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The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite

by Ann Finkbeiner
Viking, New York, 2006
304 pp. Trade, $27.95
ISBN: 0-670-03489-4.

Review by John F. Barber
Digital Technology and Culture, Washington State University Vancouver


Born of The Manhattan Project and evolved during the Cold War, a group of elite scientists has worked in secret to advise the U. S. government and shape American policy and science for the past half-century. Known simply as Jason (allegedly for the hero of Jason and the Argonauts), these scientists are responsible for the electronic battlefield, the laser guided star, global warming and oceanographic studies, and the Star Wars missile defense system.

More than researchers and inventors, Jason’s task was to work on highly classified problems for the Department of Defense and the intelligence community. Aside from a brief period during the Vietnam War, Jason has worked with unparalleled freedoms in utter secrecy, unknown to the general public.

Ann Finkbeiner, who runs the graduate program in science writing at Johns Hopkins University, provides the first detailed accounting of the group and its activities. Her book, The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite, not only details the personalities of the scientists who comprise Jason, but also addresses the Faustian dilemma presented by scientific innovation that has dogged America since some of the physicists charged with developing the atomic bomb questioned the morality of using their invention to destroy human life.

Counting among its mentors and members scientific stars like Freeman Dyson, Murray Gell-Mann, Edward Teller, and Hans Bethe, Jason has, according to Finkbeiner, perpetuated a keen sense of stewardship over the applications of pure science. Their idealism, however, has often clashed with the military applications of their research findings.

For example, during the Vietnam War, the U. S. military was frustrated by its inability to stop supplies moving along jungle routes from North to South Vietnam. Asked to help solve the problem, Jason developed an electronic sensing technology that could register and report movement near its location. Where Jason thought the technology would, and should, only be used to provide a sensor barrier across demilitarized zones, the military soon adapted Jason’s invention to direct aerial or artillery assault on suspected enemy positions. Several Jasons were highly upset over this, they felt, immoral use of science developed specifically to stop the war, and sought a public debate. The resulting media flurry was the first public awareness, and acknowledgement, of Jason’s existence.

Another Jason project was called laser guided star, a technology that allowed the calculation of atmospheric distortion along the path of a laser beam directed at an astronomical object. Telescope mirrors could then be adjusted for the measured distortion, thus providing a clearer, more focused image. When President Ronald Reagan announced a space-based missile defense system he called Strategic Defense Initiative (critics dubbed the project Star Wars) in 1983, the laser guided star technology developed by Jason suddenly had tremendous importance for aiming and controlling the counter-defense system. For the next two years, Jason secretly reviewed SDI and offered advice. When, in 1985, a French astronomy magazine announced independent development of laser guided technology, the U. S. government was forced to lift the lid of secrecy thus greatly improving astronomers’ ability to see into space.

Called upon to help solve problems with dependable weather forecasts, Jason invented a three-dimensional mapping system of the ocean’s temperatures. Along with elaborate computer mapping models this invention soon became the basis for charts supporting arguments for global warming.

In each case, Jason’s mission to keep vigil over applied science has led them into both moral dilemmas and political messes. Finkbeiner recounts these standoffs with marvelous objectivity, often letting the scientists themselves, in clipped emotional phrases, tell their own frustrations and compromises with the often unintended consequences of their work.

In the end, The Jasons poses several vital questions. What role should government play in scientific research? Should research awards and grants go only to those scientists who agree to have their research co-opted for military application? What about pure research, that undertaken simply to see what can be learned? At what point is the inventor of some technology accountable for the hazards of that invention? When does the good of an invention outweigh the bad? In answering these questions, Finkbeiner details the trouble scientists get into when they think they can advise the government, and the trouble the government can get into when they do not take the advice of scientists.

Finkbeiner concludes that when the country faces decisions about imprecise, shades-of-gray policies, it should have some truths at hand (231). Scientists, she says, make good advisors in that they are drawn toward certainty but are at the same time wary because they know that they could just as easily be wrong. Jasons, noted for their admiration of complexity in a problem, can be counted upon to develop a solution that is objective rather than politically expedient. And when Jason’s answer is negative, as it has been a few times in the past, and if Congress or the news media hears of the opposition, only strong personality or authority can overcome that hurdle.



Updated 1st April 2007

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