The JASONS — Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite, by Ann Finkbeiner
I once saw some hippie-ish graffiti somewhere that read “fighting for peace is like f***ing for abstinence”. Clever, if you’re a high school sophomore, and probably seems like a reasonable cliche to most people. But try to put aside your particular political reaction (either in fight-the-man agreement or damn-commie condemnation), and consider the question of just how much military might is needed for a peaceful society. I’ve had several friends who might have written those words on a wall here or there, who continually preached avoidance of conflict and the pointlessness of fighting — but their tune usually changed when it came time to divvy up the phone bill with their roomates. Or, on a more serious note, when they witnessed the events of 9-11. Wherever you might stand on the issue of the military industrial complex, you have to pause to consider how many of the great scientific minds of the 20th century have concluded that using their skills for military purposes was worth doing.
This is a cool little book telling the story of an uber-elite group of scientists called the JASONs, who are recruited to work for a couple weeks per year to study the most pressing scientific problems facing the american military. Just a few dozen of the smartest people in the country, mostly physicists thanks to the origins in the Manhattan Project work, all names you’ve probably heard of if you’re in the world of physics, and pretty much all of them not eager to have their work on JASON discussed in a bestselling book. The author managed to get interviews with many of them, including some giants like John Wheeler (the guy who coined the term “black hole”) and Freeman Dyson (one of the creators of Quantum Electrodynamics). I always like hearing about what these people are like in real life, so I’m a sucker for these interview-based books (see also John Horgan’s “The End of Science”). But this book also dredges up some of the ethical questions hanging over the heads of physicists since the invention of the atomic bomb — if you’re in physics, you ought to give these issues some mental attention, and you ought to hear how the giants of physics decided on these issues for themselves. You might not agree, you might decide these are all evil people for collaborating with the military, but you should hear what they say before you decide.
This book is gripping, not necessarily for the writing style (kind of dry) or the action (mostly a series of interviews), but for the content — if you’re interested in physics and the history of physics-in-the-military, this will really pull you in. You’ll be fascinated particularly if you’ve heard the rumors about the JASONs around the physics department watercooler (maybe your mechanics teacher disappeared for a month to work at JASON), or if you have personal contact with some of the key players (maybe your thesis adviser was a JASON), or if you’re around UC San Diego, in which case you’ll recognize many of the names of famous scientists from the names of your lecture halls. It might be a little too “in” for the general public to really care, and it’s not great bathroom reading. But I found it a blast to learn about these guys (and they seem to be almost always male, again probably because of the lingering old-boys network from the Manhattan Project and other postwar physics efforts) — they routinely seem to be able to jump into a completely new scientific domain and make useful intelligent recommendations in a matter of weeks. Of course they also come up with some really loopy ideas as well, which is reassuring to those of us who aren’t in the elite scientific level.
Overall, I’d say this book has a pretty small niche audience, but that audience is going to read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. No question, it sheds new light on the kind of moral questions facing anyone who makes their living in physics and wonders about how their livelihood might be used in wartime. It’s not an easy question (despite what people on the far left or the far right may tell you), and many of these great people sound like they are still ambivalent, worry about it to this day, but are nevertheless proud of their accomplishments and genuinely believe they’re doing the right thing. Again, you may come away with a distaste for the whole thing, but you owe it to them to hear how they came to the decisions they made…