I was reared in the golden days of the Bronx where one’s greatest dilemma was whether to go to see the Yankees or the Giants play baseball. I spent an eye-opening four years at the City College of New York (CCNY – now CUNY) where I studied physics with heavy doses of philosophy. Then I forsook the wonders of Manhattan – particularly Greenwich Village – for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA. There I earned a PhD in physics. The theory of elementary particles was my interest but, as always, my passion was the “What is the Nature of…” questions. So it was inevitable that I would change directions and take the leap into the history of ideas. Reading the original German-language papers written by giants of twentieth-century physics – scientists such as Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli – drove home to me the importance of visual thinking in highly creative research. I became interested in how visual images are constructed and stored in the mind and how they are accessed and then manipulated in thinking. I turned to cognitive science which gave me the means to structure my ideas.
My involvement with scientific creativity naturally led to my investigating such concepts as intuition, symmetry and beauty. This work, in turn, was influential in my studying the relation between art and science, and so into such problems as the relation between artistic and scientific creativity.
I subsequently formulated my own model of how creative thinking is carried out – the Network Model, which I have described in Insights of Genius: Imagery and Creativity in Science and Art and Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty that Causes Havoc.
In this transition period I was on the faculties of the University of Massachusetts and Harvard University. In the meantime I was globe trotting and decided to emigrate to England – I like to think that I was reversing the brain drain. During 1991 to 2005 I was Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at University College London where I founded the Department of Science & Technology Studies. I now spend my time writing, lecturing and travelling.
I have lectured and written extensively on my research in the history and philosophy of nineteenth and twentieth century science and technology, cognitive science, scientific creativity, and the relation between art and science. I am very proud that some honours have come my way. I am a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a Corresponding Fellow of l’Académie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences, and was awarded fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as well as grants for research from the American Council of Learned Societies, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Science Foundation, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung. I have also had the opportunity to be an Associate Editor of the American Journal of Physics.
In the fall term of 1977 I was visiting professor at L’École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris. I was Vice Chairman, Division of History of Physics, American Physical Society for 1983-1984, and Chairman for 1984-1985, and have been a Director of the International History of Physics School at the Ettore Majorana Centre for Scientific Culture, Erice, Sicily.
I have appeared on numerous television and radio programmes and was the science presenter on WGBH’s NOVA production, “Einstein.” I frequently consult on science productions.
I live in London with my wife, the author Lesley Downer.