Oral History Transcript — Lewis Branscomb
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Interview with Lewis Branscomb
Lewis Branscomb; April 7, 1986
ABSTRACT:Status of unpublished papers. Awareness of science policy from undergraduate years at Duke University; joined JASON in the 1960's; left after Vietnam involvement for directorship of National Bureau of Standards. Impact of President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) and other science policy groups. Creation and potential of JASON; projects relating to Vietnam war; summer studies and selection of projects; choice of members; JASON physics vs academic physics; JASON's uniqueness.
Aaserud:What is the status of your own papers — papers while you were working at IBM and before?
Branscomb:I have a very poor track record of papers. I haven't been good at keeping papers. All the papers associated with my work at the Bureau of Standards — culminating in my being director — I simply felt belonged to the public, and the government. The Bureau of Standards did whatever they do to put all that under the care of the National Archives. So it's available through the Archives, and I haven't the remotest idea what it is, because I don't know what was thrown away or kept. Secondly, in IBM, there was some kind of administrative effort made and still being made — I don't have a lot of confidence in it — to separate out the things I've done where the correspondence went through this office but which related to outside activities like the National Science Board or Corporate Board. All that stuff I have in boxes in my basement. Everything else IBM has under its control. It errs on the side of it being under IBM control, and if anybody ever wanted to study all that, there are archives in Iron Mountain, and I guess that stuff is preserved. It's probably not easy to get at. But if Bernard Cohen thought it was a good idea, the company would probably consider it. He's the house historian of science and ideas.
Aaserud:So everything is in one place — what would be considered closed for some reason and what there would be no reason to close.
Branscomb:And as far as materials relating to my personal scientific work are concerned, they really don't exist. My belief is that the published paper is the place where the work ought to exist. I've never believed in cult of personality, and never thought my work was going to be important enough that anybody would want to see it.
Aaserud:Well, there might be different opinions on that, of course. You're very interesting for my general project from the point of view of your being involved first in academic physics, then in government physics, then in industrial physics, so that you span the whole area there. Therefore it would be very good to have a general interview that would span that whole involvement, and to receive your comments on how these different involvements fit together or don't fit together. Of course, you have written quite a few things on that too that we could use as a starting point. What I would like to ask you now from this general perspective is how in the first place you came to concern yourself with science policy questions in a very general sense.
Branscomb:That goes all the way back to undergraduate days, when I had the equivalent of a full major in political science in parallel with physics and math. My father was a Rhodes Scholar in classics and theology at Duke University. I've had kind of a broad family background. When I was at Harvard in graduate school, I was given a fellowship in the Society of Fellows, which again compels you to stretch your breadth as well as your depth. I was in fact asked to serve and did serve as the secretary of a very interesting discussion group that met on Saturdays, which included Clyde Kluckholn, who was running the Russian Studies Institute, Merle Fainsod and Bill Fairbank, who were international affairs experts, Ed Purcell, a couple of MIT technical people, discussing what to do about the Soviet Union, from a policy point of view. I was the recording secretary of that group as a student and found that quite fascinating. So I've been interested for a long, long time. I launched a personal scientific career doing some very difficult experiments. I was at the Bureau of Standards when I was asked by Jerry Wiesner to help out his staff, which was undertaking something called the Bell Study on federal contracting. The basic issue was that the government was being pressured to stop using these captive non-profit FFRDC contractors and do things with commercial business. His reaction was that the right way to defend that policy is to work on the assertion that ideally the government would do more of this stuff in-house if it had the in-house competence. And so the question was, where is the in-house competence and what do you do to improve it? There was always the presumption that the Bureau of Standards had a lot of that competence, and I suspect it was David Robinson who fingered me. David, by the way, is a very important person, because he has not been the chief mucketymuck in any politically visible activity, but he's been absolutely central to American policy I think in a variety of roles for many years. That got me involved on that staff, and led to a fabulous interview with Admiral Rickover.
