Jersey’s Man of Science

As the lone physicist in the U.S. Congress, Rush Holt has become a voice for innovation and education.

Rush Holt (with his wife, Dr. Margaret Lancefield at their Hopewell Township home) is respected on both sides of the aisle for his intellectual integrity and fairness.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

Katherine Kish was only a little worried. It was the day after a torrential spring storm had left fallen trees and pools of mud in the area around Marquand Park on U.S. 206. Princeton Mayor Mildred Trotman and U.S. Representative Rush Holt were scheduled to participate in a dedication ceremony for Kish’s organization, Einstein’s Alley, an economic development initiative of financiers, researchers and academics that support Central Jersey tech businesses.

“It was miserable,” says Kish, “but I know Rush, and I knew he would be there.” The mayor made it, too, but as she was leaving, her car became stuck in the mud.

“Rush didn’t take a second before taking his jacket off and putting his shoulder to the car, finally helping push it out,” recalls Kish. “That says it all about Rush. Always at an event, pushing science and education any way he can—and then never being embarrassed or hesitant about getting in there and doing dirty work.”

Einstein’s Alley—an initiative inspired by Holt—is indeed up the seven-term congressman’s alley. The only physicist in Congress, he is an advocate for math and science education, biomedical research, children’s health, sustainable energy and farmland protection, as well as social causes such as human rights and women’s right to choose.

“Rush has made science cool, accessible, not geeky, just by being a sensible advocate,” says Kish. “He knows how important an understanding of science is all around the country, but especially here in New Jersey.”

Or as Holt’s campaign bumper stickers read, and as Paul Krugman, the liberal New York Times columnist and Princeton professor of economics and international affairs, proclaimed proudly in his blog: “My congressman IS a rocket scientist.”

“He is the go-to guy for science in Congress,” says Valerie Thomas, a Georgia Tech industrial engineering professor who served as a Congressional Science Fellow in Holt’s office in 2005. “There is no one who takes on those difficult issues in science in Washington like Rush.”

Holt, 63, was the assistant director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory—whose mission is to make fusion energy a practical reality—when he decided in 1996 to run in the Democratic primary for the 12th District, which cuts a swath through the central part of the state. He finished third in that race but won the nomination in 1998. He went on to earn a seat in the traditionally Republican district—with 51 percent of the vote—after his opponent, Mike Pappas, made a spectacle of himself on the House floor by singing a poem to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” praising attorney Kenneth Starr, whose official investigation led to impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton.

Holt had been a professor at Swarthmore College and had worked in the U.S. Department of State on international strategic issues before coming to the Princeton lab—but he does have a political pedigree. His father, Rush Sr., was the youngest person ever elected to the U.S. Senate, winning an election at 29 in West Virginia; he had to wait until the following June to take his seat because the Constitution requires Senators to be 30. The elder Holt served one term in the Senate, and later in the West Virginia legislature, before he died of cancer at 49. His wife, Helen, filled out his term, then became West Virginia’s first female secretary of state. She later moved to Washington, serving seven Presidents in the nursing home program of the Federal Housing Administration and later at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban development. She still lives in the nation’s capital at age 98.

Holt was in grade school when his father died. After attending the Landon School outside Washington, he went to tiny Carleton College in Minnesota, then earned a master’s and PhD. in physics at NYU. He views a broad liberal-arts education as an important American tradition.

“We know Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin as politicians, but they felt that science was something everyone should have a knowledge of,” says Holt. “In fact, farmers were always generalists. They had to know science and commerce and all sorts of practical things. [President James] Madison studied both mathematics and law at Princeton.”

It frustrates Holt that we are going through what he sees as a period of anti-intellectualism that pervades both the general public and Washington. He is honored that other members of Congress come to him about scientific issues, but he regrets that it is often because they don’t want to make the effort to understand the issues on their own.

“This whole controversy about global warming or even evolution—politicians just don’t want to take the time to educate themselves,” says Holt.

Along with anti-intellectualism, Holt, who is also the only Quaker in Congress, fears a lack of enthusiasm about opening new frontiers through science and technology.

“It wasn’t so long ago that we had the space program and all sorts of scientific things that excited everyone,” says Holt.  “It was an era of optimism. Now it is just the opposite. We are pessimists. The Tea Party and the like are about what we can’t do, instead of the American ideal of what we can.”

Holt has impressed the tech and research community in and around Princeton with his efforts to revive the nation’s optimism. He attends factory openings, research conferences and even sign dedications—like the one for Einstein’s Alley—whenever he can, spending at least four nights a week at home in Mercer County, rather than Washington.

“He is tireless in fighting to keep R-and-D funding alive,” says Debbie Hart, president of BioNJ, the biotechnology trade association in New Jersey. “This is the number three state behind Massachusetts and California in biotechnology research, and these are things that take time. In Washington, they want immediate results, but Rush, as the top scientist in Congress, knows differently, and, Republican or Democrat, our industry knows he sometimes can be our lone advocate.”

Holt sees his primary continuing achievements and goals as enhancing education, supporting technological research and historic preservation in a district deeply concerned with all three issues. He helped write the law that created the Crossroads of the American Revolution National Heritage Area, highlighting New Jersey’s historical districts. He has worked extensively with Princeton and other local universities and schools, helping them with initiatives and grants, and has stepped up his ties to organizations like Einstein’s Alley that promote research and business growth.

After close elections in 1998 and 2000, Holt’s district has returned him to Congress with nearly 60 percent of the vote. His district is considered safe for now. A spokesman for the Republican State Committee says it would be “tough to unseat Holt. He is liberal without alienating the moderate Republicans who used to carry his district.”

Holt certainly has his intellectual quirks. He beat the supercomputer Watson when several members of Congress were offered the chance to play it in Jeopardy. That was Holt’s second Jeopardy triumph, having been a five-time winner on the TV quiz show itself soon after college.  He is also a farmer of sorts; he and his wife raise chickens at their Hopewell Township farmhouse.

“Actually, the chickens are mine,” says Holt’s wife, Dr. Margaret Lancefield,  vice chair of the Department of Medicine at the University Medical Center at Princeton. (She and Holt raised her three children from a former marriage, all of whom are now over 40.) “But that Rush likes it shows how he just takes an interest in any sort of discipline.  That is what science teaches you—to be inquisitive and to hope to become, if not infallible, at least informed.”

A fellow physicist, Vernon Ehlers, retired from Congress in 2010 after serving Michigan as a Republican for two decades. The interest he and Holt shared in science far outweighed any political differences, Ehlers says.

“We never had a difference on scientific issues, and we tried to educate our fellow representatives, which was often difficult,” says Ehlers.  “This is one smart guy, and it is a shame there is such divisiveness in Congress that the important things in science where he can contribute probably go unheard.”

Holt doesn’t let that divisiveness get him down. He says he is keeping an open mind on working with Governor  Chris Christie, especially on education and research issues. The Tea Party and their like, though, are not high on his list.

“We really have to climb out of this morass of negativism,” says Holt.  “If we keep saying that we need cutbacks everywhere, then we will thwart the best of American nature. We don’t necessarily need more scientists in Congress, just people who are intellectually curious. Then we can move forward again.”

Robert Strauss is a frequent contributor.

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