inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #0 of 76: David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Mon 1 Oct 07 10:08
    
We're delighted to welcome Ann Finkbeiner to Inkwell to discuss her
book "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite".

Ann Finkbeiner is a freelance science writer, meaning that she asks
scientists many questions; figures out their answers; and writes it all
up in a story that she hopes is clear, interesting, and with any luck,
accurate.

Leading the conversation with Ann is our own Mark Harms.

Mark Harms has degrees in English and Journalism. For several years he
worked as a reporter for a small daily newspaper in Hastings,
Nebraska. He lives now in Minneapolis and works downtown for a major
financial firm. He cultivates a strong interest in science and is
co-host of the Science Conference on the Well. He considers himself an
amateur philosopher and pursues interests in music, art, history and
creative writing. He calls himself an "intellectual ne'er-do-well." His
latest obsession is with music production and has a studio growing up
in his basement.

Thanks to both of you for joining us!
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #1 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Mon 1 Oct 07 10:37
    
And thank you very much for inviting me.  

This is a teaching day for me, so I'm supposed to be doing other
things.  Which I'm obviously not.  Anyway, a couple days ago a friend
sent me a notice that Pief Panofsky had died.  Pief was a Jason for
most of Jason's life, though he didn't seem to me to be terrifically
involved in its nitty gritty.  What he was involved in was the
Washington DC science advising world.  For a scientist, he was an
insider and he seemed to have accomplished a lot toward the control of
nuclear proliferation.  I say "seemed," because the relation between
what a science adviser advises and what actually happens is not the
least bit clear.  Pief told me once to write a book on the history of
science advice that got taken and that didn't; I told him I'd never be
able to get that story and he'd have to write it instead. He said he
was working on his autobiography -- which will be published in the next
couple weeks -- and now he's gone and died.  So we're the lesser for
it.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #2 of 76: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Mon 1 Oct 07 18:27
    
It's sad. Someone posted a link to one of Panofsky's obits in the
Science Conference. I understand he was an opponent of the Reagan era
Strategic Defense Initiative as were, it seems, most Jasons.

On to business ...

Thanks, Ann, for joining us to talk about such an interesting and
well-regarded book. It's interesting on many levels -- big brains
working on secret defense projects, the development of big science, the
relationship between the academic world and government, and so on. It
also illuminates some of the zeitgeist of American culture from Jason's
origins in the Sputnik era, through the acrimony of Vietnam, the
post-Vietnam cold war, and into the post cold-war era. I was captivated
from the get-go.

I guess one question has got to be: Who the heck is Jason? Or, who are
Jasons. I had no idea until I got the book. I got the sense from
reading it that after World War II, a lot of people and in particular
the scientists involved were feeling overwhelmed by the technologies
they had unleashed. There was great uncertainty on how it was all going
to pan out, and even whether human beings were going to be able to
handle it. The origins of Jason can be traced to specific needs but I
wonder if part of the impetus was to have body of really smart folks
who were more or less independent of the government, not strongly
motivated by political ideology, and weren't beholden to any business
interests. And this as a kind of way to relieve some of the angst of
coping with the awesome technologies that had emerged and were
emerging.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #3 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Tue 2 Oct 07 08:48
    
I like your question, who the heck is Jason?  It's the question I
started with myself.  I'm married to an academic physicist so I'm
familiar with the rules of that particular culture.  And two of those
rules are:  stick to pure research and don't get too technical or
"applied;" and keep your research open and don't do classified work,
and for heaven's sake stay away from military applications.  

So spending your summers working for the defense department on
technical, classified problems shouldn't even be on the table.  The
Jasons not only break those rules of their own culture, they are some
of that culture's hotshots.  So who the heck are they and why are they
doing these things?

And yes, I agree that much of the impetus in starting a group like
Jason was to have scientists giving advice who were independent and
unbeholden.   I also agree that starting such a group was a way for
physicists to relieve with the angst of having brought us all the
nuclear bomb.

