Friday, October 04, 2013

The name game

My new book Serving the Reich is published on 10 October. Here is one of the little offshoots, a piece for Research Fortnight (which the kind folks there have made available for free) on the perils of naming in science. (Jim, I told you I’d steal that quote.)


Where would quantum physics be without Planck’s constant, the Schrödinger equation, the Bohr atom or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle – or, more recently, Feynman diagrams, Bell’s inequality and Hawking radiation? You might not know what all these things are, but you know who discovered them.

Surely it’s right and proper that scientists should get the credit for what they do, after all. Or is it? This is what Einstein had to say on the matter:

“When a man after long years of searching chances on a thought which discloses something of the beauty of this mysterious universe, he should not therefore be personally celebrated. He is already sufficiently paid by his experience of seeking and finding. In science, moreover, the work of the individual is so bound up with that of his scientific predecessors and contemporaries that it appears almost as an impersonal product of his generation.”

Whether by design or fate, Einstein seems to have avoided having his name explicitly attached to his greatest works, the theories of special and general relativity. (The “Einstein coefficient” is an obscure quantity almost no one uses.)

But Einstein was working in the period when this fad for naming equations, units and the other paraphernalia of science after their discoverers had barely begun. The quantum pioneers were in fact among those who started it. The Dutch physicist Peter Debye insisted, against the wishes of Hitler’s government, that the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin, which he headed from 1935 to 1939, be called the Max Planck Institute. He had Planck’s name carved in stone over the entrance, and after the war the entire Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft – the network of semi-private German research institutes – was renamed the Max Planck Society, the title that it bears today.

But Debye himself now exemplifies the perils of this practice. In 2006 he was accused in a book by a Dutch journalist of having collaborated with the Nazi government during his time in Germany, and of endorsing their anti-Semitic measures. In response, the University of Utrecht was panicked into removing Debye’s name from its Institute for Nanomaterials Science, saying that “recent evidence is not compatible with the example of using Debye’s name”. Likewise, the University of Maastricht in Debye’s home city asked for permission to rename the Debye Prize, a science award sponsored by the philanthropic Hustinx Foundation in Maastricht.

It’s now generally agreed that these accusations were unfair – Debye was no worse than the vast majority of physicists working in Nazi Germany, and certainly bears no more discredit than Max Planck himself, the grand old man of German physics, whose prevarication and obedience to the state prevented him from voicing opposition to measures that he clearly abhorred. (Recognizing this, the Universities of Utrecht and Maastricht have now relented.) Far more culpable was Werner Heisenberg, who allegedly told the occupied Dutch scientists in 1943 that “history legitimizes Germany to rule Europe and later the world”. He gave propaganda lectures on behalf of the government during the war, and led the German quest to harness nuclear power. Yet no one has questioned the legitimacy of the German Research Foundation’s Heisenberg Professorships.

Here, then, is one of the pitfalls of science’s obsession with naming: what happens when the person you’re celebrating turns out to have a questionable past? Debye, Planck and Heisenberg are all debatable cases: scarcely anyone in positions of influence in Germany under Hitler emerged without some blemish. But it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth to have to call the influence of electric fields on atomic quantum energy states the Stark effect, after its discoverer the Nobel laureate Johannes Stark – an ardent Nazi and anti-Semite, and one of the most unpleasant scientists who ever lived.

Some might say: get over it. No one should expect that people who do great things are themselves great people, and besides, being a nasty piece of work shouldn’t deprive you of credit for what you discover. Both of these things are true. But nevertheless science seems to impose names on everything it can, from awards to units, to a degree that is unparalleled in other fields: we speak of atonality, cubism, deconstructionism, not Schoenbergism, Picassoism and Derridism. This is so much the opposite of scientists’ insistence, à la Einstein, that it doesn’t matter who made the discovery that it seems worth at least pondering on the matter.

Why does science want to immortalize its greats this way? It is not as though there aren’t alternatives: we can have heliocentrism instead of Copernicanism, the law of constant proportions for Proust’s law, and so on. What’s more, naming a law or feature of nature for what it says or does, and not who saw or said it first, avoids arguments about the latter. We know, for example, that the Copernican system didn’t originate with Copernicus, that George Gabriel Stokes didn’t discover Stokes’ law, that Peter Higgs was not alone in proposing the Higgs particle. Naming laws and ideas for people is probably in part a sublimation of scientists’ obsession with priority. It certainly feeds it.

The stakes are higher, however, when it comes to naming institutions, as Utrecht’s Debye Institute discovered. There’s no natural justice which supports the name you choose to put on your lintel – it’s a more or less arbitrary decision, and if your scientific patron saint suddenly seems less saintly, it doesn’t do your reputation any good. Leen Dorsman, a historian of science and philosophy at Utrecht, was scathing about what he called this “American habit” during the “Debye affair”:

“The motive is not to honour great men, it is a sales argument. The name on the façade of the institute shouts: Look at us, look how important we are, we are affiliated with a genuine Nobel laureate.”

While acknowledging that Debye himself contributed to the tendency in Germany, Dorsman says that it was rare in the egalitarian society of the Netherlands until recently. At Utrecht University itself, he attributes it to a governance crisis that led to the appointment of leaders “who had undergone the influence of new public management ideas.” It is this board, he says, that began naming buildings and institutions in the 1990s as a way to restore the university’s self-confidence.

“My opinion is that you should avoid this”, Dorsman says. “There is always something in someone’s past that you wouldn’t like to be confronted with later on, as with Debye.” He adds that even if there isn’t, naming an institution after a “great scientist” risks allying it with a particular school of thought or direction of research, which could cause ill feeling among employees who don’t share that affiliation.

If nevertheless you feel the need to immortalize your alumni this way, the moral seems to be that you’d better ask first how well you really know them. The imposing Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research under construction in London looks fairly secure in the respect – Crick had his quirks, but he seems to have been a well-liked, upfront and decent fellow. Is anyone, however, now going to take their chance with a James Watson Research Centre? And if not, shouldn’t we think a bit more carefully about why not?

No comments: