Inkwell: Authors and Artists
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.
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Thu 4 Oct 07 12:38
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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."
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
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).
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?
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.
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?" ;-)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Sun 7 Oct 07 22:22
But thought the Jasons met in La Jolla?
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