I'm not sure they'd agree though, or at least not with the
angst-relieving part.   This is a little hard for me to explain.  You'd
have to picture some off-scale brilliant, off-scale arrogant but
otherwise ordinary people going about their business of finding the
secrets of the universe that no one else much cares about.  And oh,
damn! one of the secrets turns out to imply the world's best bomb.  So
the secret is out -- because after all you've been operating in the
open -- and the bomb is just plain going to get built.  So now what?

You know the rest:  German physicists knew about the bomb and were
loyal to Hitler, so our physicists warned the government and we got the
Manhattan Project and that ended in Hiroshima.  And then what?

Then, if you're a physicist and inclined toward civic responsibility,
you get yourself into a position where the people ordering up the bombs
listen to you.  So I think those early Jasons were not so much
relieving angst as they were hell-bent on controlling the bombs as much
as they humanly could.

I'm going on too long about this.  I get excited about it because it's
so scarey.  And I'm so impressed with the methodical, rational,
unrelenting drive of someone like Pief Panofsky who in 1945 watched the
Trinity test of the bomb from a B-29, and who died at 88 still arguing
against nuclear weapons.

Ok.  Enough.  I'll go get to work on what I'm supposed to be working
on.  Thank you for your patience.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #4 of 76: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Tue 2 Oct 07 18:28
    
And thank you for your patience.

In your estimation did the Jasons, which included names such Panofsky,
Freeman Dyson and Steven Weinberg, help control the genie, so to
speak? Are we safer? Is our approach to nuclear weapons more rational
as a result of their efforts?

You talk quite a bit about the scientists' moral dilemmas in joining
Jason. I think most if not all were captivated by the interesting
technical problems, the prestige, the in-ness of the group but had
concerns, not only about working with weapons, but doing research in
secret which is contrary to the principle of open discourse considered
essential for the progress of science. Can you touch a little on the
variety of ways these scientists justified their membership? Some
seemed to get disillusioned pretty quickly.

And the Vietnam era made matters worse, particularly when Jason was
outed and suddenly the scientists had protesters at their doorstep.
While with nuclear weapons the aim was to control the genie, the
"electronic battlefield" technology (sensors on the ground designed to
help the Airforce block the flow of supplies from North to South
Vietnam) was a case where the Jasons helped release a genie. Their aim
ultimately was to save lives (stop the pointless bombing of the North)
but the technology was put to use in ways they hadn't envisioned. This
must have been cause for some serious soul searching.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #5 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Wed 3 Oct 07 07:41
    
Such big questions, Mark.  Can't you ask trivial questions that are
easy to answer?  I'm going to take them one at at time, in case we have
any readers and those readers might get tired reading multitudinous
long paragraphs.

You first asked if the Jasons have actually helped control the nuclear
genie, if they've made us safer and more rational.  The fast answer
is, almost certainly yes, but I have no way of knowing.

The slow answer is, your question about control, safety, and
rationality is really a question about policy and politics.   The
studies Jasons do are only about science or technology.   So for
example, the Bush administration seems to want to go back to testing
nuclear weapons.  That's a policy and the Jasons won't be able to stop
it.  But Jason can tell the government -- if asked to -- that the
plutonium triggers in the bombs of our current stockpile have not
gotten old and ineffectual and in fact, have another 100 years on them,
and they don't need to be tested.   

But the government doesn't need for one minute to pay attention to
what Jason says.  The government can say that political pressures make
testing new bombs necessary whether or not the old ones are still good.
 

And further, Jason's studies are usually of a technical detail of an
issue -- so only the plutonium triggers, not the whole bomb -- and the
government's policy decisions have to take into account the whole
issue.  

So a Jason study can be just one term in a complex equation of
technical and political issues.  And try as I might, I could not find
out what the result of Jason studies had been.  I did find a few
exceptions, mostly in the open-ish literature.  But I asked Jasons and
their government sponsors alike, over and over, and all I could find
out was what I just said above.

Still, I think the answer is, Jason has been studying details and
aspects of these same issues for so long, they almost certainly have
had an effect.

