Finkbeiner (Science Writing/Johns Hopkins) investigates an elite scientific advisory group that has shaped U.S. defense policy.
The author first heard of Jason at a dinner honoring one of the group’s members, who dodged her question about it. She eventually learned that Jason (the name refers both to the group and to its individual members) began around 1960. The Manhattan Project convinced the government that a panel of top physicists could provide insight; the scientists, motivated by patriotism and the ethical problems of nuclear warfare, shared a belief that physicists working from first principles can solve anything. Given the caliber of the panel—11 of the roughly 100 Jasons have won a Nobel Prize—that assumption may be justified. Jason’s independence is its greatest strength; its members have university jobs and are chosen not for their ideological slant but for eminence in their fields. (Many now come from disciplines other than physics.) Consequently, Jason often bluntly tells its Defense Department clients that the generals’ pet ideas won’t work. (Those pet ideas have, over the years, included the use of tactical nukes in Vietnam.) On the other hand, Jason was instrumental in developing today’s “electronic battlefield,” on which tiny sensors detect enemy movements and trigger air strikes. Adaptive telescope optics, a significant advance in astronomy, arose from a Jason study on missile detection. Finkbeiner (After the Loss of a Child, 1996, etc.) interviewed several Jasons, some identified by name, and gives a history of the group. Her picture of its close-knit culture and brilliant track record, often in the face of opposition both within and outside the government, makes for compelling reading.
The current Washington climate has decreased Jason’s influence, but this portrait of the group will prompt hopes that it can find a way to reassert itself.