Oral History Transcript — Dr. Val Fitch
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Val Fitch; December 18, 1986
ABSTRACT: In this interview, Val Fitch discusses his involvement with JASON. Topics discussed include: his family and childhood; working at Los Alamos under Ernest Titterton; Columbia University; James Rainwater; Project 137; President's Science Advisory Committee; Marvin "Murph" Goldberger; Francis Low; Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky; Project Vela Hotel; nuclear test ban treaty; Henry Kendall; Edward Teller; importance of physics education as training for other fields.
Aaserud: We are in Val Fitch's office on 18 December 1986. We are going to talk about your JASON involvement, and maybe a little bit about your earlier career, as background for that. But first of all, maybe I should get on the tape a little bit about your papers, to the extent that you know about them, if you care to talk a little bit about that — where they are maintained and the extent to which they have been taken care of.
Fitch: Well, to the extent that they've been taken care of, they're still in my files, and nothing more has been done.
Aaserud: You said that you had something in other places as well, in other universities.
Fitch: I have had requests from a number of places, but I have not acceded to those requests. Anything that I have is still in my own file.
Aaserud: So the papers are more or less together in one place.
Fitch: Yes. Not organized in any sense.
Aaserud: In boxes or whatever.
Fitch: That's right.
Aaserud: Well, that's hopeful. I hope you might be willing to talk with us. When we come down for that particular purpose, maybe we could discuss these things. OK, let's start with the elementary facts. You were born where, when?
Fitch: I was born in the state of Nebraska in 1923, March 10. I was born on a cattle ranch, as a matter of fact. I was not born in any town, so I can only give you longitude and latitude.
Aaserud: Right, Nebraska and longitude and latitude.
Fitch: In the northwestern part of the state, and it was there that I was raised, and lived there until the age of 19.
Aaserud: And your parents — what was their background and their work ?
Fitch: My father had a cattle ranch at the time I was born, and my mother had been a local school teacher. It was three or four years afterwards that my father was rather badly injured. He had to give up the hard work associated with raising pure bred Herefords, and he went into the insurance business in the nearby town of Gordon, Nebraska. So that's where I had my elementary and high school education.
Aaserud: You moved into that town.
Fitch: We moved into that town, yes.
Aaserud: Which generation Americans were your parents?
Fitch: My father's family has never been traced east of the Mississippi. As for my mother's family — the parts that I'm aware of — I'm at least tenth generation. But after that many generations, one never knows. But it's not recent, in any event.
Aaserud: What educational background did they have?
Fitch: Neither of them had gone to college.
Aaserud: Did you have any brothers or sisters?
Fitch: I have an older brother and an older sister. My older brother became an economist, and has just recently retired. He got his PhD from Columbia, as I did, as a matter of fact, but his is in economics and mine is in physics. My sister, after college, married and settled down in the middle of Ohio where she still lives. No professional interest.
Aaserud: Are there any particular influences that you would mention from the home, particularly in relation to your choice of career?
Fitch: Not especially. I had a very early interest in science, and physics in particular. Mainly I remember being frustrated by the fact that no one in town could answer the questions that I might have developed. I started college in northwestern Nebraska at Shadrun State College, as a matter of fact, and went there for two years. I subsequently transferred to Northwestern, but at that time the Army was keenly interested in me — this is World War II — and so I was led into the Army. I went through the usual basic training, and then was actually sent to what is now Carnegie Mellon for training. The Army Specialized Training program was the name of the activity, and I was there for almost one year. Then, when that activity ceased, I was the only one out of the hundred or so that were left to be sent to Los Alamos.
So I was delivered out to Los Alamos, and there I was assigned to work for a member of the British Mission who was there. There were roughly 20 Britishers, as probably you know, at Los Alamos, and I worked for Ernest Titterton who was a member of that Mission.
Aaserud: Yes. On what basis were you sent to Los Alamos? You were pretty young then, so you didn't have much of a background in physics, right?
Fitch: No, not at all. I had the equivalent of three undergraduate years, I guess. But they were in need of skilled technicians, so I was sent there basically to work as a technician.
Aaserud: Was that something you applied for?
Fitch: Absolutely not. That was the luck of the draw, as far as I was concerned. As a matter of fact, nearly everyone else in my Army unit at Carnegie Mellon was off into the 95th Infantry and ended up in Europe doing that thing. So I was alone in being sent to Los Alamos at that time.
Aaserud: To what extent did that experience decide your further career — or did it?
Fitch: That was pivotal, because I came to know a very large fraction of the great figures in physics, and if not in the laboratory, on the ski hill. So it certainly was the prime reason why I continued on in physics.
Aaserud: So it was a close knit group in that respect?
Fitch: Well, it was a small place, and so I didn't get to know Fermi at work, but I certainly got to know him on the ski slope and hiking. At the same time, I first met Rabi there. As a matter of fact, I was involved in the testing at Alamogordo, and there I met Rabi, when he was on one of his period tours. I met Chadwick there. I met Bohr there. It was a galaxy of physicists, and, of course, I was at a very impressionable age, and —
Aaserud: To what extent did you understand what it was all about? To what extent did you know?
Fitch: Well, I was rather intimately involved in the essential ingredients of the device, and so there wasn't any question about knowing or not knowing what was going on.
Aaserud: So there wasn't any division in that sense either.
Fitch: Well, there couldn't have been.
Aaserud: I mean, talking freely to people about the project.
Fitch: No, you didn't talk freely about what you were doing. You were always circumspect. As far as knowing what was going on, there were certain things one had to know in order to do the job, and in my case, that was, as I said, these essential ingredients.
Titterton had a knack for being where the action was, and before the test at Alamogordo, I'd been involved in drop tests of mock bombs flying out of Wendower, Utah, and dropping the bombs on targets in the Salten Sea. Part of our group from Los Alamos was at the Salten Sea, and I had been sent to Wendower. Then we went to Alamogordo and worked on the test, and that was, I would say, from April until the test ended. The test was conducted in the middle of July, 1945. So I spent a fair fraction of that time at the Trinity Test Site.
Aaserud: You said you got to know Fermi in particular on the ski trail. Did you learn any physics in the process? Is that part of your education, so to speak, at Los Alamos? Was that an early physics education, would you say that?
Fitch: Well, physicists, no matter where they are, love to teach other people, and as an example, they conducted courses; I should say, courses were conducted there for various people who were interested. I took one course from Edward Teller, for example, and another one from Lyman Parrot who was a spectroscopist from Cornell. So that activity was certainly very much a part of the place. These were all academic scientists, after all. I guess another course I remember with great fondness was one given by Rossi. That was very much a part of the scene.
Aaserud: So they actually gave courses.
Fitch: They actually gave courses, yes.
Aaserud: So who were the students?
Fitch: Well, people like myself.
Aaserud: The younger guard, generally speaking.
Aaserud: So that must have played quite a role.
Fitch: There were some civilians, but a lot of Army people who were there in the same category I was in.
Aaserud: That was just general physics you were learning?
Fitch: That was just general physics, yes.
Aaserud: How different was your career plan when you finished in Los Alamos, compared to when you started?