At least, the country isn't operating without the likes of Pief
Panofsky and Sid Drell and Richard Garwin yelling their heads off --
and yelling in a way that's smart, rational, technical, and credible.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #6 of 76: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Wed 3 Oct 07 08:13
    
Thanks for addressing my perhaps unanswerable question.

I can be trivial too. I'm curious to know what Freeman Dyson is like,
being something of a fan. Also, it appears you hit it off with Sid
Drell, he seemed quite forthcoming. Was he a good "impedance match?"
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #7 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Wed 3 Oct 07 09:55
    
You're right, let's leave those imponderable moral questions to one
side.  Maybe one of the WELL-ites will ask them, and if not, I"m off
the hook.

One of the few joys of working on that book was meeting people like
Dyson and Drell who are outright one-off's.  You just don't meet people
like that in normal life -- even though my normal life includes
interviewing a lot of very smart people.

Dyson's expression, when you walk toward him to shake his hand, is
stunned joy.  You're surely every bit as smart as he is, and you must
know some wonderful things that he hasn't heard of yet, and you must
want to tell him.    He must just as surely be disappointed all the
time and I don't know how he keeps that optimism.  Or maybe he just
keeps meetings with the likes of me to a minimum and spends most of his
time with people who are everything he hopes they are.   The other
Jasons says he's brilliant:  the typical story is that someone poses a
mathematical problem, Dyson answers it immediately, the rest of the
Jasons go home and think about it for hours and still don't understand
his answer.   The Jasons told me to be sure and talk to Dyson because
he'll always say something I never expected.  Which he did.

Sid Drell looks like he's seen everything and still hopes for the
best.  He was indeed forthcoming with me, but I think that was because
forthcomingness is his nature.  He was one of the few Jasons -- Dyson
was another -- who seemed distressed about the necessity of keeping
secrets, especially from his students.  What I think must have been the
reason for the distress was that teachers/advisers/professors are
supposed to tell their students what they know and what they don't and
what mistakes they've made.  In effect, they want their students to
begin where they left off.   That combination of altruism and civic
responsibility seems to me to be what drives Drell.  I mean, I'm sure
he has his dark side.  But if his bright side is this human and useful,
then fine.

And though I never ask about peoples' families, both Dyson and Drell
talk about theirs fondly and in Dyson's case especially, proudly. 
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #8 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Wed 3 Oct 07 09:59
    
And now that I think about it, I figured out the business of students
beginning where teachers leave off just because Drell was so distressed
about not telling his students everything he knew.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #9 of 76: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 3 Oct 07 10:33
    
I'm sorry, I'm not following -- is Jason an organization or what?
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #10 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Wed 3 Oct 07 11:01
    
Well.  Yes.  You have a point.  We never said what Jason is.

Jason is a group of academic scientists who spend their summers-off
answering questions for the government, usually classified questions
for the defense department.  Jason chooses its own members, chooses
what questions to answer, chooses who to work for.  So among government
advisers, Jason is unusually independent and unbeholden.

The members of Jason -- the Jasons -- are unusually smart, even for
scientists.  Of the roughly 100 Jasons over time, 42 have been elected
to the National Academy of Sciences; eight have won MacArthur awards;
eleven have won Nobel Prizes.  

The combination of smart, independent academics and classified studies
is just too good to leave alone, isn't it.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #11 of 76: Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Wed 3 Oct 07 11:38
    
"I also agree that starting such a group was a way for
physicists to relieve with the angst of having brought us all the
nuclear bomb."

And I come from chemistry, which has, I believe, been enjoying
something of the special treatment since the physicists brought us the
bomb.

FWIW I first majored in astronomy, the science of the 19th century,
then physics and then, after deciding that I'm really interested in
languages/music, math, before getting my BS in Chem.

Healthcare will always be the first priority for most people, but do
you think that the ascendency of the NIH and the Biotech
bubble(especially here in Norcal) was in someway a replacement therapy
for the harm to the human physche that was the bomb?  I mean, Biotech
hasn't proven to be worth everything that was put into it, much as alot
of armament physics didn't pay off.  You have many chemists who could
have been physicists but weren't.  Did we see a shift after the bomb to
more 'helpful sciences'?

