inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #26 of 76: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 4 Oct 07 12:06
    
Speaking of astronomy and secrecy. The book relates an episode where
the Jason's helped develop optical technology that corrected for
atmospheric distortions. The Jasons new this would be a tremendous boon
to astronomers but it was kept classified until French astronomers
started developing the technology on their own and in public. If I'm
not mistaken, some Jasons pushed pretty hard to get the technology
declassified which it eventually was.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #27 of 76: David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Thu 4 Oct 07 12:38
    
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inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #28 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Thu 4 Oct 07 13:20
    
On secrecy and interesting folks:  Yes, the secrecy was maddening.   I
wasn't trying to find out anything secret.  I was more interested in
the Jasons themselves, and you didn't need a clearance to try and
figure them out.  But I got so I could tell when they were talking
around a secret.  It was as though I'd shoot a beam at them, and
usually the beam would go straight through.  But sometimes it would
ricochet off at some crazy angle -- the sentences would get all vague
and the subjects changed -- and then I knew I'd hit something.  I never
could tell what I hit, though.  And yes, they were some of the most
interesting people I've ever met.  They were so completely different
from each other.  And a few of them have to be the one and only one
ever made.

I remember asking Dyson some question or other, and he paused and
stood so still for such a long time I started thinking of
resuscitation, and then he woke up and said, "It's hard to be so old
and not be able to say what you know."  
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #29 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Thu 4 Oct 07 14:34
    
About astronomy and secrecy:  That one's a nice story.  Jasons helped
solve a highly classified problem during the Star Wars era.  The Jason
solution would have helped astronomers immensely but of course, no
Jason could tell them about it.  Then astronomers got the idea for the
same solution themselves, only they hadn't yet worked out how to do it,
let alone how to pay for it.  So one of the Jasons, the first woman
Jason, lobbied the Pentagon until -- 10 years later -- most of the
solution was declassified.  It's now being used by telescopes all over
the world, and when it works, it works like gangbusters.

Jason's solution is called a sodium laser guide star, and astronomers
use it as part of an adaptive  optics system that figures out how the
atmosphere is "twinkling" some star or galaxy and then corrects the
twinkle.  Pretty picture: 
www.kaunana.com/Portals/0/Issue1/CrystalClear.jpg
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #30 of 76: Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Thu 4 Oct 07 14:43
    
The old astronomer in me found that story fascinating.  BTW, if you
come across the Struves in your astronomical studies(It will be hard
not to), that's the russian part of my heritage(mother's side).
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #31 of 76: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Thu 4 Oct 07 19:26
    
Anymore I tend to dislike the idea of secrecy, especially in a
scientific context where the quest for knowledge relies on open
discourse. I gathered many Jasons didn't like secrecy either but felt
they played an important role in light of the fact that secrecy seems
inevitable in the context of defense. I believe it was Paul Horowitz
who said in effect that because these secret projects were insulated
from the normal peer review of science, the Jasons brought an
objective, often skeptical view to the projects.

I liked the phrase they used, "lemon detection studies." Can you touch
on a couple of those, Ann?
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #32 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Fri 5 Oct 07 07:27
    
On Struves:  I know of two famous ones, Frederick and Otto.  Otto
worked on pulsars, probably before they were called pulsars, and ran an
observatory and helped set national priorities for telescopes.   And a
question for you:  I had to look up what Frederick did, which was
measure the exact distance -- the parallax -- to Vega; and I wonder
whether his work led to Vega being the star against which the
brightnesses of most objects at most sophisticated telescopes are now
calibrated.

On secrecy and science and detecting lemons:  I hadn't known any of
this before I started interviewing for the book.  Some superb
technology has come out of classified defense work.  But the conditions
of classification mean that those superb technologists are working
with only a few other people.  And normally scientists and
technologists rely on their close friends and colleagues telling them
their ideas are dumb and they're going about it all wrong.   So in
addition to some superb technology, classified research can come up
with a lot of dumb technology, and no one will catch it.  Except, of
course, the Jasons, who just love pointing out dumb ideas.   One
defense guy told me that giving Jason a lemon-detection study was “like
throwing raw meat to a lion.” 