Fitch: Well, I knew immediately then that I wanted to go to graduate school in physics. Definitely. That I proceeded to do.
Aaserud: And you went immediately?
Fitch: I still had one year of undergraduate work to finish, and I did that actually at McGill.
Aaserud: In Canada.
Fitch: And then went to Columbia for graduate work. These experiences at Los Alamos I've written up. It's part of the public record. Chain Wilson, Bob Wilson's wife, once put together a little book, to which I contributed a chapter, about my Army experiences at Los Alamos.
Aaserud: I should look into that.
Fitch: That's all part of the record. I've forgotten the name of the book, but it was published by —. Who was it? Heavens, I've forgotten the publisher now.
Aaserud: Just briefly, you went to Columbia, after McGill where you finished your undergraduate work. Did you work for anybody in particular? What was the reason for going to McGill?
Fitch: Well, I had, as I said, about one year of undergraduate work to do, and I guess I was looking about for something that was a little different. I didn't care about going back to Northwestern or didn't care about going back to Carnegie Mellon. Titterton had gone through McGill on the way to Los Alamos from England, and gotten acquainted with people there. He described it as a great place, and it was indeed. The commitment was not a long one for me, and I liked to ski; it was a different experience. Also I aspired to learn French, but I didn't.
Aaserud: The Los Alamos connection played a direct role.
Fitch: Oh yes. It certainly played a role when I went to Columbia, because as I said earlier, I met Rabi. But then Jerry Kellogg, who was one of Rabi's students, was the division leader in the physics division at Los Alamos, and he recommended that I go to Columbia. So it all largely hinged on the Los Alamos connection.
Aaserud: What did you do at Columbia? How long did you stay there as a student?
Fitch: I was there basically five years as a student, then I stayed on one year as an instructor. Then I came to Princeton.
Aaserud: Yes, so essentially until 1952 or something like that.
Fitch: I came to Princeton in 1954.
Aaserud: You came to Princeton in 1954?
Fitch: Yes. Actually I'd worked one extra year at Los Alamos after the war, just to make money.
Aaserud: Was it in the same capacity?
Fitch: The same job that I'd had in the Army, working as a civilian.
Aaserud: Was that before you went to McGill?
Fitch: That was before I went to McGill.
Aaserud: Then you went to McGill, then directly to Columbia. Who did you work for at Columbia?
Fitch: I worked with Rainwater almost immediately. As a matter of fact, the first time I met Rainwater was the first day I was there. I'd had a letter from Kellogg to Rabi introducing me — Rabi was then chairman of the department — so I went in to see him, and he immediately called Rainwater.
Aaserud: Whom you didn't know?
Fitch: Whom I didn't know. So I went upstairs and met him, and I worked with him all the time I was at Columbia then.
Aaserud: Was that a kind of work you had foreseen, or was that something entirely new, with Rainwater?
Fitch: No, as far as the work in physics is concerned, by that time I’d had a lot of laboratory experience, of course, and I knew how to do physics. But I didn't know all the physics, so I learned a lot of physics from Rainwater. But as far as learning the techniques for doing physics and so on, I already had that behind me, so I was able to start right in working with him. We had a rather significant PhD thesis for myself, and it worked out very nicely.
Aaserud: Maybe you could describe that work just briefly.
Fitch: The PhD thesis?
Aaserud: Yes, that was the main thing. That was the main production from Columbia, right?
Fitch: Right. That was interesting. Rainwater came along one day and threw a preprint on my desk, and said, "Maybe you'd be interested in doing this for your PhD thesis?" It was a preprint of John Wheeler's and it concerned muonic atoms. Muonic atoms had never been seen. But the Nevis cyclotron was just coming into operation, and people were interested in that as a pi-meson factory, or at least a producer of pi-mesons. It was well known that pi’s decayed to mu’s, so there was ultimately a source of new mesons. So that's where we started; just when the Nevis cyclotron was coming into operation. We started then looking into all the different ways one might detect the X rays that are emitted when mu minus mesons come to rest in matter, since they naturally form an atomic system.
Well, it was at about that time that the sodium iodide crystal had been developed as a charged particle detector, but not only a charged particle detector. Because of the high Z it was a very efficient detector of photons, and by measuring the pulsite spectra coming out of photo tubes using sodium iodide crystals, one was able to get an energy spectrum of photons coming out.
And so there was a convergence of facilities and instrumentation techniques: a, the Nevis cyclotron; b, end window photo tubes that made scintillation counters really feasible; plus sodium iodide crystals. These things all come together just the time I was trying to detect X rays from stopping the minus mesons.
Initially we were not successful in finding any X rays, and were on the threshold of giving up. But then Rainwater suggested we look over a wider energy spectrum before throwing in the towel, and that we did, and there they were. The main point was that you were looking at the 2p to 1s transitions in lead, and John Wheeler had calculated that these transitions should occur at around 4 1/2 MEV; if one subtracts the annihilation radiation, that makes 3 1/2 MEV. In fact, we found them at around 5 MEV, with the transitional energies at 6. We had just been looking from 2 1/2 to 4 1/2 basically, so as soon as we looked at the larger energy range, there they were. That was the first indication then that the nucleus was really very much smaller than anyone had been thinking before. The previous techniques for measuring nuclear sizes had been consistently giving numbers that were too large.
So that was basically the first real physics that I had done, and it was just enormously successful. We saw the first muonic X rays, and not only that; we saw that the radius of the nucleus was not 1.4A1/3 x 10-13 cm, but rather, 1.2.
Aaserud: How much theory and how much experiment was involved on your part?
Fitch: It all depends on what you mean by theory. Rainwater never did anything without a lot of calculation, and in my case, I still have a stack of papers where he numerically integrated the Dirac equation by hand. This is before the days of computers. I don't call that theoretical physics, but there was an enormous amount of calculation, and I became all too familiar with asymptotic semi-convergent series, and so on and so on.
Aaserud: So the dissertation work turned out to be more important than anticipated.
Fitch: Than most, right.
Aaserud: You didn't expect it to provide the size of the nucleus.
Fitch: Well, that was actually one of the motivations. That was the content of the Wheeler preprint, as a matter of fact. The great sensitivity to nuclear size was the basic thrust of the Wheeler paper. But the fact that the energy levels were totally different from what had been expected was a surprise.
Aaserud: I'm sure that the Los Alamos experience too exposed you to the problem of how to apply physics for other reasons than physics itself. I mean, that was the purpose of the Los Alamos thing anyway. It was the first big scale attempt to apply physics to as large a project as that. Did you continue to maintain that outlook?
Fitch: Well, radar was another example, of course.
Aaserud: Of course. Everybody tends to forget that. I fall in the same trap.
Fitch: Well, I was especially sensitive to the radar because so many physicists were involved in both projects, as a matter of fact. They started out then at the Radiation Lab at MIT and then proceeded on to Los Alamos.
Aaserud: Regardless of that, to what extent did that experience have bearing on your later involvement in advising, and to what extent were you involved in such things immediately after?
Fitch: Actually I didn't get involved in any other activity until the time of Project 137. You probably learned of that.
Aaserud: Yes. The Wheeler —
Fitch: The Wheeler thing.
