Friday, June 30, 2006


The JASONS: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite- Ann Finkbeiner

The title of this post is a decoy. If I were asked to name a top secret group of elite government scientific advisors, I would name it The Masons. Except for its ominous overtones, the irrelevant name would be a perfect cover for such a group's identity. But the scientists who advised the US government beginning in the 1950s were even more smart. They came up with an even sillier name- The JASONS, which stands for July-August-September-October-November.

The name is not completely irrelevant, because these were the months during which these scientists came together at some undisclosed location (often the sunny environs of La Jolla, Calif), brainstormed wild and wooly ideas of every ilk related to defense, and actually got paid for that. In this book, Ann Finkbeiner tells us the entertaining story of that group, how it originated, evolved, its utility, and its trials and tribulations.

The JASONS was a secret group of government science advisors drawn from academia, that was formed in 1958 amid fears that after Sputnik, the Soviets would bury the United States under a rain of thermonuclear weapons. In order to predict such advances and to make sure that the US was the one to come up with the more cutting edge ideas in the future, a group of eminent like minded scientists, including Charles Townes (inventor of the laser) and John Wheeler (coiner of the word 'black hole' and Richard Feynman's supervisor) among others, formed JASON. Its members were drawn from the topmost cadre of academic scientists, mostly physicists at that time, and called away from their routine research for a few weeks every year, to think of every possible contraption and defense system that could make due contributions to cold war antagonism. JASON would have many sponsors, most notably and not surprisingly the department of defense, and later DARPA. Also not surprisingly, most of what they did would always remain classified.
There was an inherent advantage in having a group of external scientists as advisors; they would do what they best like to do, namely debate ideas, shoot them down, and most importantly, present objective judgements without any axe to grind. And they mostly did. In addition, JASON provided a family like atmosphere for scientists from round the country to come together. Their wives, who were mostly housewives, could come together and gossip, their kids could play together, and since almost everyone knew everyone else, there would be an unprecedented atmosphere of bon homie between them, which would reinforce interaction.

Finkbeiner relates the idiosyncratic personalities that made up JASON. They were a diverse lot, mostly from ivy league schools, mostly physicists, with some common characteristics. All of them were brilliant, all of them would fearlessly tackle problems in both pure and applied science and stride across diverse fields, and all of them wanted to apply their knowledge to government problems. Many were proteges of the demigods of physics; Oppenheimer, Teller, and Bethe to name a few. The JASONs' erudition was unquestioned; during its fifty year tenure, fourteen JASONs have won Nobel prizes. If you want a group of genius government scientific advisors, you could not get better people than these. Freeman Dyson (with whom I had the honour to correspond) worked with Oppenheimer, Bethe and Feynman, and is one of the foremost scientist-humanists of the twentieth century. Richard Garwin, protege of Enrico Fermi, worked on the hydrogen bomb and was the leading expert on scientific matters related to defense. You really could not ask for a more brilliant and more responsible group of scientists, and the government got what it asked in every way.

Among the projects that JASON ubiquitously worked on were two grand and all pervading cold war problems; missile defense, and nuclear test ban treaties. Many of the JASONS were architects of the Limited Test Ban treaty of 1963. After the cold war, JASONs worked to implement the CTBT. During the Vietnman War, they protested the vast and convoluted bombing campaign based on detached, objective thinking and evidence. Their major contribution was to persuade Robert McNamara to endorse cessation of the bombing, on the grounds that it would only serve to further unify the enemy.

Finkbeiner also relates the problems that are imminent when objective scientific advice clashes with government interests. She talks about situations when JASONs' advice was sidelined or manipulated. But that's the whole point of having such a group; it's the only one which does not have an axe to grind, that won't put political interests above sound advice. Needless to say, such a relationship can often be uncomfortable, especially for the sponsors. In spite of this, JASON's advice was often heeded and carefully considered, if not actually put into practice.

One of the entertaining sections of the book talks about the kind of projects the JASONs worked on. This part is inherently fragmentary, as most of JASON's studies were classified. Missile defense and nuclear test ban treaties were universal projects. Among the more exotic projects was an effort to try to communicate with submarines using radio waves. Since longer wavelength waves are much less attenuated by water, JASON purported to propose an outlandishly big antenna that would generate these waves with humungous wavelengths. The antenna would literally span continents, would be buried in the ground, and for all its grandiose purpose, would be extraordinarily inefficient in getting messages across. But since this was the cold war, and paranoia was the order of the day, nobody was concerned about how outrageous projects could be, as long as they could trump the Soviets. Luckily, the project was scrapped later; apparently, not enough Soviet submarines were now around to warrant such technology.

Probably the most controversial project JASON worked on was the implementation of electronic sensors to sweep and detect activity in the Ho Chi Minh trail, a convoluted series of passages and jungle routes which were the bloodlines of the North Vietnamese. Their system would have sensors and noisemakers, which would relay activity to a receiver, which could in turn pinpoint the location and nature of trespassers. There were many factors such as tresspasser size and nature (what if it was an elephant?) that the system had to take into account. JASON's design was exceedingly successful and even implemented once. But the sheer tenacity of the North Vietnamese meant that no such system could finally thwart them. Nor could any amount of bombing. JASON and McNamara learnt this early on, Johnson and Nixon much later. That was a good instance of the relative ineffectualness of JASON in changing government policy.
Much later and more relevant to current issues, JASON worked on a more prosaic but revealing application of the electronic barrier; to detect movement of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border. As Dyson says, it was astounding to see how many times the sensors beeped. In this case too the sensors finally failed, but as Finkbeiner says tongue in cheek, only because there were just too many immigrants.