The lemon that Jasons talk about most is a recurring proposal by the
Navy to find enemy submarines by detecting the neutrinos their
nuclear-powered engines give off.   Nuclear engines do give off
neutrinos.  But neutrinos are evasive, all-but-undetectable particles
whose usual detectors are the size, literally, of gold mines.   Jason's
report, called the Neutrino Detection Primer, is fairly snotty.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #33 of 76: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 5 Oct 07 08:03
    
Right, I actually got to see a neutrino detector once, when I went to
Lead, S.D. 30-some years ago in the company of a wealthy acquaintance
whose father had a major investment in the Homestake Mine.  The
description of the whole thing by a mine tour guide was fairly
priceless, not that I could have done much better.

One story that stood out for me in the book re: lemon detection was
the costly role played by science advisors in the death of the American
SST program, which certainly saved the U.S. taxpayers a lot of money,
but according to the book permanently reduced the role of science
advisors in government.

I've worked around the fringes of Washington a bit, and know that
every lemon is someone's pet project (and for every case of actual
malfeasance, there are probably 100 cases of just not getting it).

In general, you describe an arc of status of science in government
which reaches a great peak in the years right after Sputnik and
declines pretty steadily after that.

What worries me is that the decline in prestige of science you
describe pretty much parallels the decline in the idea of objective
truth discovered via the scientific method.  And while I understand
that science has its own foibles and politics, I'm wondering if the
rejection of, in Al Gore's phrase, "inconvenient truths" has a lot to
do with the downward drift of this country into a state where --
leaving aside the fine points of science -- it's possible for large
minorities of the population to fervently believe things that simply
aren't true at all (e.g. Saddam personally planned 9/11).

And if this were C-SPAN, at this point Brian Lamb would probably say
"Caller, do you have a question?" ;-)
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #34 of 76: Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Fri 5 Oct 07 10:01
    
Struves:  I'm guessing that 'Frederick' is Friedrich Georg Wilhelm who
my bio of PB Struve calls Wilhelm.  You know as much as I do.  His
legacy is a catalog of double stars.  He was my g-g-g-g-grandfather and
Otto I, his son, is probably the grandfather of the Otto you are
speaking of(d. 1963).  My g-g-g-gf was Otto's half brother(from
Wilhelm's first wife) and this line became politicians and social
reformers so I don't know anything more than anyone else about the
specifics of the astronomy.

FWIW, a 2 part bio of PB Struve(g-g-gf) was written by Richard
Pipes:Liberal on the Left and Liberal on the Right.  Nothing at all of
astronomy except the family history up front.  PB's son Gleb, taught
Russian history at UCB for 30+ years and reportedly helped translate
Animal Farm in Russian and then helped smuggle copies into Russia.

Sorry for drift, but politics is never very far from science.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #35 of 76: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 5 Oct 07 10:21
    
Oddly enough, I actually *know* one of the Jasons, although I didn't
realize he was a Jason until I read the book.  I know him very
slightly, but my wife and his wife have been close friends for decades.
 And his father wrote my freshman Geology textbook.  Ok, I'll stop
now, but small world.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #36 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Fri 5 Oct 07 10:47
    
On science advising's falling arc:  scientists' advice about SST
resulting in politicians paying less attention to them is a sad story,
though like you, I'm not sure it has any actual villains.  Politicians
operate on politician's rules, or they find another job.  I don't think
I've heard it said better than you did:  ". . . every lemon is
someone's pet project (and for every case of actual malfeasance, there
are probably 100 cases of just not getting it)."  On the other hand.  A
politician ignoring scientific evidence could not be a villain and
could still be pretty dumb.  I use that word a lot, don't I.

On the Struvean split:  isn't it nice, in the context of this
discussion, that the Struve family split itself into scientists and
politicians?

On Mark's Jason:  oh oh oh oh, a Jason had a father who wrote freshman
geology textbooks?   I'd be jumping up and down and waving my hand,
but I don't know the answer.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #37 of 76: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 5 Oct 07 11:17
    
Well, we all knew the book as "Press and Seiver," which I imagine
helps quite a bit!  It was such an incredibly good and thorough Geology
book that they had to dumb it down in later editions.  It was probably
my favorite textbook in my entire college career.  In fact, it's the
only one I can think of that I still have, lo these many years later.

I only met him a couple of times, very briefly (he always seemed to be
off working, which I'm sure is not atypical of Jasons), but I was
always tempted to blurt out "So, your dad wrote that incredible book!"

Yeah, re politics and reality, it's a tough one, and its certainly a
conflict that comes up in business as well as government.  Powerful
people are used to getting what they want, and sometimes don't listen
too well when told that their desires and opinions conflict with
reality.