Aaserud: Didn't you even do contracting during that time — industrial contracting work?
Fitch: No. I was busily involved in doing research in physics, largely at Brookhaven, based here in Princeton. No, the Project 137 was my first exposure to the other kind of thing.
Aaserud: How did you get involved in that?
Fitch: I was simply asked by people to join this group that was meeting in an intensive way for three weeks that particular summer in Washington. I've forgotten; I think it was the summer of 1958.
Fitch: Sam Treiman was involved, Murph Goldberger, Ken Watson, Christofilos, Freeman Dyson. But we had an intensive briefing period at that time on what was going on in various areas.
Aaserud: What was the background of your being asked, do you think, since you hadn't been involved in such things before?
Fitch: I think it was precisely the same thing that led to the formation of the JASON group — just some physicists who were good at doing physics, and might be good at doing something else associated with physics, in connection with the national defense.
Aaserud: To what extent were you involved in the establishment of 137, and to what extent were you in at the motivations for this thing?
Fitch: I was at Berkeley that summer doing an experiment, and I simply received an invitation to participate in this.
Aaserud: Probably with some description of what it was all about.
Fitch: Well, some description and telephone calls and so on, but nothing on paper that I remember, actually.
Aaserud: Would you still have such documents do you think?
Fitch: I doubt it. I've never been very good about saving anything. As you see, I have a problem. Normally it just ends up in the waste basket. Some people are so methodical and save everything, and I tend not to be one of those.
Aaserud: Of course, it might be somewhere, but it might take a while to find it.
Fitch: Well, yes, I simply don't know.
Aaserud: I talked with Treiman too about Project 137. I got the impression that it was mostly educational.
Fitch: It was a briefing. It was an extensive briefing, yes.
Aaserud: In preparation for something else that might come.
Fitch: Certainly JASON was an outgrowth of that; there's no doubt. No, it didn't come immediately, but one of the leading questions of the time Project 137 was coming to an end was: what sort of mechanism might be established to continue that kind of involvement of academic physicists in questions of national defense?
Aaserud: And Wheeler might have had some conception all along, of course, or a larger motivation for 137 in the first place. I don't know if you discussed that with Wheeler or others at the time.
Well, there was discussion, and of course, an outgrowth of Project 137 was a report.
When you're exposed to such a wide variety of problems, you immediately start making inventions, and such inventions certainly came out of Project 137, and so they went into the report.
Aaserud: So there were some positive contributions coming out of the effort also; it was not just a one way thing of being briefed and educated in national security questions generally speaking.
Fitch: That's right. As soon as you're presented with a problem, you immediately start inventing a way to solve the problem, and we certainly did that.
Aaserud: Yes, so you were given a problem and —
Fitch: Well, we invented our own problems. As an example, a problem is obviously communication with submarines; how do you communicate with submarines? So we started thinking about that. Of course, you think in terms of very low radio frequency communication to transmit anything through a reasonable depth of seawater. But then it struck a couple of us that if you have very low frequency, there is automatically a cavity that exists between the conducting surface of the earth and the conducting ionosphere, and that cavity has resonant modes, and is that going to be useful in propagating very low frequencies? So you start inventing, and it turns out that that particular idea had already been thought of by Tesla 40 years earlier. But that's the kind of thing that an exposure of that nature will stimulate. As I said, you start inventing. It turns out that the Q is too low.
Aaserud: This is 137 you're talking about now?
Fitch: That's right.
Aaserud: Were you involved in any project in particular with 137? Or maybe that's what you were mainly involved with?
Fitch: Nobody was; it was a three week intensive briefing. But when one is presented with problems, then you start inventing solutions to the problems, right? Then after three weeks you write a report, and if you have any ideas, they are included in the reports. Somewhere in the dusty files of the Pentagon, I'm sure that there's a 137 report.
Aaserud: I understood that Wheeler had a somewhat different conception for the outcome of 137, or the continuing kind of activity than what became JASON. He was thinking more of an institutionalized laboratory — an “initiation laboratory,” I think — that was closer to basic physics than the traditional weapons laboratories were; the traditional laboratory was Los Alamos. Were you involved in that kind of discussion?
Aaserud: But you have heard about it, maybe at a later date?
Fitch: Well, I just wasn't involved until the formation of JASON, actually.
Aaserud: Let's turn to the formation of JASON, then. Of course 137 was an important input. I suppose that there were others.
Fitch: I would guess that JASON would not have existed, had it not been for 137. Certainly there was a big common denominator in people, for example.
Aaserud: But there were other inputs as well. I'm thinking about the efforts of Goldberger, Brueckner, Watson — and Gell-Mann, I suppose — to establish some kind of independent consulting. I think that was a thread that was rather independent from the 137 study. I may be wrong.
Fitch: Yes. But as I said, I don't think JASON would have been started except for 137 presenting the germ of an idea.
Aaserud: So it was the ambitions of a group of consulting young scientists coming together with the educational ambitions of an older guard, you might say.
Aaserud: Were you involved in those ambitious efforts of Goldberger, Brueckner, and others?
Fitch: I was an original member of that group, but I was not one of the founders.
Aaserud: No, because they sought I think at one point to establish a private consulting thing of physicists, and were discouraged from that.
Fitch: Well, you have to find out from them. Undoubtedly they know much more than I do about that.
Aaserud: Yes. So what was your first exposure to JASON, then? How did that come about? Did it come directly after 137?
Fitch: Not really. Let's see, I believe the first summer meeting of JASON was 1961; I'm not sure.
Aaserud: I think it was 1960. It was established in December 1959 formally, and I think the first summer study was the summer after.
Fitch: And where was that? I only think of locations.
Aaserud: Well, I don't have that information.
Fitch: It may have been at Berkeley. I've forgotten.
Aaserud: Well, that's hard to remember. But do you remember how you became a member? Were you approached again by some physicists?
Fitch: I was just invited to join. A format was quickly established: spring and fall meetings in Washington, which were two or three days, again, of intensive briefings, and then there was a period of six weeks in the summer when people would get together and work on concrete problems.
Aaserud: So that was the format from the outset, and it's remained like that ever since.
Fitch: Yes. And I participated, I would say, sort of half. I might be in the summer study for three or four weeks up through 1965, and after that I had scarcely any involvement. I was too busy doing other things.
Aaserud: I'm mainly interested in the first ten to fifteen years anyway, so that's fine with me. How would you describe your motivation for joining JASON at the time?
Fitch: Well, certainly there was a certain idealism involved, and it was a channel through which we could participate in national defense. I think we were idealistic about that in those days, and some of the problems that one was exposed to were interesting — there's no doubt about it. One was exposed to a wide range of problems that were outside the traditional problems that you encounter in academic physics or in academic research. If you had a very wide ranging interest, as I've always had, you find these things fascinating. You learn about aerodynamics. You learn about fluid mechanics. If you've been doing particle physics, why, it's refreshing to look into these other areas and learn something about them. At the same time, you're bringing a different point of view, a different perspective, into these other areas which one would like to think are sufficiently refreshing that it might make a positive contribution.
