JWST: What the controversy over the astronomy name really means

A year and a half ago, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launched the world’s most powerful telescope into space to learn more about the makeup of the stars, but the name of…

JWST: What the controversy over the astronomy name really means

A year and a half ago, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket launched the world’s most powerful telescope into space to learn more about the makeup of the stars, but the name of the instrument, called James Webb Space Telescope, has been mired in controversy.

The JWST spacecraft was set to launch on April 8, 2018, but the launch was delayed indefinitely because of issues with the supplier of a piece of equipment at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. The named instrument will monitor the temperatures of some of the most distant objects in the universe, which are not aligned so that they are visible to the naked eye. Without being able to clearly observe the stars when they are thousands of light years away, it was unclear how to correctly name the telescope.

Opponents of JWST pointed out that the name of the telescope is similar to Sir Isaac Newton’s, and that JWST should not bore future generations to death. The opponents cited Newton’s letter to Lewis Carroll, “On the Origin of Species,” a text that contained some of the most cited scientific papers of all time. Critics also referred to W. H. Auden’s famous poem, “The Selected Poems of William Carlos Williams,” which hailed Newton’s view that the objects of our universe are, in essence, atoms.

Sir Isaac Newton would struggle to imagine | @JoyWallace https://t.co/j2NO6Ebz58 via @sloannz — Space Inside (@SpaceInside) April 9, 2018

Sir Isaac Newton would be ashamed. The naming of JWST as James Webb/JWST is not acceptable. It is almost certainly plagiarized from the essay “Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species” – http://t.co/s1Av5WeQKL — William R. Haldane (@HaldaneWRC) May 1, 2018

Today, on April 30, a Maryland court ruled that JWST’s name had to remain the same.

Impressively, the name, in and of itself, is not illegal. Of course, it is disrespectful to carry a legacy as a Hall of Fame scientist, and so it is understandable that those who do not believe in that legacy would want JWST to change its name. The lawsuit’s substance was also pretty interesting. It made reference to two very famous scientists, both of them in the Hall of Fame.

A 1969 post about the issue of names suggests that in a sense, one of the issues at hand is fear. “Because their names are so well known, it may be felt that the use of the names as names for famous astronomical objects is inappropriate, or even offensive,” the authors of the letter stated. Why was that? “It appears that there is no recognized limit on the damages attached to an individual’s reputation in the field of science and indeed these damages may be significant to a member of the scientific community.”

That seems curious given that the risk of publicly identifying a great scientist who had an open scientific mind was actually quoted as a much more probable reason to name the telescope after a scientist.

In an effort to avoid becoming a permanent fixture in history, though, James Webb will need to wait until 2021 to launch. After that date, a scientific meeting will be held in Brussels to discuss who, if anyone, in the debate should change its name.

Read the full story at The New York Times.

Related

NASA successfully tests next-generation Space Launch System rocket

New Peruvian spacecraft plots course for closest approach to Earth

Leave a Comment