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The perils of the name game

History often reveals scientific idols to have feet of clay. That’s just one reason why we should be careful whose name we attach to discoveries, buildings and prizes, says Philip Ball.

In 1935, when Dutch physicist Peter Debye became head of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin, he insisted, against the wishes of the Nazis, on naming it the Max Planck Institute. After the war, the entire network of Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes was renamed the Max Planck Society, the title it bears today.

Physicists in the 20th century were enthusiastic eponymisers—witness the Schrödinger equation, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and, more recently, Feynman diagrams and Hawking radiation.

But Debye exemplifies the dangers of this practice. In 2006, a book by a Dutch journalist accused him of having collaborated with the Nazis. The charges panicked Utrecht University into removing Debye’s name from its Institute for Nanomaterials Science, and Maastricht University in Debye’s home city sought to rename the Debye Prize it administered.

Both universities have since reinstated Debye’s name; he’s now generally seen as no worse than the vast majority of physicists working in Nazi Germany, and certainly no more discredited than Planck himself, whose prevarication and obedience prevented him from speaking out against measures that he clearly abhorred.

Far more culpable was Werner Heisenberg, who allegedly told Dutch scientists in the occupied Netherlands that “history legitimises Germany to rule Europe and later the world”, gave propaganda lectures during the war and led the German nuclear programme. Yet no-one has questioned the Heisenberg Professorships awarded by the DFG, Germany’s main research agency.

Here, then, is one pitfall of science’s obsession with naming: what happens when your figurehead turns out to have a tarnished past? Debye, Planck and Heisenberg are all debatable cases: scarcely anyone in positions of influence in Nazi Germany emerged unblemished. But it sticks in the craw to have to call the influence of electric fields on atomic quantum energy states the Stark effect, after the Nobel laureate Johannes Stark, an ardent Nazi and anti-Semite.

No-one should expect people who do great things to be great people, and being a nasty piece of work shouldn’t deny you the credit for your discoveries. Nevertheless, science—in glaring contrast to scientists’ insistence that the discovery is the thing—seems to impose names on everything it can, from awards to units, to a degree unparalleled in other fields; we speak of atonality, cubism and deconstructionism, not Schoenbergism, Picassoism and Derridism.

It is not as though there aren’t alternatives: we could have heliocentrism instead of Copernicanism, the law of constant proportions for Proust’s law, and so on. This would also help to avoid arguments about priority. 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 when it comes to naming institutions, as Utrecht’s Debye Institute discovered. There’s no natural justice that supports the name you choose to put on your lintel: it’s a more or less arbitrary decision, and if your scientific patron suddenly seems less saintly, it doesn’t do your reputation any good.

Leen Dorsman, a historian of science and philosophy at Utrecht, was scathing during the Debye affair about what he called “this American habit”. “The motive is not to honour great men; it is a sales argument,” he wrote at the time. “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.”

Dorsman says now that naming buildings after people was rare in the egalitarian Netherlands until recently. At Utrecht, he attributes it to a governance crisis that led to the appointment of leaders who, he says, began naming buildings and institutions in the 1990s as a way of restoring 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.” Even if there isn’t, he adds, naming an institution after a person might appear to ally it with a particular school of thought or direction of research, risking ill feeling among employees who don’t share that affiliation.

If you nevertheless feel the need to immortalise your alumni, you’d better ask first how well you know them. The Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research under construction in London looks fairly secure in this respect. Crick had his quirks, but he seems to have been a well-liked, upfront and decent fellow. On the other hand, after his pronouncements on racial differences in intelligence, would anyone take a chance on a James Watson Research Centre? And if not, shouldn’t we think a bit more carefully about why not?

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Philip Ball’s latest book is Serving the Reich: The struggle for the soul of physics under Hitler (Bodley Head, 2013).