Aaserud: Was there a discussion at the time, that you were or were not involved in, about the proper vehicle for accomplishing such a thing? I mean, were there alternatives to JASON?
Fitch: No. It was essentially the only game in town in that respect, so I don't think there was any discussion of alternatives. This is always in the context of each of us having as our prime interest our own academic research. I've always had graduate students working on thesis projects, and it was always a little hard for me to free up much time to work on JASON projects, because of the fact that if you're an experimental physicist, it's in the summer that you tend to get most things done, as a matter of fact. And JASON met in the summer, so there was that basic conflict that was always there. It certainly didn't give one time to reflect on, couldn't there be a better way of doing it, and so on and so forth. We were just too busy to spend as much time with JASON as we might have liked to begin with.
Aaserud: How much time did you spend on JASON?
Fitch: Well, as I said, between the period of 1960 to 1965, I probably spent about half the period that JASON was meeting. If it was meeting six weeks, in the summer time, I probably spent on the average three weeks with them. And so on.
Aaserud: But it was a substantial part of your efforts anyway, if not compared to your academic work.
Fitch: On the average I was there three weeks a year, right.
Aaserud: Maybe we could talk briefly on the general organization, collaboration, and such things, and then turn to the projects that you were involved in, in the detail that we can talk about them. Is that OK?
Fitch: In that respect, I don't really know what we can talk about. I don't really. I don't know when the statute of limitations runs out. It must run out fairly soon. But details like that, I would rather not discuss. I did mention one because it didn't really pan out, and that was the business of the ionosphere and the earth forming a cavity which one can think of exciting with a very low frequency radio waves. But the other things, I don't know. I don't want to be coy, but I just, as I said, don't know when the statute of limitations runs out.
Aaserud: Yes, maybe some general headlines or something.
Fitch: Well, I'd have to think back. It's been such a long time.
Aaserud: Yes. Well, as I said, I will be coming back, so I'm more than willing to discuss this again.
Fitch: OK. I should think a little more about those years and what I actually was doing. But the one thing sticks in my mind, and Ken Watson and I put together a paper on that, I know, concretely. But I'd have to think about the classification level of other things, and so on and so on.
Aaserud: Yes, fine. I don't want to get you into any kind of trouble. I should also explain that what will happen to this interview is that it will be transcribed and I will get back the transcription, edit it and send it to you. Then you will be free to delete or add or whatever, and you will also be free to decide what will be the access of it.
Fitch: This experience of JASON led subsequently to other activities. There used to be, probably you know about it, something called the President's Science Advisory Committee that was set up during the Eisenhower Administration. That continued through until 1973, when Nixon fired the whole committee. I was on that committee from 1970 to 1973, and while I was on the committee — before it was fired — I was chairman of something called the Strategic Panel, where we worried about strategic nuclear weapons and that kind of thing. So that kind of responsibility certainly came out of my exposure to similar problems in JASON. You know, some knowledge was gained through JASON of those particular problems.
Aaserud: Yes. What was your period in PSAC again?
Fitch: I was in PSAC from 1970 to 1973.
Aaserud: So that was after you quit JASON, so in time there was no overlap.
Fitch: Well, I guess I was still a member of JASON, but not an active member. I was just not active after 1965.
Aaserud: OK, but you never quit formally.
Fitch: I never quit formally.
Aaserud: So you still maintained the clearance.
Fitch: I still maintained the clearance, yes. Actually, I haven't been a member of JASON now though for 15 years.
Aaserud: OK, but it just lapsed like that.
Aaserud: To take the easier things, then. How new were you to defense concerns on the level that JASON took them up then? You had been involved in 137 but not in anything before that.
Fitch: That's right.
Aaserud: Except for the Los Alamos experience. And I suppose that most JASONs had the same experience or same lack of experience?
Fitch: I'd probably had more experience simply because of my Los Alamos connection. I'd had more experience of these things than other JASONs.
Aaserud: The establishment of JASON was precisely, in part at least, to get some of the best physicists of the new generation involved in such things.
Fitch: Most of the JASONs were theorists, also. I was one of the few experimentalists. I guess they felt that they needed someone around to keep their feet on the ground, so I was one of those.
Aaserud: Did that involve any problem of communication or anything of the sort?
Fitch: No. No.
Aaserud: There were more of you too, I suppose. You weren't the only experimentalist.
Fitch: Well, there was Garwin and Lederman and Henry Kendall. There was a small group of experimentalists here.
Aaserud: To what extent did JASON have an organizational structure during these early years? What was your place in that structure?
Fitch: I was just a member. There was an organizational structure. You know, there was a director, there was a —
Aaserud: — steering committee —
Fitch: — steering committee, and that was all done through IDA. And there was an executive secretary who handled all the housekeeping.
Aaserud: David Katcher, yes.
Fitch: David Katcher, have you talked to David Katcher?
Aaserud: Oh yes.
Fitch: I haven't seen him for a long long time. Very nice man.
Aaserud: I just sent him the interview in transcript, so he's probably working on it now.
Fitch: He must have all kinds of interesting stories to tell.
Aaserud: Yes, we had an interesting discussion.
Fitch: What is he doing now?
Aaserud: I think he's essentially retired. I actually didn't get much information on his later years.
Fitch: After IDA, I think he went to Arthur B. Little, but I'm not sure.
Aaserud: I'm not sure either. We discussed mostly his background, then IDA, and then we stopped there more or less. We didn't go any further.
Fitch: I tended to view him as a Washington bureaucrat. That’s being a little unfair, because he was really much more than that.
Aaserud: Well, he didn't have much of a background in physics of course, but I think he had a BA or something like that.
Fitch: I see. He knew how to organize things.
Aaserud: Yes. He was the first editor of PHYSICS TODAY, too.
Fitch: I see.
Aaserud: He seemed to me to be a pleasant bureaucrat, though.
Fitch: Well, he knew how to make contacts in Washington.
Aaserud: Other than that, are there any particular members you would single out as being important, powerful, during that period? That's a difficult question to answer.
Fitch: Well, Murph ran things, of course. I mean, he really ran it in his style. And there was the steering committee, but those were his close pals, and I think he basically set it up, and he ran things that way. If you haven't talked with him yet —
Aaserud: Yes, I have spoken to him, but I should speak to him more because he was one of the first ones that I spoke to. I was new in the game, newer than I am now.
Fitch: Well, certainly more than anyone else he was the prime mover who got the whole thing going. He set the style, the tone, and he was very important in this.
Aaserud: What was the Goldberger style and tone, as far as you're concerned?
Fitch: That's a good question. I would have to think of a very good answer. But there is a Goldberger style which is a very attractive style, and I think it's a becoming style. It's becoming of physicists, and there aren't many people; only Murph can pull it off, really. Many other people try.
Aaserud: It sounds to me rather intangible.
Fitch: Well, of course it is; it's intangible. I mean, you point to Oppenheimer, for example, as a man with charisma, and that was quite different. I got to know Oppenheimer quite well, especially after I came to Princeton. I didn't know him at Los Alamos. We were at opposite ends of the spectrum there, but I got to know him quite well after Princeton. Again, there is a charismatic style, but it's quite different. Murph has some of that. But it's not the same thing, though; it's different. It's more becoming than the Oppenheimer kind of charisma.
