Astronomers unknowingly dedicated moon craters to Nazis. Will the next historical reckoning be at cosmic level?

Science is slowly facing up to its own problems with monuments to its historical figures, even when they are not on earth

June 26, 2020
More details Far side of the Moon, photographed by Apollo 16 in 1972
More details Far side of the Moon, photographed by Apollo 16 in 1972

The impromptu removal of the statue of slave-trader Edward Colston from Bristol’s city centre, and the demands for a similar “relocation” of the statue of British arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College in Oxford, have been met with the accusation that such acts “erase history.” The British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, writing in defence of the status of Winston Churchill in central London (which no one was calling to be taken down), said that “If we start purging the record and removing the images of all but those whose attitudes conform to our own, we are engaged in a great lie, a distortion of our history.”

Such sentiments have occasionally been met with the question: But what if it were statues of Nazis that we were discussing? Would we really want to see them commemorated in our public spaces for the sake of “preserving history”? But of course the statue-champions are spared that awkward question, because there are no such monuments standing today.

Except—there are. And I have just played a minor supporting role in having some of them removed. Far from making me troubled that I am colluding in expunging history, the episode has reinforced the point that both the Colston and Rhodes statues illustrate: public monuments are more often a consequence of, rather than a protection against, historical amnesia or whitewashing.

The Nazi monuments in question did not, it’s true, receive any visitors. In fact no one on Earth had ever seen them directly, for they are craters on the far side of the moon. One was named in 2005 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) after the German physicist Philipp Lenard, who won the 1905 Nobel Prize for his research on cathode rays: the “rays” emitted from hot, electrically-charged metal plates, which turned out to be the subatomic particles called electrons. Among other things, the cathode-ray tubes Lenard and others used to study their properties became the central component of televisions.

Lenard seemed a worthy choice, then, for the kind of accolade that the IAU awards when naming astrophysical objects such as lunar craters. The same reasoning lay behind the organisation’s 1970 decision to name another dark-side crater after the German physicist Johannes Stark, who was awarded the 1919 Nobel Prize for discovering how electric fields affect the light emitted from atoms.

It all looked like an uncontroversial celebration of achievement—until quantum physicist Mario Krenn of the University of Toronto contacted the IAU recently to point out that both Lenard and Stark were ardent Nazis, virulent anti-Semites, and adulatory followers of Hitler. The pair were largely responsible for the absurd idea that there was an “Aryan physics” stemming from the “respect for facts and aptitude for exact observation,” as Stark put it, that “reside in the Nordic race.” In the 1920s they contrasted this noble Teutonic science with the “Jewish physics” that had, in their view, infested their discipline, due largely to the theories of Albert Einstein (such as the theories of relativity) that were too heavily mathematical for the two German physicists to understand.

Whereas many German scientists fell submissively in line with Nazi policies in the 1930s, Lenard and Stark actively embraced them. In a jointly authored 1924 article called “The Hitler spirit and science,” they celebrated the Nazis “as God’s gifts from times of old when races were purer, people were greater, and minds were less deluded.” The two led anti-Semitic attacks in the press against Einstein in particular, and later pressed their colleagues to accelerate the expulsion of “non-Aryan” scientists as dictated by the Nazi laws. Their attempts to take over the running of German physics in the Nazi era were foiled only by their political ineptitude. All this is described in detail in my 2013 book on German physics under the Nazis, Serving the Reich, which led Krenn to contact me and which he has recommended to the IAU to show the real histories of Lenard and Stark. I wrote in support of Krenn’s case with a brief statement of these facts.

The IAU evidently knew nothing about them previously. Its officials say that the decision about Stark crater in 1970 relied on the 1968 Marquis World Who's Who in Science and the Nobel citation, neither of which mentioned his Nazi sympathies. The records of the 2005 decision about Lenard have not been made public, and the IAU says that the files kept in its Arizona office are currently inaccessible because of the coronavirus closures. The Nobel biography, which the organisation will surely have consulted, does state that Lenard was a “convinced member of Hitler’s National Socialist Party”—but that in itself is not so unusual for a German scientist of his generation.

Armed now with this knowledge, the IAU has acted swiftly and decisively. Planetary scientist Charles Wood, chair of the Task Group for Lunar Nomenclature, has recommended to the group that the names of Lenard and Stark “should be quickly replaced.” There has been no procrastination, and no hint of Johnson’s complaint that such a move would be “photoshopping the cultural landscape,” or suggestion that we should not judge Lenard and Stark by today’s standards. Nor could such a defence be remotely credible. If there was any whitewashing, it was at the Nuremberg trials, where Lenard was judged too frail to stand and Stark escaped with a cursory fine. The institute named after Lenard at the University of Heidelberg was quickly renamed after the war.

Science is learning—slowly—that its eagerness to commemorate its “great names,” in buildings, prizes, statues and celestial natural monuments, creates hostages to fortune. University College London has, after much campaigning, finally agreed to rename lecture theatres and buildings named after the prominent early advocates of eugenics Francis Galton and Karl Pearson. The move “is one step in a range of actions aimed at acknowledging and addressing the university’s historical links with the eugenics movement,” a UCL statement says.

But this kind of belated reckoning with the past, given urgency now in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, is going to be awkward for science. Should we be troubled, for example, by the gleaming biosciences powerhouse that is the Crick Institute, given Francis Crick’s own eugenic enthusiasms? (Those ideas did not, contrary to common belief, fall into general disrepute after the Nazi era.) My own book was catalysed by arguments about the Dutch Nobel laureate Peter Debye, who was accused in 2006 of collusion with the Nazis while he worked in Germany. Debye relocated to the chemistry department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in early 1940, where his bronze bust still stands in the entrance hall.

Debye’s case is revealing precisely because—unlike Lenard and Stark—it falls into a grey area. He was clearly no fan of the Nazis, but he accommodated himself to their regime, and left Germany only when they demanded that he, as head of a leading research establishment in Berlin, exchange his Dutch citizenship for German. He exemplifies the moral compromises many will make for the sake of a quiet life.

Still, like the Stark and Lenard Craters, Debye’s commemorative bust got there without any engagement with, or even knowledge of, the man’s disputed and difficult history. The Cornell department’s Nobel laureate chemist Roald Hoffmann, who lost most of his Ukrainian Jewish family in the Holocaust, argues that the Debye bronze should be relocated to somewhere less prominent—which is precisely what many are advocating for the Oxford Rhodes statue (and which will be the likely fate of the Colston statue once it is retrieved from Bristol’s docks). To say that such suggestions and actions are trying to “photoshop history” is to insult those like Hoffmann living with history’s awful legacy. As Simon Schama has pointed out, history is and must be about continual argument—but monuments and statues “brook none.”