagy applied her academic expertise to a career in publishing, in which she worked for two of the world’s foremost publishers—Princeton University Press and W.W. Norton—as well as at Thomson, Institutional Investor Magazine, Routledge UK, and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.
Kimberly Nagy in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
ARTS – FILM REVIEWS
ARTS – MUSIC
ARTS – PHOTOGRAPHY
The Triple Goddess Trials: Fire in the Head: Brigit’s Mysterious Spark
The Triple Goddess Trials: Introduction
The Triple Goddess Trials – Meeting Virginia Woolf at the Strand
The Triple Goddess Trials: Me and Medusa
The Triple Goddess Trials: Aphrodite and the Lightbulb Factory
The Triple Goddess Trials: Goddess of Milk and Honey
The Triple Goddess Trials: Kali’s Ancient Love Song
ASHLEY – Renee Ashley: A Voice Answering a Voice
BELLI – Giocanda Belli – The Page is My Home
BOLL – Pamela Tanner Boll: Dangerous Women: An Interview with Academy Award Winner Pamela Tanner Boll
DANTICAT – Create Dangerously- A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat
CHARBONNEAU – A Cruise Along the Inside Track: With Le Mobile’s Sound Recording Legend Guy Charbonneau
de BOTTON – The Art of Connection: A Conversation with Alain de Botton
GUPTA – Suneptra Gupta – The Elements of Style: The Novelist and Biologist Discusses Metaphor and Science
HANDAL – Nathalie Handal – Love and Strange Horses
KHWAJA – Waqas Khwaja: What a Difference a Word Makes
MAURO: New World Monkeys: An Interview with Nancy Mauro
MORGANSing, Live, & Love Like You Mean It: An Interview with Bertha Morgan
MOSS – Practical Mystic–Robert Moss: On Book Families, Jung and How Dreams Can Save Your Soul
OGLINE – BEN FRANKLIN.COM: Author & Illustrator Tim Ogline explains why Ben Franklin would be a technology evangelist today
OLSEN – Greg Olsen – Reaching for the Stars: Scientist, Entrepreneur and Space Traveler
PALYA – Beata Palya – The Secret World of Songs
SCHIMMEL – Moonlight Science: A Conversation with Molecular Biologist and Entrepreneur, Paul Schimmel
SHORS – Journey into the Male & Female Brain: An Interview with Tracey Shors
von MOLTKE and SIMMS – Dorothy von Moltke and Cliff Simms: Why Independent Bookstores Matter, Part I
WARD – On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part One, and
On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part Two
WILKES – Labor of Love: An Interview With Architect Kevin Wilkes
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
The New York Public Library at 100: From the Stacks to the Streets
Paul Holdengraber: The Afterlife of Conversation
That Email Changed My Life: Rolex Arts Initiative. Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Tracy K. Smith Celebrates Rolex Arts Initiative
First Editions / Second Thoughts — Defending Writers: PEN and Christie’s Raise One Million Dollars to Support Freedom of Expression
ON AFRICA: May 4 to May 10 — Behind the Scenes with Director Jakab Orsos: Co-curated by Award-Winning Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Page is My Home: Giaconda Belli – Nicaraguan Poet, Writer and Public Intellectual
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
The Power of Conversation: David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer – The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture
NEW FROM WILD RIVER BOOKS – Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library
Wild River Books Announces the Stoutsburg Cemetery Project: The Untold Stories of an African American Burial Ground in New Jersey
Wild River Books: Surprise Encounters by Scott McVay
Wild River Review and Minerva’s Bed & Breakfast Presents – “BITTER” Writing in a Weekend: How to Write About the Things We Can’t Change
ALLEN – Quarks, Parks, and Science in Everyday Life: Filmmaker Chris Allen’s Documentary Where Art Meets Science in a Vacant Lot
HOLT – Rush Holt: An Interview with Rush Holt
MANN – Boundless Theater: An Interview with Emily Mann
Keeping Time: A Conversation with Historian James McPherson