Aaserud: But it must be very different to run Los Alamos and to run JASON, of course. It's a whole different kind of enterprise.
Fitch: Well, of course, I knew Oppenheimer as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, and there that wasn't all that different.
Aaserud: Of course, I can't direct you towards the comparative approach either, probably, because you weren't in JASON with other chairmen — or were you in JASON under other chairmen than Murph?
Fitch: No, not really. No.
Aaserud: I was thinking of a possible change when Hal Lewis took over.
Fitch: That's right. I had essentially no contact with it during Hal Lewis's reign.
Aaserud: Right, but basically you were a member; you didn't take part in decision making of any sort.
Aaserud: To what extent did the JASONs constitute the same people that you worked with in academic life? I guess they weren't the same since most of them were theoreticians anyway.
Fitch: No, there was very little overlap in that, though I believe it is true that Jim Cronin, with whom I did some work that has become well known, was asked to join JASON, but he declined. That's as close as it ever got to people I was working with.
Aaserud: Was that simultaneous — I mean, your work together and he being asked to join JASON?
Fitch: I don't think there was any special correlation there. But I believe that he was asked to join and declined, at some point; I don't know what the point was.
Aaserud: During your active tenure, how constant was the membership? I gather it was very constant, but were there any changes?
Fitch: Very few. Let's see, I think the first person to leave was Francis Low. The first person that I remember leaving was Francis Low.
Aaserud: That couldn't have been too long before you. I have spoken to him. I just don't remember exactly.
Fitch: Yes. He was the first one that I remember who became disaffected. He was really quite disaffected. I think most of us have become disaffected sooner or later, but he was certainly the first.
Aaserud: Yes. What experience did you have with agencies? Did you have contact? Did you obtain projects from the agencies? Did you present the results of your projects? I guess all those things took place during the meetings, correct?
Aaserud: But did it go through the —
Fitch: Well, typically what would happen was that we would have meetings that had lots of heavy briefings, and then various members of JASON would get interested in problems. We'd put our thoughts down on paper and deliver reports. Now, these reports went to the appropriate agencies, the appropriate authorities, and that was the product of the study group.
Aaserud: Did you keep track of what happened to it or how it was used, if it was used?
Fitch: No, I never did. No. Well, I guess we occasionally got some feedback. Certainly we got feedback; there's no doubt, on thinking about it. It wasn't just things going down an empty hole.
Aaserud: To what extent did your work in JASON result in publications in the open literature?
Fitch: In my case, not at all. Not at all.
Aaserud: So there was no interconnection.
Fitch: I know that in some cases, there were some publications. There was great interest in the Hanbury-Brown-Twiss effect at one time. I remember Murph and Ken Watson writing a paper about that. It was an obvious outgrowth of what they learned in JASON, or what they brought actually to problems in JASON also.
That reminds me; one of the beneficial aspects of JASON was, in my own case, being exposed to things like the phase correlations and what comes out of the Hanbury-Brown-Twiss effects. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been exposed to that. So it enriched my own physics life as well, so I appreciated it from that point of view.
Aaserud: So in that sense it had some physics impact.
Fitch: It certainly enlarged my physics culture, no doubt about that.
Aaserud: To the extent that it affected the problems that you took up in academic physics at all?
Fitch: It certainly started me thinking, I think, more broadly about how one might approach problems, how one might apply those particular things to the kind of physics that I was doing. I certainly did that.
Aaserud: So it wasn't a mere burden in that respect. You did get something back from it at least.
Fitch: Oh, personally I profited; there's no doubt.
Aaserud: How much was technical and how much was general policy advice?
Fitch: Oh, in my case it was all technical.
Aaserud: For most people I think it was. But to what extent did you discuss policy implications and policy questions in relation to the technical work?
Fitch: Some members of JASON — Freeman Dyson, for example — would address problems that were almost entirely policy.
Aaserud: By choice?
Fitch: By choice. And others of us would address — well, physicists like to handle problems that have a solution on the horizon, and sometimes policy problems don't have a solution on the horizon. Most generally they don't have a solution on the horizon. That doesn't deter people like Freeman.
Aaserud: Could you compare your JASON involvement with your PSAC involvement? You said that you used your JASON expertise in working with problems in PSAC.
Fitch: Well, the main point there is that I had been at one point or another exposed to the major problems in the Defense Department, and had a general awareness of nearly everything that was going on. So this was automatically then a very useful background to have as a member of PSAC.
Aaserud: It was more in that —
Fitch: — it was more in that context.
Aaserud: In a general sense.
Fitch: Yes, nothing specific.
Aaserud: What I was aiming at in bringing in PSAC at this point was rather whether PSAC was more a general policy forum, whereas JASON was purely technical.
Fitch: Absolutely. Certainly, for obvious reasons, being closer to the center where decisions are made, and being asked for opinions on things; that's the whole point of the President's Science Advisory Committee, that was a point of it. Unfortunately, Mr. Nixon didn't like some of the advice that he got and got rid of the committee, but that's his problem. Well, it's the country's problem. As you know, it's one of the very very major problems in Washington right now. The people who are in position to give advice are by and large nonentities, as far as I can tell. I can speak knowingly only about scientific advice, but certainly I see it in other areas as well, and it's a grave problem for this country. I don't know how we can get things back on the track; I don't know, but there's just too much talent in this country going to waste right now.
Aaserud: Well, it's a continuing story right now.
Fitch: It's so manifest.
Aaserud: That's a whole different story. What about JASON as an interdisciplinary experience? Was it expansive for you in that respect?
Fitch: Interdisciplinary in the context of physics, but not outside of it.
Aaserud: Because the majority were theoreticians.
Fitch: Well, we simply looked at physical problems, and nothing global.
Aaserud: What kind of collaboration was there? Did you have more of a group kind of work within JASON than in other physics work?
Fitch: There were a number of groups. There would be a set of problems that would come up, and then of course if some problem interested you, then you'd talk with your other colleagues in JASON, and then small groups would naturally form around these areas of interest. One summer Wright from Chicago and Lederman and I did an experiment out in Stanford, under the aegis of JASON. We had a great time.
Aaserud: Oh, that was unusual, wasn't it?
Fitch: It was very unusual.
Aaserud: How many experiments have been done under the aegis of JASON?
Fitch: One, so far as I know.
Aaserud: That was it.
Fitch: Yes, that was it, but we had a great time.
Aaserud: Well, I won't ask you in any detail what that was about either; I don't know if that's also classified.
Fitch: Yes, I prefer not to talk about it, simply because I don't know whether grandfather clauses exist. I've been told that the statute of limitations runs out after 17 years. If you haven't had clearance for 17 years, then you can talk and say anything you want. But I've never checked into that. I think it's a good idea because you tend to forget.
Aaserud: Yes, it is a good idea. I shall remember that.
Fitch: I haven't checked into that.
Aaserud: 17 years. OK.
Fitch: The duration of a patent.
Aaserud: So I'll have to find a different question again. What about, could you describe how a summer meeting went about, and what was the structure of it, from beginning to end?
