Science is slowly facing up to its own problems with monuments to its historical figures, even when they are not on earthby Philip Ball / June 26, 2020 / Leave a comment
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…