Inkwell: Authors and Artists
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
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.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 3 Oct 07 10:33
I'm sorry, I'm not following -- is Jason an organization or what?
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.
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.
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Wed 3 Oct 07 11:42
How many are Jennifers?
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.
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.
Daniel (dfowlkes) Wed 3 Oct 07 12:26
<scribbled by dfowlkes Tue 3 Jul 12 10:14>
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.
Gail Williams (gail) Wed 3 Oct 07 13:33
NASA uses selected sf writers for R&D ideas as do intelligence agencies, I believe.
Daniel (dfowlkes) Wed 3 Oct 07 15:21
<scribbled by dfowlkes Tue 3 Jul 12 10:14>
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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