Fitch: Well, you're just asking for a different point of view, since you already know this.
Aaserud: No, actually, that particular question I haven't asked too many people.
Fitch: Well, I'll give you my view. At the spring and fall meetings, there would be, as I said, exposures to various briefings, and on the basis of interests that were expressed at that time, then further briefings and more specialized briefings would be held during the summer. Those briefings would perhaps constitute maybe 30 percent of the total time, and the rest of the time you're supposedly off working on things and trying to generate solutions to problems that you've been presented with. And the briefings, as I said, were more detailed ones about particular problems that had been pointed to in the spring and fall meetings. You know, people would come in — experts in various areas — and talk about these things from all over the country, from Washington as well as from the military industrial complex.
Aaserud: You had fall meetings and spring meetings as well, didn't you, even at that time?
Aaserud: And they had different functions?
Fitch: The spring meeting of course is much more directed towards establishing subjects for the summer study. The fall meeting, I think, as I recall was more general, and less specific to what might be done the following summer. Fall meetings were more mini-137, that is, general exposure to problems in the Defense Department and so on.
Aaserud: What about headings? I mean, what kind of things were you doing? You talked about submarine detection. I'm sure you were doing something in relation to test bans?
Fitch: Well, in the early sixties, of course, yes. I had worked on the test ban treaty in the late 1950s. I'd forgotten all about that. That was pre-project 137, as a matter of fact. I'd forgotten all about that.
Aaserud: In what context?
Fitch: I don't really know how I got involved, but I was involved. I was involved with Panofsky, and I guess he had gotten me involved in Project VELA, and that was 1957 or 1958. I had come to know Panofsky earlier, through an experiment that we had done together at Brookhaven. I think that was summer 1957. Then, when the question of the test ban treaty came up, he asked me to participate in Project VELA. We designed detectors for satellites to detect tests, and as a matter of fact, I know that those detectors are basically what fly around now; they’re very much patterned after what we devised at the time. They even have the same icosohedron shape that we designed. I've been very interested in the high energy gamma rays that those people see. Just the astrophysical results have been very interesting to me.
Aaserud: Who else participated in that project?
Fitch: As far as the detectors are concerned, Panofsky and I were I think almost alone, though there were other aspects of that whole business.
Aaserud: Project VELA.
Fitch: Yes, the VELA Hotel, which was the whole seismic network that has been set up to detect testing seismically, was another outgrowth, and Frank Press was involved in that at the time, and there were a number of meetings in Washington about that whole business.
Aaserud: That you participated in.
Fitch: Right. And of course there was Teller arguing, taking his usual stand that, after all, the Russians can always hide by decoupling with big holes and so on and so on. There's a man who can argue in the most convincing way. Purely logical line of argument, zero point to the bitter end. But everybody comes to their own conclusion.
Aaserud: Dyson was also talking about that. He took Teller's position on that. In 1960 he wrote an article in FOREIGN AFFAIRS, arguing against the test ban treaty.
Fitch: Dyson did?
Aaserud: Dyson did, yes. But he changed his mind rather quickly.
Fitch: I see. Well — now that you invite me to think about those things it all starts coming back.
Aaserud: Was there any connection between your involvement in Project VELA and the setting up of JASON?
Fitch: Not that I'm aware of.
Aaserud: Well, maybe your willingness to participate in such things.
Fitch: No, I've always just been a name in the hat, as near as I can tell. I just haven't had the time, or haven't taken the time, to do anything more than just participate in these things. I haven't been a prime mover, and I haven't thought very carefully about who has been prime moving the things. I haven't worried about their problems.
Aaserud: I shouldn't bother you with specific projects, but I'll give you one more question in that direction, and maybe we could talk about that at a later stage. If I'm going to do a history of JASON during its first ten to fifteen years, I think it would make sense to deal with at least one of their projects in a somewhat detailed manner, not down to the nuts and bolts, but at least to have some sense of that project and how it was worked out. Is there any candidate for such a project that you can think of that would be typical and that would be acceptable? And interesting too, preferably. I guess those are the three criteria.
Fitch: Actually, the one that I mentioned, that Watson and Goldberger published, on the Hanbury-Brown-Twiss effect, and using those kinds of phenomena in X rays and so on, that might be a possibility, because it's certainly something we worked on, and it was in that connection that we did that experiment that summer. That might be sufficiently free; one has to be awfully careful. One would have to be careful, but I sense one aspect of that has already been published. And offhand I can't think of any classified application. But it's in that area that I could be totally wrong, also, simply because I've been out of that circuit for so long.
Aaserud: What about different political views within JASON? How different were they, and did they at all play a role in projects that were taken up or not taken up?
Fitch: Well, there were certainly divergent political views, and also, varying degrees of — what shall I say — dove and hawk. I think there's a fairly wide spectrum there, and some members would come closer to espousing a super-hawk line — a Teller line for example, which I consider to be super-hawk — than other members. It's also true that those who took a softer line were also those who faded out of the picture earlier, and found it basically distasteful — Francis Low, for example.
Aaserud: Are you implying that JASON has been moving to the right?
Fitch: That's an interesting question. Obviously I've been out of the circuit for a long time now, so I look back on it and I'm inclined to worry about the degree to which we were used. At the same time, we were very alert to that possibility — certainly very much aware of that possibility. But in retrospect, well, I don't know. There's a time for everything, and of course now the situation is very much different than it used to be. So what one perceives now is certainly not what one should have or could have or was entitled to perceive at an earlier day, in an earlier stage.
At the present time, I can't say. Some of my colleagues are still working with JASON. I'm sure that it's still doing noble work in many areas, and bringing a point of view to the Defense Department which they would ordinarily not get — an important point of view. From my own feeling, I've just been relieved that I don't have any clearances any more, and I don't have to worry about that. I tend to think in terms of JASON now — and this is a purely personal feeling; I tend to think of it in terms of a manifestation of what I would call the military-industrial-academic complex. Academicians have somehow found themselves in bed perhaps with other forces. It's difficult, but this is something that crosses my mind very often. But as for myself, as I said, I just feel a much freer person, not having any clearances any more — not for a long time now.
Aaserud: Did you have those kinds of discussions at any length in JASON when you were a member?
Fitch: I don't recall, them, no. But as I said, it does have this very important role of being a point of view from a group of people who are not given to keeping their mouths shut. Bringing a point of view to the Defense Department — I think that's important.
And it is a channel by which people can maintain clearances — and hence have information — which is not normally available to academic people, and on a very broad basis. It makes it possible then for people like Sid Drell, for example, who is still a member of JASON, to be able to answer people like Teller when he says, "If you knew what I know." And so Sid can come back, "Well, I know what you know," in an equal way, and that's an important role for something like JASON.
Aaserud: Well, it's the insider-outsider question.
Fitch: It's difficult.
Aaserud: It's very very difficult. I mean, I guess Henry Kendall is the best example perhaps of a person turning from insider to outsider.
Fitch: He just found that he could be much more effective outside than inside.
