Transcript: Hakeem Oluseyi
My conversation with the American astrophysicist and author
On the Lean Out podcast, we’ve talked a lot about the state of open debate in our culture. The public conversation these days frequently involves highly contentious and nasty arguments — and science is no exception.
Michael Powell at The New York Times recently reported out one such example, involving the naming of a telescope after a late NASA head, and allegations of homophobia.
Several of the scientists behind the movement to rename the telescope have issued a statement since The New York Times piece came out, arguing that Powell “has attempted to transform a debate on the naming of JWST into one that raises ‘personal’ issues involving Professor Oluseyi.” You can read it in full here.
Hakeem Oluseyi is the visiting Robinson Professor at George Mason University, and the president of the National Society of Black Physicists. He’s also the author of A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars.
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: Hakeem, welcome to Lean Out.
HO: Thank you for having me.
TH: Really nice to have you on the program. We last spoke in 2021 about your memoir, which I do want to touch on today. But first, I want to talk about freedom of expression and open debate, and why this is so important to the scientific process. You were recently at the center of a controversy, covered in The New York Times right before Christmas. This had to do with a group of activist scientists who protested the naming of a telescope after the late NASA head James Webb, claiming he was homophobic and oversaw the Lavender Scare — a moral panic in the mid 20th century that purged gay employees of the U.S. government. But first, for listeners who do not know, what is the James Webb Space Telescope?
HO: This is the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s bigger, it’s focused on a different wavelength. It looks at infrared, whereas Hubble looked mostly at visible and ultraviolet. And that’s necessary because Webb is designed to look into the very early universe. So, many people have heard about cosmological redshift. So, if there’s some galaxy that’s billions of light years away, even though the stars are emitting visible light, by the time that light reaches us, it’s been stretched in the infrared. And the other thing infrared does is, just like at sunset on earth, the red light can make it straight through. Whereas the blue light, the shorter wavelength light, gets bounced out of your line of sight. So, at sunset, the sun appears to be red because that’s the light that’s reaching your eye. Well, red infrared longer wavelength light allows you to see through clouds of dust. So Webb can look at the stellar nurseries where new stars and new planets are being born and see them. Whereas Hubble or other ground-based telescopes could not.
TH: This fight over the telescope’s name — you were a former education manager for NASA. Is this something NASA asked you to look into? How did this come onto your radar?
HO: No. I brought it to NASA’s attention, in fact. So I discovered this in a  Forbes article with the title “The Problem With Naming Observatories For Bigots.” When I read that article and realized it was the James Webb Space Telescope, I just thought, “Oh my goodness, this is insane. How could this be happening?” I decided to research into it more, and there were two places where I found more information. One was earlier that year at the stranger.com. Dan Savage had written an article, and his article was initiated by a reader who had read Webb’s Wikipedia page and said, “Hey, look, this guy allegedly did these things. Why are you naming a telescope after him?” And so, after seeing the Forbes article and that article, I went to Facebook where there was a group of astronomers — it was about equity and inclusion. They had already been talking about it for six months, and everybody talked about it as if it was real and true.
When I started working at NASA in early 2017, I got the lay of the land for a couple of months. By the way, in that Facebook group, people kept saying that someone should confront NASA. So that’s what I did. I confronted them — not in any confrontational way. I basically said, “Hey, do you know about this?” And to a person, no one knew about it. So the gentleman, his name is Gregory Robinson, he retired after the Webb was launched, but he was hanging around. He was the leader of the Webb telescope project, in terms of from NASA side, not the scientific principal investigator. And he said, “Hakeem, give me everything you got.” When I gave it to him, he said, “All I see here is allegations. Would you mind looking into it and giving me a report?”
So I did. I looked into it with NASA historians, NASA archivists, and NASA librarians at three NASA centres. As well as a historian; it was a young man who was completing his PhD in history, and he was doing it on Webb. He was based in Huntsville, Alabama. So eventually we discovered that everything that he’s being accused of — which, at the time, was that he was this homophobe who initiated and led the Lavender Scare — none of that was actually true. At the State Department, it was a gentleman named John Peurifoy, and his Secretary of State at the time was George Marshall. That’s what happened. I’ll give you the details if you want it. But basically, once I informed Gregory Robinson that Webb didn’t do it, at that point, NASA was pretty much done with it. They were like, “Oh, okay. If he had done it, we would need to put out a statement. But since he did not do it, then let’s get back to putting this telescope in space.”
When I departed NASA, at the end of July in 2019, I left behind 100 percent of my data. And I wish I didn’t have to do that, because the stuff the PhD guy gave me was so amazing. It was actual letters between Webb and other people. But I left it all behind. So I had to redo the research. I also wanted to put a distance between myself and NASA before I actually published it again. My plan was to publish it in a history journal. But colleagues just kept telling me, “Hey, we’re hearing about this. We’re hearing about this, we’re hearing about this.” So I thought, “Okay, I better put it out there and give everybody the good news that — guess what? — it’s not true.” So we don’t have to be reticent about the James Webspace Telescope. It was a big misidentification.
TH: So interesting. The Medium piece that you’re are referring to, I want to read a quote from that: “As a Black scientist from the Deep South who’s had to navigate the shoals of a scientific establishment where I’ve not always felt welcome, I imagine how I would feel if I faced the equivalent — a flagship national observatory named after someone who was accused of being a staunch racist and national enforcer of racial segregation. Thankfully, Webb was not the bigoted homophobe who led State Department witch hunts as rumoured.” I don’t want to go too far into the weeds on all of this. There’s been a lot published on it. I’m going to link to a lot of this. But, generally, this piece comes out, NASA’s chief historian has since conducted its own investigation, and reached the same conclusion. But it didn’t end the controversy. Why not?
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