Who are all those shady scientists and what are they doing?

You may have heard of Jason and the Argonauts, the bold guys of Greek mythology who went on a legendary voyage for the previously unnattainable Golden Fleece.

Jul 1st, 2006

As one member said, walking into the La Jolla conference room for the first time was like encountering a “Who’s Who” of American physics at that time.

You may have heard of Jason and the Argonauts, the bold guys of Greek mythology who went on a legendary voyage for the previously unnattainable Golden Fleece. But have you ever heard of “The Jasons,” a group of influential scientists, mostly leading American physicists, who have been advising the U.S. Government for several decades? Just who are these contemporary “Jasons” and exactly what are they doing for the country in particular and science in general?

It’s not easy to become a member of the Jasons (you have to be invited) and it’s equally difficult finding out who is in this privileged group (about 40 active members) and how they work together (in great secrecy). Over my several decades in science and technology reporting I have come across fewer than a dozen verifiable references to the Jasons. Unfortunately, I have never had the luxury of sufficient time and money to investigate this close-mouthed group and their mostly secretive activities.

Now here comes Ann Finkbeiner, an experienced freelance writer who heads the science writing graduate program at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, with a splendid book, The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite (New York, Viking Press, 2006). While not quite a traditionally complete muck-raking expose of the Jasons, Finkbeiner’s book is an eminently readable volume that is, by turns, often both sympathetic and critical of the Jasons’ points of view. By and large, these guys are not “hawks,” it should be noted.

It’s true that the Jasons can be thought of as the offspring of the famous atomic physicists who participated in the Manhattan Project of World War II, which resulted in the first atomic weapons. But the Jasons officially came together in the summer of 1959 with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The initial members included Columbia’s Charles Townes, Princeton’s Freeman Dyson, CalTech’s Murray Gell-Mann, a passel of Nobel Prize winners and many other leading American physicists. As one member said, walking into the La Jolla conference room for the first time was like encountering a “Who’s Who” of American physics at that time.

The original charter of the group was to research and report on important contemporary topics that had a bearing on defense science and technology. Initially, most of the work was stringently classified and so could not be reported in academic journals or the popular science press. However, some long-standing Jasons claim that the group has saved the Pentagon millions if not billions of dollars by shooting down scientifically stupid ideas. So, despite the mantle of secrecy, the Jasons may have repaid the U.S. government’s modest investments several times over.

But, today, about 50 percent of the Jasons’ work is no longer classified. This has resulted in published reports on such topics as the National Ignition Facility (2005), sensors to support the soldier (2005), and high-power lasers (2003). Details of these and other Jasons reports are available at http://fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason.

The Jasons continue to be somewhat controversial, both individually and collectively. For a range of views often opposed to those of Finkbeiner, try reading the highly entertaining blog, “Not Even Wrong” by Columbia University mathematician Peter Woit (www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog/). Woit’s original blog on the Jasons (April 15, 2006) produced a barrage of replies from academics that should be read with caution.

As in other situations, the leading European academics are often hostile to those who, of necessity, must operate under the protective cover of U.S. military secrecy. But, let’s face it: the Jasons have contributed significantly to American domestic and military security in the past. I, for one, hope that the Jasons will continue to do so, given the potentially dangerous, post-9/11 times in which we live.

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
jnbairstow@verizon.net

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