Their work during the Vietnman era also cast public aspersions on JASONs. In an atmosphere that had become vehemently anti war and extremely touchy about anyone helping the government to carry on its deeds, JASONs were perceived as the devils of science, who would use their knowledge to bring about the death of millions. Actually that was not the case, and the JASONs had simply tried to give advice which they thought would end the war quickly. But that did not appease the public, and they were relentlessly hounded and maligned. Many JASONs got out of JASON after the war, saying that it was not worth it. Among these was Steven Weinberg, the physicist who won the Nobel prize for his seminal contributions to particle physics.
JASONS also worked on climate studies, and in the early 1970s, came up with models to show that the earth was indeed warming. But due to the lack of experimental data and accuracy of the models, climatologists did not take them too seriously, and it goes without saying that the government did not at all.

One of JASON's projects turned out to be a major contribution to science; adaptive optics, which was a technology for making mirrors adapt their curvature to correct for atmospheric turbulence and diffusive effects. Originally designed for detecting spy satellites and similar objects, adaptive optics was a major breakthrough for astronomers to detect stellar objects.

Finkbeiner talks about many policy issues and shifts in JASON, about who should join (and who should leave), what kind of projects should be worked on, and what kind of advice based on their studies should JASON give the government. She recounts the rifts caused in JASON by many factors. After the 1980s, biology and not physics became the mainstay of research, and so JASON had to acquire new skills and recruit new scientists. Finkbeiner recounts the amusing efforts of old timer physicists trying to adapt themselves to the biologist's messy world.
Moving to a picturesque beach for summer and fall also became difficult, as unlike before, most JASON wives were now working, and it was not possible for them to move with their husbands for such a long time. Tha family like atmosphere in JASON began to crumble. JASONs themselves became relatively alienated from each other because of the diversity of the projects, and because of the different clearances that some but not other JASONS had, which restricted interpersonal discussions. But most JASONs stayed put as the intellectual experiences were always untrammeled and unforgettable, and the interaction was highly stimulating.

The 1990s again saw paradigm shifts in JASON of the kind noted above, as the cold war came to an end. Finkbeiner narrates JASON's admirable efforts to draft reports for the CTBT. As is well known, the US congress did not ratify it even after Clinton's endorsement.

After September 2001, JASON was asked to increasingly move to studies of terrorism and biological warfare. The question is, who was listening to them?
As early as 1970s, JASON had gotten into trouble because of the government's increasingly stuborn attitude to put political interests above sane action. One of the projects that JASON recommended against was building a supersonic plane, which later manifested into Concorde. JASON clearly recommended that the project not be undertaken because of concerns about noise pollution. The administration did not take kindly to this, and accused a senior JASON, Richard Garwin, of leaking JASON's views to congress.

If the relationship between science and government had always been delicate, with the coming of the Bush administration, it downright soured, although JASON still stayed put. In typical bureaucratic fashion, and in an unprecedented act, the government actually recommended three experts to JASON. This was completely against JASON's methodology, as right from the first, it was designed to act as a self-governing body who would recruit its own members. In fact, that was precisely why it would be a free thinking, frank and honest, objective source of advice for the government, without any government constraints. When JASON claimed that the recomendees' credentials were not good enough, DARPA actually withdrew support for JASON and they had to seek it elsewhere. This act clearly marks the trampling of unbiased advice in favour of favouritism.

As the ages have progressed, JASON has had to adapt and change. But it's very nature is too tantalizing for scientists to never want to be part of it. JASON is every scientist's dream; a place where he (or she- very few women were part of JASON, and those who were did admirable work) could absorb new ideas like a sponge, spar ideas with the very best, shoot ideas down, and give advice purely based on objective evidence. There always have been JASONs who were actually members of the president's scientific committee and other government panels, but many others, like the eminent Freeman Dyson, always prefered to be the actual doers and recomenders so that they could stay out and stay unconstrained.

Finkbeiner has written a breezy, conversational, and entertaining book. I got to know about many scientists who were part of JASON, names which I had vaguely heard before in other contexts. She does not much highlight the inherent dilemmas in the whole game of objective scientists working for the government, but the implications are clear. One of the lacunas in the book is that the scientific discussions are terse and sound incomplete. But given the nature of the work that JASON has done, most of their research has been classsified. Many members declined to be interviewed because they did not want to be identified, and did not want to talk about secret work. Some of them agreed to be interviewed only if they could be identified as Prof. X or Prof. Y. Many stopped speaking midway, if they could not recall if what they were going to say was classified or not. Given this incomplete access to information, Finkbeiner does a pretty good job with the science.

What's the future of JASON, or as JASONs themselves asked, 'Whither JASON?'.

I believe that no other time needs JASONS as now, precisely because the current administration is wary and outright antagonistic of any objective advice, scientific or otherwise. Groups like JASON, essential for a good and functioning democracy by way of its honest opinions, are being actively suppressed by the Bush administration. As Chris Mooney more than illustrated in The Republican War on Science for example, not only is this administration neglecting and rejecting sound scientific advice, but it's actually manipulating that advice, and appointing its own spin doctors to present that advice in a politically convenient form to the media and the people. Whether it is climate change or nuclear tests and new weapons, or contraception and food production, the administration has taken a big step back into the past in every instance. Just like it was in the 50s and 60s, it is appointing scientifically ignorant, personal interest lobbyists as intermediaries between science and the people.

Unbiased scientific advice about important problems can be seen as a bedrock of sound democracy, and the Bush administration has blasted holes in this bedrock one after the other. Now is the time when scientists must seek every channel to make their opinion heard, to boldly talk even in the face of persecution. Now is the time when scientists must inform the public as soon as they can, through unofficial channels if necessary. Now is the time when scientists must protest against the administration's active abuse and misuse of science in every social and political avenue. Now is the time when we need not one, but a hundred JASONs.


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