Books by Finkbeiner, Ann

Finkbeiner, Ann. The Jasons. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-03489-4.
Shortly after the launch of Sputnik thrust science and technology onto the front lines of the Cold War, a group of Manhattan Project veterans led by John Archibald Wheeler decided that the government needed the very best advice from the very best people to navigate these treacherous times, and that the requisite talent was not to be found within the weapons labs and other government research institutions, but in academia and industry, whence it should be recruited to act as an independent advisory panel. This fit well with the mandate of the recently founded ARPA (now DARPA), which was chartered to pursue “high-risk, high-payoff” projects, and needed sage counsel to minimise the former and maximise the latter.

The result was Jason (the name is a reference to Jason of the Argonauts, and is always used in the singular when referring to the group, although the members are collectively called “Jasons”). It is unlikely such a scientific dream team has ever before been assembled to work together on difficult problems. Since its inception in 1960, a total of thirteen known members of Jason have won Nobel prizes before or after joining the group. Members include Eugene Wigner, Charles Townes (inventor of the laser), Hans Bethe (who figured out the nuclear reaction that powers the stars), polymath and quark discoverer Murray Gell-Mann, Freeman Dyson, Val Fitch, Leon Lederman, and more, and more, and more.

Unlike advisory panels who attend meetings at the Pentagon for a day or two and draft summary reports, Jason members gather for six weeks in the summer and work together intensively, “actually solving differential equations”, to produce original results, sometimes inventions, for their sponsors. The Jasons always remained independent—while the sponsors would present their problems to them, it was the Jasons who chose what to work on.

Over the history of Jason, missile defence and verification of nuclear test bans have been a main theme, but along the way they have invented adaptive optics, which has revolutionised ground-based astronomy, explored technologies for detecting antipersonnel mines, and created, in the Vietnam era, the modern sensor-based “electronic battlefield”.

What motivates top-ranked, well-compensated academic scientists to spend their summers in windowless rooms pondering messy questions with troubling moral implications? This is a theme the author returns to again and again in the extensive interviews with Jasons recounted in this book. The answer seems to be something so outré on the modern university campus as to be difficult to vocalise: patriotism, combined with a desire so see that if such things be done, they should be done as wisely as possible.

October 2006 Permalink