Each summer for nearly 50 years, a cadre of Nobel Prize-class scientists have gathered secretly to counsel the government on military uses of pure science and to solve the problems that government agencies cannot. The elite "Jason" group, an outgrowth of the Manhattan Project, has included such participants as physicists Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, Freeman Dyson, and Murray Gell-Mann. Ann Finkbeiner's secret history presents the most comprehensive view yet of a group of reclusive geniuses who have changed history.
Finkbeiner's book also carries a message for those who fear we are entering an anti-science age, in which right-wing politicians, religious fundamentalists, Luddites and postmodernists challenge science's authority. Some scientists are circling the wagons, depicting science as the embodiment of enlightenment and all its critics as knaves or buffoons. But science is and always has been as morally fallible as any other human activity. Indeed, because of its immense potential for altering our lives for good or ill, science needs critics like Finkbeiner now more than ever.
The New York Times
The Jasons, named after the hero of Greek mythology (Jason and the Argonauts), are a group of distinguished American scientists who have been advising various units of the U.S. government since 1960. (During the Vietnam War, they were subjected to considerable public criticism for some of their advice relating to that conflict.) Originally, all Jason members were male physicists, and their sole advisee was the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Defense Department. Over the years, membership has broadened to include a few women and to extend over a wide variety of scientific fields. The Jasons have reviewed mainly classified military projects, including nuclear warfare and, later, nuclear disarmament plans and proposals. In researching this book, which is divided into nine chapters, freelance science writer Finkbeiner (science writing, Johns Hopkins) has interviewed those past and current Jasons willing to talk to her-not always for attribution-and read a wide range of relevant publications. She has done an excellent job, producing a balanced and informative work about an influential and somewhat (until now) mysterious organization.-Jack W. Weigel, formerly with Univ. of Michigan Lib., Ann Arbor Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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 forcompelling 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.