Danger: Mad DARPA scientists at work?

Feb. 1, 2010
There is a book that needs to be written that would analyze the successes and failures of DARPA and the implications for the future of non-military research.

I am always extremely suspicious of flowery "advance praise" on the dust jackets of recently published books. They are fawning at best and irrelevant at worst. Typical of the genre is: "A fascinating introduction to a veritable pantheon of geek (sic) gods who quietly shaped the face of modern technology." Spare me! And the tome in question is usually written by a fellow author who, I imagine, walks on water. Inevitably, the book in question fizzles briefly and then quickly disappears in a pitiful puff of smoke.

A recent book using this hoary old tradition is The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs (New York: Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins, 2009) authored by one Michael Belfiore, who appears to have a terminal case of cover blurb logorrhea. His previous book was: Rocketeers, How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space (New York: Smithsonian Books/HarperCollins, 2007). Evidently, judging by the promos for these books, modesty is not one of Mr. Belfiore's virtues. But, I digress.

Mr. Belfiore's latest book leads the casual reader to think that the "mad scientists" of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) flung open their collective kimonos for the first time in recorded history and, in so doing, gave the author an incredible insight into the highly secret actions of this federal government agency. But, in fact, several DARPA press-relations people extended to the author the usual courtesies given to any writer with a legitimate assignment who can put a halfway decent sentence together.

First of all, the DARPA staffers are far from being crazed like some contemporary Frankensteins. There may be a few eccentrics in DARPA but "mad" they are not. DARPA scientists and engineers may be working in fields that require significant government financial sponsorship, such as prosthetic limbs, or in fields that government should leave to private enterprise, such as autopilots for automobiles. Choosing to work in such areas does not make for "mad scientists," although a little eccentricity might seem maddening enough to an outside observer.

Second, Belfiore quotes at length from an extensive and exclusive interview with Dr. Anthony J. Tether, the director of DARPA at the time the book was written. Coming from a strong background in military/aerospace R&D, Tony Tether, then and now, does not give the impression of even temporary insanity. Nor does the Tether interview reveal much that we did not already know about DARPA. And neither does Belfiore pull any rabbits out of the DARPA hat.

The book closes with a single line: "Here's to the next 50 years."

Fifty years of what? The author does not say, possessing as he does neither insight nor vision for the role of DARPA in the US military/industrial complex of today and tomorrow. Frankly, I got more out of an interview with Tether that was conducted by one of the editors of Wired (Noah Shachtman) in February 2007.

Belfiore is a competent reporter who needs to take a couple of steps backward before committing reportorial hara kiri. His chapters read like feature articles intended for Popular Mechanics—mostly hot air, gee-whiz, once-over lightly stuff. And there are no color or B&W photographs in the book. No portraits of mad scientists or the fruits of their labors.

However, there is a book that needs to be written that would analyze the successes and failures of DARPA and the implications for the future of nonmilitary research. This is not that book, in my view. Maybe Tether and Shachtman could collaborate on the definitive work?

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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