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Damage limitation at Imperial

The Royal College of Science building, now home to part of Imperial’s Chemistry Department

Disaster has been averted at Imperial. But much damage has been done, the group appointed to implement the decisions taken faces an impossible task, and the process has aggravated the very problem that it was meant to address.

For months, as I described elsewhere earlier,  Imperial College has been contemplating the possibility of dis-honouring T. H.  Huxley, one of its founders, on the basis of early remarks that we would now condemn as racist, but did no more than express the general assumptions of his time and place.  This despite the fact that Huxley was a lifelong opponent of all forms of discrimination, a fierce opponent of slavery at a time when many cultivated Englishmen were sympathetic to the Confederate cause, and clearly changed his views about race over time.

The President and the Provost have both been urging a whitewashing (if I can use this term) of the College’s history by such measures as removing Huxley’s name and bust from one of Imperial’s most prominent buildings.  As I explained earlier, they attempted to accomplish this using a deeply flawed process.  A History Group lacking in any higher level expertise in Huxley’s own areas of biology and palaeontology was set up, with the College archivist restricted to a consultative role, as was the Imperial faculty member best qualified to comment on historical matters. Two outside historians were consulted, but their areas of expertise did not really include Huxley.1 Adrian Desmond, Huxley’s biographer, was consulted but as I documented in my earlier article, his unambiguous vindication of Huxley was completely ignored. In October (revised version November), the History Group’s report recommended that Huxley’s name be removed from the Huxley Building, and his bust on display there relegated to a museum.

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Naming Schools after Nobel Laureates

I had the pleasure of hearing Abdus Salam give a talk in Oxford, sometime around 1960. I naïvely asked why a neutron would decay into a proton and electron, rather than an antiproton and positron, and he gently explained to me the concept of baryon number, which I would have known about by that point if I had been paying proper attention to his talk. Both prose and neutron  have baryon (heavy particle) number +1, while their antiparticles have baryon number -1. They also have lepton (like particle) number 0, which is why the neutron decays into a proton, and electron, and an antineutrino.

The Mountain Mystery

Abdus SalamAbdus Salam 1926-1996

The Washington Post recently ran a story about the late Abdus Salam, a physicist who won the Nobel Prize almost 40 years ago. The piece concerns the politics of naming a building at a Pakistani university in honour of a man from a religious minority background. Salam’s family belonged to the Ahmadiyya community – followers of a Muslim faith deemed heretical by Pakistan’s dominant Sunni Muslims. The religion was formally declared ‘non-Islamic’ by the Pakistani government in 1974. Before the new decree, extremists sometimes attacked and burned Ahmadi businesses, mosques and schools; after the decree, members could be imprisoned for their beliefs. In protest and for safety, Dr Salam moved to London.

Salam from Pakistan

Before leaving Pakistan, Salam had been the chief science advisor to Pakistan’s president, had contributed to theoretical and particle physics, was the founding director of the Space Research Commission (SUPARCO), and had…

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