I see a somewhat analogous problem in the IT business, which I
currently work in.  The worst thing you can do is to give the customer
what they want, because what they want at the outset generally doesn't
make sense and won't work.  

You have to get them to step back and think about what their goals
are, and then show them how to get there.  A lot of people don't do
that, because giving the customer what they want is the easy way to go
in the short term.  Which is the major reason why you keep reading
about debacles where agencies and companies spend 10s of millions (and
sometimes 100s of millions) of dollars on software and get systems that
don't fulfill even their most basic requirements.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #38 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Fri 5 Oct 07 13:00
    
I do love a good geology textbook.  My favorite is Putnam.  I'd
forgotten Frank Press was a geologist before he became head of the
National Academies.  With a father like that, a young Jason might well
get sick of hearing "your dad wrote that incredible book!"

I'd guess the problem of expert/customer, engineer/manager,
Jason/defense department that you're talking about is endemic and the
cause of millions spent and feelings hurt everywhere.  Whoever comes up
with a pill for this particular endemicness would make millions and
serve humanity forever.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #39 of 76: Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 5 Oct 07 13:43
    
Once a geologist, always a geologist. Another geologist in the Jasons
teaches at UC Berkeley; for most of the years I've known him he had a long,
long ponytail. He's extremely sharp and tends to get a little soft-eyed when
he mentions high-pressure experiments "we are thankfully no longer permitted
to do," usually somewhere in Nevada.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #40 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Fri 5 Oct 07 13:55
    
This is fun:  guess the Jason.  I got the Berkeley one.  He's also
more civic-minded than most Jasons or most anyone else; he works a lot
on test bans.  So I'm thinking when he's thankful about those
high-pressure experiments, he's not talking about reproducing the
conditions under which different minerals form, is he.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #41 of 76: Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 5 Oct 07 13:58
    
>once a geologist...

Yup, my days as a geology major are long behind me and I never worked
in the field (or finished the last 1/4 of the major) and people still
tell me I have rocks in my head!
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #42 of 76: Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 5 Oct 07 20:29
    
Ann, I would say he considered the Nevada hi-P experiments "technically
sweet," but knows that we're all better off no longer conducting them.

I'm being coy about the guy's identity because everyone else here is. But is
the Jason roster a matter of public knowledge?
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #43 of 76: Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Fri 5 Oct 07 23:45
    
"On the Struvean split:  isn't it nice, in the context of this
discussion, that the Struve family split itself into scientists and
politicians?"

Nice is one way of looking at it.  The only things I'll say here about
PB(Petr Berngardovich) are:  Helped found Social Democracy in Russia
in 1895; member of the first 2 Dumas;  Helped bring Lenin back from the
camps in Novo Sibersk and into power and then had to flee him; 
imprisoned by the Gestapo twice; died in Paris 1944 2 years after his
Paris born daughter gave birth to the first of 7 children(my mother) in
London. 

I imagine his life as being constantly on the edge of the end of the
world.

If anyone would like to know more you can email.  Now back to the
politics of science.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #44 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Sat 6 Oct 07 10:07
    
On PB Struve's life:  I'm so impressed with how hard his life was, and
how nerve-wracking it must have been and always was; and how much I
complain about life's toughness when I have, for instance, scheduled
too many interviews in one day. Lessons in perspective.

On naming Jasons:  I'm close-mouthed about it just because I'm
normally so blabby and can't always remember in the moment whether some
Jason doesn't want to be named.  But everyone I quote in my book has
agreed to be named.  And a lot of Jasons have Jason in their online
resumes -- the Berkeley Jason does, for intstance.  He's not in the
book because he was too busy to talk to me when I was out there.  

But that wasn't the question you asked.  No, the list of Jason's
members, though apparently not classified, is also not out there.  I
couldn't get an official list.  The reasons they gave, and that I
believe, are that their colleagues at universities (where most of them
work) are often unforgiving about working with the military; and that
they caught so much hell over Jason's involvement in the war in
Vietnam, they just don't want to go through that again.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #45 of 76: Tell your piteous heart there's no harm done. (krome) Sat 6 Oct 07 21:30
    
FWIW, I made a typo in <43>.  My GM was, of course, PB's
GRANDdaughter. So s/b "died in Paris 1944 2 years after his
Paris born GRANDdaughter gave birth to the first of 7 children(my
mother) in London." 
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #46 of 76: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Sun 7 Oct 07 10:40
    
