Friday, June 05, 2009

Book: Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons"

When it came to reading history books, I was stuck in World War II. In high school none of my history classes got past World War I. So, as a result, my knowledge of post 1940s history is pretty sketchy until about the late 70s or so when I became aware that there was a real world around me.

This brings me to my latest read, Ann Finkbeiner's "The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite". I saw this book recommended by Wired magazine and it seemed interesting. The books covers the history of a group of scientists, originally physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project, who formed an independent advisory organisation called Jason. Since its founding in 1960, Jason has performed studies and provided reports to the Department of Defense (DOD) via the Advance Research Projects Agency (ARPA - later DARPA adding D for Defense). The scientist, including among others, Hans Bethe and Freeman Dyson, picked and chose which studies it wanted to conduct and their reports were often briefed by the Jasons to the Secretary of Defense directly.

Jason worked on the hardest nuts to crack that the DOD had. The projects ranged from how to detect nuclear missile launches, how to distinguish between real and dummy warheads, how to communicate with nuclear submarines, to how to verify the various nuclear test ban treaties. Most of the early Jason members had joined because of a combination of patriotism and guilt over developing the atomic bomb. Many of the Jasons hoped to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. They obviously were not successful. Over the years new scientists, including non-physicists, would rotate in, chosen by the Jasons, helping keep Jason fresh.

Jason's influence began declining after Viet Nam. During this war they were instrumental in developing the concept of the electronic battlefield (using sensors to detect and engage enemy troop movements). They issued reports that helped kill the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons in Viet Nam (and sadly they had to do it again during the Iraq war). One of their favorite duties was Lemon Detection - i.e. debunking stupid ideas. They were not very supportive of the Star Wars programs and missile defense. They didn't participate in development of Stealth technologies (They were not asked to participate, a sign of the waning influence).

Many of the studies and work that the Jasons produced were and still are classified. The public may never know how much Jason has/is contributing. It sounds like the early meetings, held during the summer so that the scientists, mostly professors, had free time, were fascinating. Some of the greatest minds of the time, gathered in La Jolla, CA, shooting the sh!t with each other, bouncing equations off the greatest intellects of the time. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall. The current Jason is a little more fragmented and the camaraderie there was at its founding has diminished somewhat.

Being the geek I am, I wish there were more independent scientists advising the Government. Today, the Government depends too much on scientists employed by industry or directly by the Government whose independence and impartiality are questionable.

The book was put together using dozens of interviews and is a very good read. Highly recommended.


  1. Oh, great, something ELSE for the reading list. Thanks. ;)

    Just an aside, Penguin publishes some of the most interesting stuff...

  2. GH: It is a good read. Interesting stuff.