Aaserud: I interviewed him a couple of weeks ago, and I got the sense that he had essentially the same motivation for joining JASON and doing work for JASON as he now has in the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Fitch: Oh yes. Well, he was certainly the prime originator of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and that all got started from what he had learned in JASON. As I perceive it, they must have learned directly from him. Through JASON he certainly became very aware of the safety problems associated with pressurized water reactors, and what the then AEC was doing about it. That's what started the formation of the Union of Concerned Scientists, no doubt.
Aaserud: How did you respond to the demand for secrecy that was involved in JASON and JASON work?
Fitch: Well, as I said, I'm very happy to be free of that. In retrospect, there were no secrets essentially. I think there are secrets at any operational and tactical level, but none at the strategic level. Even though I haven't had clearances for l3 years, I'm sure that Teller doesn't know anything that I don't know or can't figure out, given five minutes of time.
Aaserud: Yes, but he would of course be able to —
Fitch: He would be able to argue and convince other people, that's true. As you probably know, the American Physical Society has a problem like that right now with their Directed Energy Weapons Study. The clearances of this famous report is being decided on at this moment, so far as I know, and it's not clear how that's going to go. But there was a case where the report was put together by people who had been cleared to receive classified data, but they were intent on producing a classified report. So they did presumably produce an unclassified report — a report with no classified members per se — but the fear is that it's going to be classified in the aggregate. So we'll see. I will have to deal with that problem next year.
Aaserud: You said you were glad to be rid of the clearances and all that now, but at the time you were leaving, what was your motivation for that? You said it was essentially that you didn't have time. Were there other considerations?
Fitch: I found the problems were getting boring, frankly. They were interesting on first exposure and working on them for a while. But after a while, it's the same old thing, the same old jokes, the same. Frankly I found it boring.
Aaserud: Even if you left after Low, you also left before Vietnam became a public issue with JASON, correct?
Fitch: The last summer I worked actively was the summer of 1965, and Vietnam was very much, I'd say, center stage then. And the McNamara Line was part of the electronic fence and so on, and so that's, I'd say, choice JASON activity. That marked the end of my active participation in it.
Aaserud: Was there any clash between your view of the Vietnam War and JASON's involvement in it, and did that play a role in your decision? It's a leading question.
Fitch: It's a very fair question. I guess it did stimulate — let me say that it stimulated disinterest on my part.
Aaserud: Were you asked to be involved in the barrier project, for example?
Fitch: We certainly did some work on it in the summer of 1965. But that was still very early in that particular thing, too.
Aaserud: Yes, it was. It hadn't reached the headlines yet.
Fitch: No, and everyone was, I think, still believing everything they heard.
Aaserud: You know, Treiman and some others, had to delay their departure because they didn't want to depart under that severe pressure from students and faculty and what not. For example, at Columbia that was the case.
Fitch: Well, yes, that's the reason I never did resign, as a matter of fact. I never did resign from JASON, for the same reason. But at the same time, I didn't have any interest in pursuing it. The net result was that I just never went to any further meetings.
Aaserud: Was there ever a case on your part in which you were asked to discuss things in public that you couldn't because of your JASON involvement?
Fitch: No. I always maintain a very low profile in that respect, and I just never —
Aaserud: Of course, some people have had that problem, but it's a minority, I guess. Most JASONs have kept a low profile in that respect.
Fitch: Well, Freeman [Dyson] I think is a counter-example. He's taken a very public position on many things.
Aaserud: And Richard Garwin too, of course.
Fitch: Have you interviewed Garwin yet?
Aaserud: I'm in the process of doing it. I started a larger interview effort with him.
Fitch: He must still be a member, and he's always been a very active participant in those things. He just loves it. He was a member of PSAC when we were fired.
Aaserud: Oh yes, SST and all that.
Fitch: SST and all that, yes.
Aaserud: Yes, we're getting to that.
Fitch: I see.
Aaserud: He sent me a whole stack of —
Fitch: He's a man who is exceedingly well organized.
— of material. It's all on computers, of course.
What about the relationship of JASONs with the larger physics community? Did you experience any expressions of that?
Fitch: No, I never did. Some of my colleagues at Columbia obviously did, but there was never anything around here. Mal Ruderman and Henry Foley at Columbia certainly had all kinds of slings and arrows hurled in their direction.
Aaserud: Yes, they sure did. They're getting it now, I hear.
Fitch: Oh, is that right?
Aaserud: Yes, it's renewed student activity — petitions and all that kind of thing.
How unique do you see JASON as a kind of institution combining basic research with government advice? Were there other institutions that could?
Fitch: Certainly there are other institutions that function in a very similar way. The RAND Corporation, for example. That's the leading one. And then Herman Kahn set up the Hudson Institute, but that was almost orthogonal. I think the RAND Corporation is probably the closest analogue to what JASON was going to do. But still that was an in-house operation, and the people involved were all captive to that particular thing, which of course got its support from the Defense Department. I guess almost its entire support came from the Defense Department, so in a sense it was captured. JASON, it's true, got its funding from the Defense Department, but one never had the feeling that it was in any sense a captive, and that was probably its greatest virtue. I don't know if that's true anymore or not, now that it's become something else. The MITRE Corporation is commonly referred to as one of the Beltway Bandits, so I'm not sure it has the same status that it once had.
Aaserud: Why theoretical physicists? I mean, were theoretical physicists particularly suited for the task, or did it just happen that it was a group of theoretical physicists that did come together?
Fitch: Well, I think the product — reports and papers and assessments of problems in a physical context — is something which is very natural to the theorist. It's also true that experimentalists, as I said before, are tied to their equipment much more, and they find it difficult to get away for extended periods in the summer. As I said, I had trouble getting away for more than three weeks or so a summer, and so going off to JASON was always kind of a family vacation, as far as I was concerned. I'd take the family along, and we'd go to some exotic place like La Jolla or what have you.
Aaserud: It was like that for most, I think.
Fitch: So it was a family vacation. But it's just difficult to free experimentalists from their equipment, and at the same time theorists are much more used to dealing with problems of that particular nature — analytical problems that were presented — and the product is a paper. You know, there's the program and here's the solution. If you can write out many equations that makes it more impressive.
Aaserud: You said that there was a relationship with your JASON experience and your PSAC experience.
Fitch: Well, in the sense that JASON provided a lot of background for problems that were being addressed by PSAC, that's absolutely true.
Aaserud: Did the JASON involvement play a role in your being picked for PSAC, do you think?
Fitch: Probably. I mean, it's a natural channel.
Aaserud: Has JASON served as a springboard for other activities for you?
Aaserud: There's been JASON and PSAC.
Fitch: JASON and PSAC; and things like the VELA Hotel thing came earlier.
Aaserud: So you were essentially a blue collar JASON.
Fitch: I was a blue collar JASON, right.
Aaserud: That's actually Francis Low’s term.
What about the impact of JASON? What difference did it make in terms of, of course, having impact on the government and science policy or national security questions, but also in terms of educating physicists for this kind of activity? Let's take the first perhaps; that's the larger question.
