Thursday, December 22, 2011

Reputations matter

Rather a lot of posts all at once, I fear. Here is the first, which I meant to put up earlier – last Saturday’s column in the Guardian.
Johannes Stark was a German physicist whose Nobel prize-winning discovery in 1913, the Stark effect (don’t ask), is still useful today. Just the sort of person, then, who you might expect to have scientific institutes or awards named after him.

The fact that there aren’t any is probably because Stark was a Nazi – a bitter and twisted anti-Semite who rejected relativity because Einstein was Jewish.

Scientists concur that, while your discovery should bear your name no matter how despicable (or just plain crazy) you are, you need a little virtue to be commemorated in other ways.

But how little? Everyone knows Isaac Newton was a grumpy and vindictive old sod, but that hardly seems reason to begrudge the naming of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge. Yet when the Dutch Nobel laureate Peter Debye was accused in a 2006 book of collusion with the Nazis during his career in pre-war Germany, the Dutch government insisted that the Debye Institute at the University of Utrecht be renamed, and an annual Debye Prize awarded in his hometown of Maastricht was suspended.

Reputations matter, then. Two researchers have claimed this week to lay to rest the suggestion that Charles Darwin stole some of his ideas on natural selection from Alfred Russel Wallace, who sent Darwin a letter explaining his own theory in 1858. Darwin passed it on to other scientific authorities as Wallace requested, but it has been suggested that he first sat on it for weeks and revised his theory in the light of it.

No proper Darwin historian ever took that accusation seriously, not least because everything we know about Darwin’s character makes it highly implausible. But Wallace has admirers on the fringe who identify with his image of the wronged outsider and will stop at nothing to see him given priority. And knocking Darwin’s character is a favourite tactic of creationists for discrediting his science.

This isn’t the last word on that matter, not least because the dates of Wallace’s letter still aren’t airtight. Evolutionary geneticist Steve Jones has rightly said that “The real issue is the science and not who did it.” Oh, but we do care who did it. We do care if Einstein nicked his ideas from his first wife Mileva Maric (another silly notion), or if Gottfried Leibniz pilfered the calculus from Newton.

Partly we like the whiff of scandal. Partly we love seeing giants knocked off their pedestals. But in cases like Debye’s there are more profound questions. Debye finally left his physics institute in Berlin and moved to the US in 1940 because he refused to give up his Dutch citizenship and become German, as the Nazis demanded when they commandeered his institute for war research. Into the breach stepped Werner Heisenberg, among others, whose work on the nuclear programme still excites debate about whether or not he tried to make an atom bomb for Hitler.

After the war, Heisenberg encouraged the myth that he and his colleagues purposely delayed their research to deny Hitler such power. It’s more likely that they never in fact had to make the choice, since they weren’t given the resources of the Manhattan Project. In any event, Heisenberg began the war patriotically anticipating a quick victory. Yet he was never a Nazi, and today we have the Werner Heisenberg Institute and Prize.

Unlike Stark, Heisenberg and Debye weren’t terrible people – they behaved in the compromised, perhaps naïve way that most of us would in such circumstances. But engraving their names in stone and bronze creates difficulties. It forces us to make them unblemished icons, or conversely tempts us to demonize them. This rush to beatify brings down a weight of moral expectation that few of us could shoulder – even the deeply humane Einstein was no saint towards Maric. Why not give time more chance to weather and blur the images of great scientists, to produce enough distance for us to celebrate their achievements while overlooking their all-too-human foibles?

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