My reading is that the Jasons have lost clout in recent years. Do you
think this is true, Ann? The breakup with DARPA (Defense Advanced
Research Projects) is maybe illustrative. As a result, the Jasons seem
to be having to re-invent themselves to produce a "product" that
attracts interest and sponsors. Also changing life-styles are making it
harder to recruit new members. These things are in addition to a
current administration that's demonstrated a level of hostility toward
science generally.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #47 of 76: Ann Finkbeiner (afinkbeiner) Sun 7 Oct 07 12:09
    
I don't know whether "lost clout" is the way to say it or not.  You
could certainly say that they have compared to the days when they were
chatting with the Secretary of Defense on a summer house lawn.  But the
whole question of clout is wrapped up with the question of "what good
have they done," and as I said earlier, that's not something I could
find out with any certainty.  So if my own personal answer to what good
they've done is, "probably enough to stay in business," then my answer
to their clout-trajectory is "probably no worse than any other
science-advising entity these days."  Did I already quote that Pentagon
official who said that defense scientists get called "tech weenies?"

Nor do I know what the breakup with DARPA illustrated.  My best guess
is that it was more or less the result of a spitting match between
DARPA/Pentagon and Jason; Jason didn't back down, DARPA fired 'em.  So
really, that doesn't illustrate anything except that human nature
hasn't changed since --or maybe before -- we left the trees for the
savannah.

I think what you're really asking is whether Jason is any use or
whether it'll be around in the foreseeable.  It'll stay useful as long
as anyone wants truly independent advice based on evidence.  Basing
decisions on evidence doesn't seem fashionable, but we'll keep hoping
for a new hemline.  And whether it's around for the foreseeable will
depend on the above, plus whether Jason can keep attracting new Jasons
or it'll just get old and die out.  They won't attract new Jasons if
they position themselves as a product, and I don't really think they're
doing that.  The only way to attract new Jasons is to have the current
ones be interesting people and the problems they work on be
interesting problems.

Now here's a question for you or anyone else who's read the book and
wants to answer it.  The reviews of this book were generally by smart
and knowledgeable people and generally positive.  The one criticism was
that the author (me) bought in to the Jasons too much, was captured so
long she started to see things Jason's way.

That's an interesting problem for me -- I'm the kind of writer who
wants only to show the reader an new and lively world I've discovered
-- and I'd like to know what you think of it.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #48 of 76: pardon my amygdala (murffy) Sun 7 Oct 07 13:45
    
I've come to believe that when you're looking into something or some
group like Jason, you have to take, to some degree or another, a
sympathetic view (or at least non-hostile) if you're really going to
understand the group or subject matter. The Jasons, as you describe
them, are smart, creative, conscientious people. How could you not
become at least somewhat sympathetic, unless you had some sort of axe
to grind? And it's not as if you paint them as unqualified heroes or
infallible supra-geniuses. The general perspective of the book seemed
appropriate to me.

Regarding criticisms you mention, are there some black spots in
Jason's history that critics say you smoothed over in favor of the
Jasons? A hard-nosed, critical view of Jasons might have been
interesting, but only if the facts supported it.

>what the breakup with DARPA illustrated.

Didn't Jason and DARPA experience friction before 2001? The "divorce"
came across to me as a sign of the changing environment. DARPA leaders
didn't think they needed Jason that much anymore and we're confident
enough to try to dictate what kind of organization Jason should be
(which the Jasons could not accept) or fire them altogether. Clearly
the Jasons had lost clout with DARPA and their "scramble" (as Jason's
vice chair Roy Schwitters put it) to find new sponsors reflected some
anxiety over how much clout they had generally. 

It's interesting that DARPA director Anthony Tether may have adopted
his tough stand with Jason based on orders from Donald Rumsfeld. Have
you learned anything more, Ann, since you wrote the book to
substantiate this?

And, boy, do I hope that new hemline gets sewn soon.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #49 of 76: Paulina Borsook (loris) Sun 7 Oct 07 19:06
    
i have a friend who would be a good jason candidate ---
but told me that if asked, she wouldnt serve. NOT
because she doesnt advise the govt on scientific matters
(she does) and not because she doesnt get military
funding (she does) --- but because she doesnt want
to spend summers in dc --- nor would her family.
  
inkwell.vue.309 : Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite"
permalink #50 of 76: Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sun 7 Oct 07 22:22
    
But thought the Jasons met in La Jolla?
  

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