Fitch: You know, once you spend some time in Washington, you begin to wonder if in fact anything is worthwhile. You go down there, and you just have the feeling that all you're doing is, not pulling strings but pushing strings, and you become very frustrated. But at the same time, what happens is a sum of many ingredients from all kinds of quarters. I think JASON is probably supplying an important ingredient — and expressing a point of view — which isn't often heard. As I said, at least in the early days, JASONs didn't feel beholden to anybody — certainly not the Defense Department, certainly not the executive. It was just a very free-wheeling open discussion group, and that's exceedingly important. And somehow those points of view do get through to people making everyday decisions in the Defense Department. Contacts with JASONs are normally at the higher levels of the Defense Department, perhaps not the Secretary of Defense himself, though Harold Brown of course was Secretary of Defense; while he was never a member of JASON, still, he would have been a prime candidate, had he not been director at Livermore and things like that.
Aaserud: He was the only physicist Defense Secretary, wasn't he?
Fitch: I think so. Well, Packard of course was Secretary of Defense. More an engineer than a physicist, but still, I think we always felt that he was one of us.
No, one can become exceedingly frustrated at the way things happen in Washington and how decisions turn out. Still, I think JASON must have supplied very important ingredients at one time or another. Certainly the most obvious thing, I suspect, was the efforts to start a withdrawal from Vietnam in 1965, with McNamara and so on. I mean, I think there was as very drastic case of JASON involvement there.
Aaserud: There it reached higher than usual too, I think. I mean, that was a direct channel to the Defense Secretary.
Fitch: Perhaps higher than usual, because certainly McNamara had to have a very high degree of technical input to start that kind of discussion.
Aaserud: But that wasn't JASON; that was a larger group too.
Fitch: Well, with a strong JASON ingredient.
Aaserud: But it was also the MIT crowd, so to speak.
Fitch: Right. Jerry Wiesner and a few others.
Aaserud: So the answer is, you think it has made a difference.
Fitch: Oh, I'm sure it's made a difference, but it's awfully difficult, having been frustrated with what goes on in Washington, to estimate how much.
Aaserud: When did you first have that experience of pushing strings, as you said?
Fitch: Well, in PSAC. Of course that was near the end of PSAC also. One has to be careful, because it was near the end of PSAC, when the President basically wasn't listening. Once that becomes generally known through the bureaucracy, of course then you are pushing strings.
Aaserud: But you went to JASON without feeling that. Then of course you didn't have the exposure to Washington.
Fitch: That's right. That came later.
Aaserud: Well, first of all, how would I go about answering that question? I should of course not only ask JASONs about this. I should also go to the other side of it, namely, to Washington and to the people picking up on JASON, possibly.
Fitch: That would be a good thing to do — talking to Harold Brown, for example. And he would probably be very accessible. Some of the Under Secretaries — the past Under Secretaries of Defense — were the ones who had the real contacts with JASON .
Aaserud: The DDR&Es?
Fitch: The DDR&Es.
Aaserud: That's different.
Fitch: But some of the Under Secretaries. Names are escaping me right now. You can pick up these things from others, and I would pursue them. But I think in certain rather narrow technical areas that have enormous strategic importance, JASON has made some very significant contributions, and you must have been made aware of that.
Aaserud: Yes. With Treiman I talked about a spectrum of work, starting with independent projects originating with JASON, and towards, at the other end, purely evaluative work. The first is much more interesting, especially to a theoretical physicist, but he thought also that the evaluative work had been more important in terms of impact. That was the things that the government or agencies had taken more seriously in terms of advice. Also, that evaluative work had become increasingly more important, as advising had become more prominent in other agencies. I mean, JASONs is not alone any more in doing this kind of thing.
Fitch: No. I can think of one or two areas where I think just the sheer technical input would have been much slower coming in other channels, if ever. Obviously I'm talking about things that happened that certainly were classified, and it's classified because it's important. I'm sure that JASON has had just exceedingly important contributions there.
Aaserud: You sound almost like Teller now.
Fitch: Yes, I'm sorry, I'm falling into my own trap. But you must be aware of what they are if you've talked to some other people. I just won't take a chance. If I read AVIATION WEEK, I could probably point to the relevant things.
Aaserud: Were there publications like that, that might reflect the important areas? Well, that's hard.
Fitch: Yes, I'm sure that there isn't a piece of super-classified work that hasn't been reported in AVIATION WEEK. If one reads that selectively, you can find out everything.
Aaserud: That's a huge task.
Fitch: It's just that in the aggregate, it's not classified, because there's so much other stuff.
Aaserud: Well, generally speaking, how meaningful do you think it is to separate out physicists as a vehicle for science policy? My general study concerns physicists in science policy, science policy very generally understood, and it's not a well understood concept because
America hasn't had a very well defined science policy. That's another thing. But do you think it makes sense to look at that? I mean, there are a lot of other things involved in science policy of course than physicists, and there are a lot of other things physicists do besides science policy.
Fitch: Well, I think it's probably an ego trip of my own, but I think physicists are by training better prepared to address new problems and give them a sensible evaluation than any other technical group, just by training and the way they think about things. There are certainly people in other areas who are very good at that, but in every case, they're thinking like physicists. I see that again and again.
Herb Simon at Carnegie Mellon, for example. He's a social scientist of some sort, but he thinks like a physicist, and he can analyze and come up with solutions that are based on a chain of logical arguments, which is very difficult for other people to do. Also, physicists are not intimidated by almost anything. They just aren't, and they are not fooled by names. As I said it's perhaps a kind of ego trip that's involved, but I think there's a lot of factual basis for this. And as soon as the government advisory apparatus turned away from physicists, I think things started to collapse, and it became a less convincing operation.
Aaserud: Do you think that's equally as much the case now as it was say in the first years after Los Alamos, or physicists' involvement in the war, generally speaking?
Fitch: I had the occasion to sit next to the chief financial officer of Standard Oil Company the other night. I won't tell you the circumstances, but there I was. And it turned out that as a very young man he had gotten his degree from Cambridge, England, in 1979, and he was trained as a physicist. He got his degree. He was told by his family that he had to go out and make a living, and so he decided if he had to make a living he might as well make a good living. So he had a fellowship to go off to Stanford to study physics, but he chose instead to go to the Stanford Business School for a year, and then he got a job with Standard Oil. He's now their chief financial officer. And so I was asking him precisely the question, “Is physics a good training for that kind of thing?” And he said, "Absolutely."
There are the practical aspects. Of course, he knew all about computers and so on, and in the business world that's still an intimidating black box. But he said, "Just the power of analysis and thinking problems through and first principles was such a powerful tool." He found that the case in the particular business that he'd gotten himself into, and he thought it was just great training for it. So here, in a totally almost irrelevant area, I was pleased to have my suspicions confirmed. In short, I'm very pleased with my own subject.
Aaserud: Yes, but of course, physicists are not as predominant generally in science policy now as it was during PSAC times.
Fitch: But as I said, I think that's one of the reasons things have fallen apart.
Aaserud: It's not that physics itself is changing, and that the physics education is changing.
Fitch: No, I don't think so at all. It's just that there's a different kind of person there, and they think differently, and they don't analyze things as carefully, and they are perhaps intimidated by the wrong things. I don't know what it is. It's certainly different.
Aaserud: OK. Thank you.