BTW, I haven't finished the book but will soon.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #12 of 76: Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 3 Oct 07 11:42
    
How many are Jennifers?
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #13 of 76: Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Wed 3 Oct 07 11:58
    
From my experience you see alot more female chemists than female
physicists.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #14 of 76: Gail Williams (gail) Wed 3 Oct 07 12:20
    
Probably mostly dudes back when it started!  I'm also wondering 
if the name "Jasons" plays off of the Masons, as well as being a
reference to mythology.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #15 of 76: Daniel (dfowlkes) Wed 3 Oct 07 12:26
    <scribbled by dfowlkes Tue 3 Jul 12 10:14>
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #16 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Wed 3 Oct 07 13:01
    
About a post-bomb shift toward helpful sciences:  I like that thought<
Krome.   I'm guessing that most other scientific fields didn't feel
quite the responsibility for the bomb that physics did -- though
chemistry supplied a lot of the Manhattan Project scientists too -- and
so wouldn't have changed direction much after the war.  But I do know
-- in a fuzzy way that you should check before you believe -- that
biologists adopted some sort of first-do-no-harm rules for research in
biology.  And geophysicists did the same for research into triggering
drought or rainfall or earthquakes in enemy countries; they called it
geophysical warfare, a name which makes my blood run cold.

About Jennifers:  of the roughly 40 active Jasons, 4 or 5 of them are
women.  That looks pretty dire until you look at the percentage of
women in physics -- maybe around 10% -- and chemistry, which Krome will
have to look up but I'll bet it's about the same.  And the early
Jasons were indeed all men; the first woman wasn't asked to be a member
until the mid-1980's, 25 years after Jason formed.  But again, Jason
is probably just representative of what was going on in science
generally.

About the Masons:  Mason is the nickname of a group of scientists that
advises DARPA about materials science.  The word is -- and I haven't
checked the accuracy of this word -- that Mason was named after Jason. 
Not the other way around.

About science fiction writers advising the government:  that makes my
blood run cold too.  Apparently a lot of things make my blood run cold.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #17 of 76: Gail Williams (gail) Wed 3 Oct 07 13:33
    
NASA uses selected sf writers for R&D ideas as do intelligence agencies,
I believe.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #18 of 76: Daniel (dfowlkes) Wed 3 Oct 07 15:21
    <scribbled by dfowlkes Tue 3 Jul 12 10:14>
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #19 of 76: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Wed 3 Oct 07 18:57
    
Jason is a play on Jason and the Argonauts searching for the Golden
Fleece, suggested by one of the physicists' wives (perhaps ironically).
The initially proposed name, something like the Sunrise Group, was
universally regarded as lame.

Ann, the Jasons started out as essentially all physicists but
eventually became more diverse. Do you have any idea what the
proportions are now? I suspect the membership is still mostly
physicists.

I found it interesting that this group of mostly physicists would
study problems not normally looked at by physicists. For awhile the
Jasons got into studying climate. In your book, one of the early
non-phyicist Jasons, Walter Munk, an oceanographer, remarked that the
Jasons could be "naive" about how things could be done with the broader
natural sciences. But he also remarked how Jasons could bring "new
minds" to problems in other fields.

An example of how this paid off was ocean acoustic tomography -- a
technology that allows accurate measurement of the temperature of the
world's oceans -- which the Jasons played a role in developing. An
anti-example perhaps was with climate studies where the physicists
tended to over-simplify the models.

