Category Archives: James Webb

James Webb Cancelled

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Above: The telescope formerly known as James Webb.

The Royal Astronomical Society has implemented a policy that papers published in its journals that make reference to the telescope formerly known as James Web use only the acronym JWST to signify this particular machine. This is because James Webb, who died in 1992, has a history.

James E. Webb was not a scientist. He was a government administrator with a law degree, some military experience, and a BA in Education. In 1961, JFK put him in charge of NASA where he worked until 1968.

Prior to any of this, there occurred what is known as the “Lavender Scare,” a nationwide panic that Teh Gay was poised to take over key positions in the American societal landscape. Gays and Commies were conflated, and suspected socialists or communists and gay people were hunted down and persecuted, and if working for the government, fired.

In March 2021, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz, and Brian Nord, all scientists in the astronomy field, wrote a piece for Scientific American, in which certain aspects of Webb’s history were pointed out.

When Webb joined the recently created NASA, it was government policy to purge LGBT individuals from the federal workforce. That was happening earlier as well, and in those earlier times, Webb was with the US Department of State. The authors point to a book, The Lavender Scare*, by Javid Johnson, which includes evidence that Webb (and others) were involved in the deployment of these anti LGBT policies. Webb, apparently, remained silent as the LBTG purge happened at the Department of State, and actively participated in it at NASA.

To some extent, this is a case of someone “going along” with the culture of his time. For example, in 1950, a senior Stater Department administrator sent Webb a set of memoranda including a roadmap for this purge, and Webb passed the memos on to those he was overseeing. So, he didn’t start it, but also, he didn’t stop it, and who knows what he was thinking at the time.

Astronomers and others in cognate fields have defended Webb, in some cases by pointing out that some of the evidence against him was false or misattributed, or by pointing out that he did, after all, oversee the greatest successes ever during the period of the greatest expansion of space science ever.

The authors of the Scientific American piece make an important point, that I agree with. Had this been an historical wrong, a wrong yes but an old wrong, a part of a period in history where the wrong was normal (and this is clearly true in this case) but not part of the present, than we might view this differently. We don’t forgive Founders who enslaved Africans and African descendants in our early nation, but we also don’t see those wrongs as pertaining directly to current events in their historical form, because there is no widespread enslavement of African Americans by plantation owners today. But anti-LGBT sentiment and action in the living scientific community is not erased by recent wokeness. Indeed, the whole idea that gayness is a security risk was until very recently part of national self-policing in both the US and the UK. Still might be, for all I know. So, we don’t worry about the energy unit “Newtons” even though Newton certainly had some ideas we would not accept today (beyond his really poor grasp of elemental chemistry) but we do regard certain older or recently deceased old timey scientists as having been legit jerks in on way or another, having to do with LGBT rights, sexism, or racism. Don’t make me start a list here, not time or space.

So, in Great Britain, no more James Webb. We will see how this plays out in the US. See Society bans James Webb Name in the current Science.

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