The ethical dilemmas of renaming scientific principles that honour fallen idols

Science

It might seem right to rename scientific principles that honour physicists who have done bad things. But doing so raises ethical questions, says Robert P Crease


Still of the film Tár showing Cate Blanchett conducting
Human impact Like the main protagonist in the movie Tár, there are physicists who have soared and fallen – but should we cut their names from history? (Courtesy: LANDMARK MEDIA / Alamy Stock Photo)

Tár is a fictional film about a classical-music conductor who soars and crashes. Released in 2022, it features Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) who uses her power at the Berlin Philharmonic authoritatively but manipulatively. She cows some students, flirts with others and misuses colleagues. Then a doctored video of Tár goes viral, her name becomes anathema and she’s fired. The movie ends with her in a dead-end job at a kids’ theme park in an unnamed, poor part of the world.

Scientists, too, have soared and fallen. In 2022 Leiden University astronomer Tim de Zeeuw was removed from posts for his “extremely unacceptable” behaviour, while the US National Academy of Sciences expelled Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters for sexual harassment. In 2007 the Nobel-prize-winning molecular biologist James Watson was forced to retire as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) for making statements on race deemed “incompatible with CSHL’s mission and values”.

But is it right to erase someone’s professional positions, memberships or titles on the basis of their opinions or conduct? At first sight, it seems the correct thing to do. Surely to make science a better place we must root out and punish bad behaviour. Surely we must crack down on people in positions of power for their misdemeanours. Many will applaud the decision, for example, to remove Watson’s honorary titles and strip his name from CSHL’s school of biological sciences.

Unfortunately, renaming in science is not as straightforward as one might think.

Let me consider just cases involving “eponymy”, or naming something after a scientist. Four hundred years ago, in his allegory New Atlantis, the philosopher Francis Bacon recognized that creating tributes was important to inspire other scientists and to give those trailblazers respect in the society that surrounds, supports and depends on them. That’s why Bacon equipped his ideal world with galleries of “statues of all principal inventors” in brass, marble, silver and gold.

But whereas Bacon’s utopian science-dependent world was static and stable, we know that acceptable moral behaviours in our world evolve. Slavery and racism, for example, were once deemed normal but are now abhorrent. We want to reinforce some norms we inherit, and repudiate others. We do the first in part, as in Bacon’s world, by constructing tributes, and the second sometimes by re-evaluating and renaming these tributes.

It’s why the Royal Astronomical Society, for example, has insisted that authors writing in its journals use the initials “JWST” instead of “James Webb Space Telescope” because of the alleged role that Webb (a former NASA administrator who died in 1992) had in purging gay people from the US Federal workforce while Webb was undersecretary of state in 1949–1952. (NASA has not changed the mission’s name, citing insufficient evidence.)

It’s why the physicist Michael Pepper has called for the Stark effect – the splitting of spectral lines in an electric field – to be renamed because of the pro-Nazi and antisemitic actions of the Nobel laureate Johannes Stark, who died almost 70 years ago. And it’s why the Entomological Society of America removed the name of Carl Linnaeus – who died in 1778 – from the title of its annual quiz competition for being a proponent of racist ideas.

Why, who and what?

One problem is: who should decide these things? In some areas of science, it’s easy. The names and symbols of new chemical elements, for example, are bestowed by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, while asteroid names are approved by the International Astronomical Union. But physics is trickier. Many names arise locally without official conferral – Ampère’s law was named by James Clerk Maxwell – and are questioned only by information that happens, usually accidentally, to come to light.

As parts of our language, names belong to social life differently, and their existence has tremendous inertia

A second problem involves the criteria to decide whose names get culled. This, too, is ambiguous. In Serving the Reich: the Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler, the science writer Philip Ball illustrates the “grey zone between complicity and resistance” by looking at the lives of Max Planck, Peter Debye and Werner Heisenberg. They each contributed to a greater or less extent to Nazi Germany, but who was villainous, who virtuous? Heisenberg worked on the German atomic-bomb effort, but I’ve not heard anyone calling for his uncertainty principle to be renamed.

Finally, renaming things in physics is not simple from a practical point of view. Monuments are raised following an explicit decision to glorify someone and to design, fund and construct the monument; if the honour is rethought, these monuments can be physically destroyed, put in a museum or basement, or left standing with contextualization. But as parts of our language, names belong to social life differently, and their existence has tremendous inertia.

Textbooks would have to be rewritten, exams changed and papers updated to avoid confusion. Meanwhile, I suspect that renaming only occurs when the pickings are painless. Earlier this year, the Schrödinger Lecture Theatre at Trinity College Dublin was renamed and restored to its previous title of Physics Lecture Theatre after reports of Schrödinger’s sexual abuse of girls. But how should we go about renaming the Schrödinger equation? It’s far more famous, but where are the calls to rebrand it?

The critical point

At the end of Tár, a viewer may wonder whether, in the long run, a musical community is better served when an orchestra replaces its brilliant but flawed conductor with a mediocre, uncontroversial one. Scientists, too, may similarly wonder whether the community is better served by replacing the names of individuals whose past behaviour is judged unacceptable in the present.

Is removing a name good because it avoids appearing to endorse the inappropriate behaviour of a scientist and encourages others to do a better job themselves? Or is removing a name bad because it makes us complacent by suggesting that we’ve eliminated a problem and don’t need to worry about it anymore, and in allowing us to pretend to ourselves that physics is done only by the morally stainless?

What, in other words, is the ethics of eponymy? Readers with insights should inform me and I’ll write about the topic in a future column.

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