You describe the current Jason group as more compartmentalized. I
would think this "new minds" aspect would get diminished with
specialization. Any thoughts?
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #20 of 76: Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Wed 3 Oct 07 19:58
    
That addresses some of my thoughts on the problems with Jason and the
heirarchy of bureauocritized science.  Because the Bomb was a physics
problem the powers that be go to the physicists with all sorts of other
stuff.  I mean, if these guys are smart enough to build an atom bomb
then they must be smart enough to figure out 'global warming'.  So we
end up going to this very insular group for all kinds of answers they
might not be the best at giving.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #21 of 76: John Ross (johnross) Wed 3 Oct 07 22:02
    
Is there a connection, or an overlap in membership, between Jasons and the
group that has been producing The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for the
last 60 years?
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #22 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Thu 4 Oct 07 07:47
    
On science fiction's influence on science:  That some SF writers have
scientific backgrounds, or that their imaginings occasionally turn into
reality, I guess is not surprising.  I know a lot of scientists like
reading science fiction; and for me, reading science fiction was the
first time I thought science was non-boring.

On physicists playing in other peoples' sandboxes:  You're right: 
right now, more Jasons are physicists than not.  Physicists are famous
for seeing problems in, say, biology, that they think they can solve
better than the biologists.  They are, annoyingly, often right.  Jason
had two forays into climate science:  an early one in which they plowed
over already-plowed ground; and a later one in which the Dept. of
Energy asked them to solve specific problems for which their
backgrounds and outsiderness were useful.  But the ocean acoustic
tomography, which Jason did indeed study, isn't a good example of
either foray because the Jasons who did it were Walter Munk and Carl
Wunsch, both eminent oceanographers.

On Jason becoming more compartmentalized:  It is, of course, and so is
most of science.   Jasons worry about it because part of Jason's
uniqueness is that they have enough background to think about a problem
but have never thought about it before and can often come up with
something original.  They also worry about it because specializing in
certain problems isn't nearly as much fun as taking on all comers: 
"sure, that shouldn't be hard -- I wonder if spin glass equations might
work."

On Jasons giving answers they're not the best at giving:  As above,
that's part of the fun.  And their reputation among their government
sponsors is for being occasionally off the wall.  One of their sponsors
used to warn his colleagues, "Look, you are going to hear some things
that will sound crazy, but please listen, because they are not crazy. 
They may be wrong, but  they're not crazy.  Or the may be undo-able or
impractical, but listen anyway."  

About the overlap between Jasons and the Bulletin of Atomic
Scientists:  about nine present or past Jasons are on the Bulletin's
present or past board of sponsors.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #23 of 76: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 4 Oct 07 08:48
    
The story of how the Jasons became involved in the Vietnam War (and it
seems regretted doing so) is an interesting one.  It made me wonder if
the Jasons had been consulted on the current IED menace, which would
seem like a perfect Jason-type problem.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #24 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Thu 4 Oct 07 10:51
    
The only sure evidence of what Jason's worked on is the report on the
study.  Steve Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists keeps
an extremely current (I swear, hours or at most a day after the study
is release) list of downloadable studies: 
http://www.fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/    If you look through that
list, you'll see the occasional study on the problems of fighting wars
in cities, but nothing specific on IEDs.

However, if -- as I have JUST once or twice -- google The Jasons, you
find a book review by a current Jason mentioning that they have indeed
studied IEDs.  But not one detail more, except the author says he
doesn't know if their study did much for the wars in Iraq or
Afghanistan.

This is a nice example of how frustrating it's been to find out
anything certain.  I'd dodge around all these indirect ways and find
hints but nothing specific enough for a reader to stay interested in. 
I would, of course, ask a Jason; but if the study was classified or
even unclassfied but the sponsor didn't make it public, the Jason
wouldn't tell me anything I didn't already know.

Which explains why my next book is about astronomers.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #25 of 76: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Thu 4 Oct 07 11:27
    
Yes, I think the odd web of secrecy and almost secrecy would have
driven me mad as a writer.  But on the bright side, it sounds like you
got to meet and interview some absolutely fascinating people.  I'm
kinda envious about that part.
  

More...



Members: Enter the conference to participate

Subscribe to an RSS 2.0 feed of new responses in this topic RSS feed of new responses

   Join Us
Home | Learn About | Conferences | Member Pages | Mail | Store | Services & Help | Password | Join Us