The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite.
Ann Finkbeiner. xi + 304 pp. VIking, 2006. $27.95.
There are, as every scientist knows, unintended consequences in
scientific discovery. One unintended consequence of the Manhattan
Project was briefly to convince a large segment of the American
public that scientists—specifically, physicists—can
solve just about any problem. The public attitude toward science and
scientists is a little more cynical these days. But, fortunately,
most scientists (especially physicists) seem to have retained a
faith in their talent at problem solving.
The focus of Ann Finkbeiner's book The Jasons is a small and elite
group of scientists—once consisting almost exclusively of
physicists, but now more ecumenical—who since 1960 have helped
the government find solutions to particularly difficult technical
problems, mostly having to do with defense. During the Cold War, the
Jasons were a hush-hush organization, much like the National
Security Agency. Today, they labor not so much in secret as in
obscurity—which, one learns from Finkbeiner's book, is the way
most Jasons prefer it.
Fittingly, the origins of the Jasons were once obscure. Previous
accounts have claimed that the organization was named for a member's
dog or that the inspiration came from the late Senator Proxmire's
annual "Golden Fleece" award, which he gave to the
government-funded project he considered the most wasteful of federal
dollars. Finkbeiner does a thorough and convincing job of tracing
the Jasons back to their true beginnings, in prose that is always
accessible and with stories that are often fascinating—in
large part because the focus of the book is on the individual Jasons
themselves. Finkbeiner interviewed roughly half of the current and
past membership, 36 individuals altogether, although
some—including a scientist identified only as "Dr.
X"—were chary of being mentioned by name.
That reluctance becomes understandable in these pages. Although
always operating behind the curtain, the Jasons have given each
administration since Eisenhower's advice on virtually every
expensive (and controversial) military procurement decision,
including the anti-ballistic missile (ABM), Vietnam's electronic
barrier (the so-called McNamara Line) and Ronald Reagan's proposed
Strategic Defense Initiative, better known as "Star Wars."
Not surprisingly, Vietnam gave the Jasons their most traumatic
moments, individually and as an organization. Although the aim of
the electronic barrier was simply to use then-state-of-the-art
sensors to intercept North Vietnamese troops and supplies headed
down the Ho Chi Minh Trail into South Vietnam, the Jasons'
involvement with the project caused some of them to be branded
"baby killers" and others to be hounded off their own
college campuses by protesters.
By focusing on some of the more colorful Jasons, Finkbeiner shines a
spotlight on the activities of the group as a whole. However, her
study also has the limitations of a spotlight, in that it leaves the
surrounding countryside in relative darkness. And, in the history of
the Jasons, context is key. The Jasons have traditionally and
self-consciously stuck to giving strictly technical advice because
of the fate of their predecessors—such scientists as Robert
Oppenheimer—who strayed across that line into the political
realm. Even though the object lesson is now more than a half-century
old, the case of Oppenheimer—who, with his colleagues, advised
President Truman not to proceed with the hydrogen bomb for
essentially ethical reasons, because it was a "weapon of
genocide" and "an evil thing"—remains no doubt
fresh in every Jason's mind. Truman ignored those scientists, as
many presidents since have ignored advice given by the Jasons; but
the latter, at least, have not suffered the fate of Oppenheimer, who
was pilloried by the government for having let political views trump
his scientific judgment. It is a lesson the Jasons have learned
well. There is a crucial difference between scientific advice and
advice from scientists, as physicist Richard Garwin, a longtime
Jason, is fond of saying.
The Jasons have been forced to change with the times, and most of
them believe these changes have been for the better. Chemists and
even biologists have joined the physicists, and at least a few
current Jasons are women. Since the end of the Cold War, however,
one senses that the Old Guard misses not having the
fate-of-the-Earth sort of problems that used to be the Jasons' usual
fare: problems like nuclear winter and ICBM "fratricide."
Instead, the old-timers grumble that they are reduced to dealing
with "dogs and cats"—minor, short-term
problems—and fear that the organization itself will become a
mere "job shop" for the Defense Department. But other,
younger Jasons have already turned to the study of global warming
and to finding ways of improving intelligence with the aim of
preventing future terrorist attacks.
Ironically, the Jasons' greatest achievements, Finkbeiner concludes,
are probably invisible: They are the weapons that the Pentagon
didn't build, and the steps that presidents haven't taken. It is in
some part because of the Jasons that there are no missile bases on
the Moon and that tactical nuclear weapons were never used in
Vietnam. These accomplishments alone are an invaluable contribution.