An Interview with Rush Holt

This interview formerly appeared in Wild River Review

by Kimberly Nagy

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.