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The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite Hardcover – April 6, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
If necessity is the mother of invention, then the U.S. government's midwife for much of the Cold War was a small, brilliant and fiercely independent cadre of physicists who assembled each summer to make scientific reality out of pie-in-the-sky ideas. Ingenious problem-solvers to a man (they were, for decades, an all-boys club), "the Jasons" (a nickname of uncertain origin; it's either taken from the Greek myth, Jason and the Argonauts, or an acronym for the months of July through November) agreed to help the government-and cash its checks-on the condition that their work be free from political influence; if the Pentagon or White House proposed a project the group found absurd or ethically reprehensive, they would say so in their typically blunt, intellectually arrogant manner. However, the smartest people in the room weren't always the savviest, and the Jasons found their work manipulated by the military to suit its own purposes. At least that's the story as told by Finkbeiner, who spent two years interviewing dozens of Jasons past and present and doesn't hesitate to give them the benefit of every doubt that's arisen in the group's shadowy, five-decade history, particularly those dealing with the Jasons' involvement in Vietnam. Nonetheless, Finkbeiner offers a rare and valuable look at the intersection of world politics, military strategy and scientific discovery.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
At a dinner honoring Freeman Dyson, Finkbeiner heard the physicist allude to government advisors called "the Jasons," a group little known except to Pentagon insiders. The first author to devote a book to the Jasons, Finkbeiner explains that they are a self-selecting cadre of scientists independent of the government who evaluate military technologies at the frontier of physical feasibility. Intrigued, Finkbeiner sought interviews with Jasons. Some jovially consented, others refused, and two guardedly agreed if identified as "Dr. X" and "Dr. Y." The reasons for anonymity are emblematic themes in Finkbeiner's fascinating account: Dr. X didn't want to reveal too much about the Jasons' secret work; Dr. Y didn't want to be hassled by antimilitary zealots at her university. So the dilemma between the "technically sweet," as Finkbeiner aptly quotes Robert Oppenheimer, and the morally objectionable courses through her account of the Jasons' brainstorming about weaponry at annual summer retreats since their founding in 1960. Readers interested in the politics of science will become deeply absorbed in Finkbeiner's original organizational history. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
That said, these truly astonishing scientists have dedicated much work to improving the security of the country, and have suffered enormous moral guilt over the misuse of their most profound discoveries. We learn about how their work has changed their lives AND ours.
The book itself doesn't really engage the moral issues directly. They're merely presented for your own contemplation. What the author does do is offer a history of this particular oganization as reflected through biography and discussion of their various projects. She offers an analysis of how the demand for basic scientific research for the government has evolved during and after the Cold War. And most importantly, she asks the reader to consider the question, "Are these types of institutions still necessary?" As a warning to deep thinkers, this is NOT a philosophy or scientific text, per se. It's not Stephen Hawking or Brian Greene, but more Louis Menand.
The JASONS (according to the author, this stands for the months from July through November when individual stars did most of their consulting) were a spin-off from the Manhattan Project. There were two branches: the JASONS were hired by government sparked by the Sputnik scare and funded by the Advanced Projects Research Agency of DoD (the same one that funded the Internet); and those that feared nuclear power founded the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) which exists to this day to expose unnecessary secrecy.
The original group met in 1958, 22 scientists meeting for 2 weeks at the National Defense University. On page 33, early on, the author denotes the importance of this group with the phrase "distinterested advice comes best from independent scientists."
There was a major financial incentive: the summer consulting could double their 9-month academic salaries.
JASON became official on 1 January 1960, at first housed under the Institute of Defense Analysis (IDA), then under the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and finally under MITRE, all in theory Federally Funded Research & Development Centers, but in the case of MITRE, often in real competition with legitimate businesses.
Missile defense is not new to the Bush-Cheney regime. It has been a mainstay of ARPA and the JASONS going back to Sputnik days, and generally consumed 50% of ARPA's budget (elsewhere we have speculated on the gains for mankind of having an ARPA for peace).
Early on the JASONS are described as "slightly flakey and almost bizarre," but supremely intelligent with the arrogance to match it. Their task was partly to shoot down stupid ideas with high-ranking supporters, and partly to think out of the box on really touch problems, almost always, but not always, at a classified level.
DARPA fired the JASONS in 2000 when they refused to take on some of the lame scientists that DARPA recommended, but the happy result was their promotion to work directly for DARPA's boss, the Director of Defense Research & Development.
The author discusses throughout the book the conflict between the scientific imperative to discuss hypotheses and findings opening, and the demands for secrecy imposed on these brilliant minds.
Among the projects credited to the JASONS, with all too little detail, are missile defense, directed energy weapons, extremely low frequency (ELF) communications to reach submerged submarines, nuclear event detection, sensors and night vision for Viet-Nam.
The JASONS could not handle the sociology of insurgency. I find this fascinating. Technocrats simply cannot "compute" real world anger.
The Pentagon Papers outed the JASONS. Over time they added the Navy, Department of Energy, and the Intelligence Community as clients, but the also changed in fundamental ways, moving from an elite of physicists to a melange of all disciplines, including many members without clearances.
The JASONS did well with adaptive optics and STAR WARS.
Putting down the book I thought to myself:
1) The Defense Science Board (DSB) is probably the public adaptation of the JASON concept, and does very very good work that is also capable of being shared with the public on most occasions (see for instance, their superb reports on "Strategic Communication" and on "Transition to and from Hostilities").
2) Is this all there is? I give the author good marks for investigation and diplomacy and elicitation, but very candidly, I could have done better with simple citation analysis from the Science Citation Index, and some dramatic visualizations of how the JASONs did or did not stand out from the crowd. It is possible today to detect secret programs as they black out, and overall I felt that what this book provided was one person's good efforts, without ANY of the modern tools of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).
The book does a have a few limitations: Much of the Jasons work is classified; some of them scientists did not want to have their names published in relation to Jason for various reasons. Finkbeiner is also too casual at times with her writing, frequently using the first person pronoun when this is supposed to be a serious work of history.
With those limitations aside, Finkbeiner has still shined a light on what had previously been a complete mystery, providing some useful insights along the way. Chief among those is the danger of feeling superior for knowing inside secrets: "if you know inside information, you think everyone who is on the outside doesn't know what they are talking about. And the sad fact of it was, [those on the outside] knew what they were talking about and [the insiders] didn't." This lesson holds true just about wherever you are or work, but perhaps no more so than inside government.