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When Elite Physicists Advised Washington
In 1959, the U.S. government gave an elite group of physicists classified information and free reign to research. The JASON program’s rise and fall tracks a golden age of American science.
Palladium Correspondent Brian Balkus has published a great new long read on the JASON program, an advisory group of scientists tasked with giving the U.S. government—and especially the military—impartial scientific advice. From its founding in 1959, JASON selected its own personnel, formalizing an already-extant network of high-level physicists who had worked together before. Their group cohesion enabled them to bypass credentialist filters—though many of them had won Nobel Prizes, others like Freeman Dyson had never earned a PhD.
Some of the first JASON studies focused on ARPA’s Defender missile defense program. Their analysis furthered ideas involving the detection of incoming nuclear attacks through the infrared signature of missiles, applied newly-discovered astronomical techniques to distinguish between nuclear-armed missiles and decoys, and worked on the concept of shooting what were essentially directed lightning bolts through the atmosphere to destroy incoming nuclear missiles.
The lightning bolt idea, known today as directed energy weapons, came from Christofilos, who was described by an ARPA historian as mesmerizing JASON physicists with the “kind of ideas that nobody else had.” Some of his other projects included a fusion machine called Astron, a high-altitude nuclear explosion test codenamed Operation Argus that was dubbed the “greatest scientific experiment ever conducted,” and explorations of a potential U.S. “space fleet.”
The Jasons’ analysis on the effects of nuclear explosions in the upper atmosphere, water, and underground, as well as methods of detecting these explosions, was credited with being critical to the U.S. government’s decision to sign the Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. Because of their analysis, the U.S. government felt confident it could verify treaty compliance; the treaty resulted in a large decline in the concentration of radioactive particles in the atmosphere.
While JASON also played a large role in military research during the Vietnam War, going so far as to create what is now known as the “electronic battlefield,” JASON’s notoriety doesn’t just come from the mid-twentieth century. Jasons were fierce critics of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was dubbed “Star Wars” in the popular imagination.
More recently, JASON was tasked with determining the origin of the mysterious sounds sufferers of Havana Syndrome were hearing. Their conclusion was that they were the result of a certain type of cricket. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t well-received by the foreign service- and national security-aligned parts of the government:
The JASON report would ultimately be declassified in 2019, but not before its funding was cut by Michael Griffith, the Defense Department undersecretary for research and engineering, despite a directive from Congress to engage JASON on “methods to defeat existential and technologically-amplified threats to national security.”
Griffith had clashed repeatedly with JASON when he was the CTO of SDI in the 1980s. By cutting its budget he was eliminating the threat of a scientific narrative counter to his own filtering up to the president. In sharp contrast to the Eisenhower administration’s PSAC, Trump’s de facto science advisor was a 31-year-old former political science major. By controlling the narrative, Griffith could control what threats got prioritized, and what research and development programs got funded.
A cynical way to understand the event is that the NASEM understood the assignment and JASON didn’t. What the Pentagon wanted was an elite scientific body to lend its credibility to the view that Russia was behind the Havana Syndrome.
Under these circumstances, it was simply not possible for the JASON project to operate properly. Its foundation had come with a simple understanding: Jasons would do scientific research and give honest answers to officials on questions of interest, while those officials would make the necessary decisions with the information they received. This required a degree of trust and even secrecy.
By the time of the Havana Syndrome affair, the deal was undone. JASON had been able to survive the loss of its original social fabric, but following the breakdown of this political relationship they lost important political patrons as well. For now, the organization continues to exist. JASON ultimately received a reprieve from the Department of Energy, but its future remains tenuous.
Expertise is usually welcome when reaffirming a preexisting belief, but it can be brushed aside if it doesn’t “understand the assignment.” The Havana Syndrome affair is a perfect pre-pandemic example of what can happen when scientific authority comes into conflict with temporal authority—usually, the latter will win out.
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Event in Palo Alto
Palladium Correspondent Ginevra Davis is giving a talk for the Zephyr Institute in Palo Alto on October 19th. This event will be a good opportunity to meet Palladium readers, writers, and editors. We look forward to seeing you there—we’ll also be bringing some back issues of our print editions to view! You can register for the event here.
Since 2013, Stanford has been consistently ranked first by students and parents as “America’s Dream School.” However, in the past decade, Stanford’s administration has systematically destroyed the wild and experimental campus life that made Stanford so desirable. The new social order – defined by unmarked houses with names like “550,” “680,” and “675” – offers a peek into the bureaucrat’s vision for America. Stanford is just one example of a broader movement that sees joy as inherently unequal and dangerous, or at least unnecessary. How can we fight back against the demonization of spontaneity? Is fun dead, or can the war on fun be a call to arms?
Drinks and snacks served at 5:15 p.m., with lecture and discussion to follow.
In the meantime, Ginevra’s article “Stanford’s War on Social Life” can be read here.
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
When Elite Physicists Advised Washington by Brian Balkus. In 1959, the U.S. government gave an elite group of physicists classified information and free reign to research. The JASON program’s rise and fall tracks a golden age of American science.
Surveilling the American Borderlands by Kendra Jones. The U.S.-Mexico border is a landscape in constant flux. A surreal journey to the frontier reveals the interplay of state security, organized crime, and personal ambition.
The Future History of the Nuclear Renaissance With Isabelle Boemeke. The year is 2053. A nuclear renaissance has transformed society. Here is how it all happened.
“Life Goes On” With Stewart Brand as well as Wolf Tivy and Matt Ellison. Reflecting on over fifty years of environmental advocacy, a sober, scientific perspective warns against fear and apocalypticism. There’s work to be done.
Palladium Podcast 80: Ash Milton on the Wages of Revolution. Ash Milton joins Alexander Gelland to discuss his recent article on the life of the Abbé Henri Gregoire, a priest who was one of the leaders of the French Revolution.
That’s all for now.