If you think the “tide is turning” on wokeness in STEM, as a colleague of mine asserts, think again. Have a look at this headline of an op-ed from the American Physical Society (APS):
You can guess why: Magellan was a Bad Man. But first, the clouds, which are actually galaxies:
The Magellanic Clouds (Magellanic system or Nubeculae Magellani) are two irregular dwarf galaxies in the southern celestial hemisphere. Orbiting the Milky Way galaxy, these satellite galaxies are members of the Local Group. Because both show signs of a bar structure, they are often reclassified as Magellanic spiral galaxies.
The two galaxies are the following:
The Magellanic clouds are visible to the unaided eye from the Southern Hemisphere, but cannot be observed from the most northern latitudes.
The Large and Small ones:
They’ve been called the Magellanic Clouds by most astronomers since 1847, that is, for about 175 years. Before that they had other “indigenous” names, and that is one of the two reasons the author calls for renaming them:
Yet Magellan was no astronomer, and he was not the first to document these galaxies. Indigenous peoples across the Southern Hemisphere have names and legends for these systems that predate Magellan by thousands of years. For example, the Mapuche of modern-day Chile and Argentina call them Rvganko, or water ponds, which they think are in the process of drying out; the Kamilaroi of modern-day Australia regard the galaxies as places where people go after death; and the Arimi of modern-day Tanzania see the clouds as a man and a woman who help the Pleiades bring heavy rains during the rainy season. Magellan’s crew was also not the first Western team to write about the two galaxies; Arabic and Italian explorers are known to have described the galaxies at least a decade before Magellan embarked on his journey.
But this holds true for nearly all visible astronomical features, surely including the Sun, the Moon, and Halley’s comet. Each language of an indigenous people who observed these features would give them a different name. Names get changed, and there’s no reason why the earliest names should get precedence. As for the superstitions associated with these clouds, well, that’s even less reason to revert to “divine” or numinous names.
No, the real reason Mia de los Reyes wants these clouds renamed is because Magellan did bad things:
Furthermore, Magellan committed horrific acts. A first-hand account of Magellan’s expedition describes how, in what is now known as Argentina, Magellan enslaved the native Tehuelche people. He placed iron manacles on the “youngest and best proportioned” men, telling them that the manacles were gifts. In what became Guam and the Philippines, Magellan and his men burned villages and killed their inhabitants.
Despite his actions, Magellan has been—and continues to be—widely honored by the field of astronomy. Magellan’s name currently appears in over 17,000 peer-reviewed academic articles. His name is attached to astronomical objects such as a lunar crater and a Martian crater, both of which are named Magalhaens; the NASA Magellan spacecraft; the twin 6.5-m Magellan telescopes; and most recently, an under construction, next-generation extremely large telescope called the Giant Magellan Telescope. The Magellan telescopes are all located in Chile, a country with a history of violent Spanish conquest. Indeed, Magellan’s “discovery” of the Strait of Magellan allowed Spanish conquistadors to explore Chile’s coast and led to genocidal campaigns against the native Mapuche people.
I and many other astronomers believe that astronomical objects and facilities should not be named after Magellan, or after anyone else with a violent colonialist legacy. We would like the International Astronomical Union—the body in charge of naming astronomical objects—to rename the Magellanic Clouds. We hope other astronomical institutions, particularly the consortia that manage the 6.5-m Magellan telescopes and the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope, will also revisit the use of Magellan’s name.
As usual, I decide that names should be changed if both of these questions can be answered “no”:
a. Is the name be used to honor the good things the person did rather than the bad?
b. Was the person’s existence a net good for the world as opposed to a net bad?
The answer to (a) is clearly “yes”: Magellan is being honored for organizing and leading the first voyage circumnavigate the planet (he died halfway through), and the clouds were noted by, among other people, Antonio Pigafetta, a scholar who went on Magellan’s sail around the world in 1519–1522.
(b) is harder, but it’s not cut and dried. Some of Magellan’s warfare was due to misinterpreting the local behavior, and, indeed, he was more concerned with converting the locals to Christianity than with killing them. Indeed, that’s how he died on his voyage: he was attacked in the Philippines by a local ruler who resented Magellan’s efforts to convert the locals. Given that Magellan’s voyage “planned and led the 1519 Spanish expedition to the East Indies across the Pacific Ocean to open a maritime trade route, during which he discovered the interoceanic passage thereafter bearing his name and achieved the first European navigation to Asia via the Pacific” (Wikipedia), he had good accomplishments as well as bad.
Given this, I don’t vote for a name change. But there are Wokesters who apparently think that unless someone is nearly perfect, we shouldn’t honor them. There goes most of our Presidents, including Washington, Madison, and Jefferson: all slaveholders. JFK was a serial adulterer, as was Martin Luther King, who’s also been accused of looking on and laughing as “a fellow Baptist minister ‘forcibly raped; a woman just a few minutes walk from The White House in Washington DC.” (The evidence for this is not dispositive!)
The fact is that nobody is perfect, and who among us can afford to have all our deeds made public, for many of us have done some pretty bad stuff? But perfection appears to be the gold standard for naming things, including birds and galaxies. In fact, physisicsts are still going after the James Webb Space Telescope, a pet project of Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and a deeply misguided one (bolding is mine):
Magellan is not the first person with a questionable history that astronomy has glorified, and he will likely not be the last. As physicists Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Sarah Tuttle, Lucianne Walkowicz, and Brian Nord wrote in a 2021 essay on the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope: “There will always be complications in naming monuments or facilities after individuals. No hero is perfect.” But as they also point out, we can and should choose names of people that represent our highest ideals.
Ummm. . . . who might that be? Surely not George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, JFK, or Martin Luther King, Jr! Even King cannot be said to “represent our highest ideals.” He represented many of them, and deserves all the honors that have accrued to him, but he also did bad things, like cheating on his wife. If the rape story is true, it’s even worse.
But why was the name “James Webb Space Telescope” attacked by Prescod-Weinstein and others? Because of the accusation that, as head of NASA, Webb allowed the demonization of gay employees and oversaw a purge of them from the agency. But as even the NYT reported (October 2022), those accusations are completely false. Will the Offended Woke Physicists give up in light of the evidence and shut their pie-holes about Webb? No, they will not. They still want the name “Webb” effaced. It’s insane.
The main reason I think this is a tempest in a teapot is because this renaming accomplishes nothing: it is purely performative, which is why it’s woke, and ludicrously so. The author says this:
When we uphold the names of people, such as Magellan, whose lives and legacies have actively caused harm, we alienate the communities who have been harmed. The communities that suffered because of Magellan have rich astronomical traditions that are often less valued than Western ones.
My response to the first sentence is simply, “no it doesn’t.” If we rename the Magellanic clouds, will dozens of Filipinos or Latinos, previously alienated, suddenly flock into astronomy? If you think so, you don’t know how the world works.
Instead, the author raises a completely different point that has absolutely nothing to do with names:
Even within the field of professional astronomy, the repercussions of Spanish colonization continue to this day. For example, I am the first woman of primarily Filipino descent to become an astronomy professor in the United States, in part because lack of access to resources has historically prevented Filipinos from participating in astronomy research.
Well good for her, but Dr. de los Reyes doesn’t seem to know the difference between resources and nomenclature.