Aaserud:What time are we talking about now?
Branscomb:Oh, we're talking late fifties.
Aaserud:Sputnik time just about.
Branscomb:That led to my appointment to a whole variety of government agency advisory committees on various things. There was a period of time when I was on the steering committee for the fusion program; I was involved with some foreign aid things from time to time because the Bureau of Standards itself was. I got very involved shortly after I arrived, when Eisenhower came into office, in the battery additive AD-X2 issue. I joined the FAS, and was head of the Washington chapter of the FAS in those early days. Ed Condon had hired me at the Bureau of Standards. I'd known him here. He of course is a figure in science policy. So he had a lot of influence. Finally, I was appointed to the President's Science Advisory Committee by Don Hornig. I think I was the first civil servant ever to serve on what was ostensibly an outside the government committee. Since then there were others — Herb Friedman for example at NRL, who by the way is another very good science policy resource. Herb Friedman was in NRL all his life. You ought to have some people who served in the civil service for a long period of time. Rut Herb also is very prominent in the world of astronomy and in the Academy, and has had many, many senior positions. So once I got on the President's Science Advisory Committee, then I got trapped in all that activity.
Aaserud:Yes, but the origin of it was definitely much earlier.
Branscomb:It goes all the way back to undergraduate days and probably long before.
Aaserud:Was there any interconnection between your choosing physics and your science policy interest?
Aaserud:So the causality is really, perhaps, from science policy to physics rather than vice versa in your own career.
Branscomb:Well, they all went up together. It's always been my philosophy that — at least when you're young, I'm not sure it works when you're old — whatever interests you have at the moment, you should explore, and you shouldn't worry about whether or not you're having to make these agonizing choices between doing this or doing that, because you always have to make choices. So pick the most interesting thing there is at hand to do and do it, and let the future take care of whether there are any relationships between these disparate things you like to do. It turns out that there almost always are. So this interest in policy and in science came back together again in Washington. I had no intention of being in the government when I started out. I went to Washington only because I was doing an experiment at Harvard that was too hard to do at a university. The Bureau of Standards had the facilities. It was my intention to stay two years, do the experiment, publish three or four papers, avoid the agony of being an instructor, and get my assistant professorship the easy way. Needless to say it didn't turn out that way.
Aaserud:You talked about your early interest in national security, weapons and things. In your later publications, you have often stressed the civil aspect of science policy in favor of the military aspect. In that connection I would like to ask you when and why you joined JASON, because JASON of course was, at least at the beginning, mainly concerned with military matters.
Branscomb:Yes. It was entirely concerned with military matters when I was involved. I guess it was early sixties but I'm very bad on dates. It's easier to look it up than it is to guess.
Aaserud:JASON originated in 1959.
Branscomb:I was certainly not a charter member then, and I think I joined in the early sixties. That was at a time when there was a lot of interest in various aspects of rocketry. I remember being very impressed at being one of a very small number of essentially experimental scientists, because the theory capabilities of these JASONites was overwhelming and quite fascinating to me. I spent a fair amount of time with Bob LeLevier. We did some very original work on missile wake chemistry and the role of negative ions in nuclear blackouts. So I found it scientifically quite rewarding. It was a very interesting demonstration that people can spend 90 percent of their time doing something very effete in their scientific work, and if they're properly extroverted and self-confident, can just take seven weeks and go do something totally different, and be effective. I've often thought other people ought to try that from time to time. The analogy at IBM would be for engineers to take seven weeks off and go out in a branch office or a customer's office and prove that a research person can solve problems of a business character. I'm convinced smart people can do smart things. I was still in JASON when the Vietnam War came along, and JASON got involved in that. I was not a part however of the inner group that Kistiakowsky and a few others were involved in, which started this separate project on technologies for interdicting supply lines.
Aaserud:The electronic barrier, so called. You left soon after that?
Branscomb:No, I left when I became director of the Bureau of Standards. I was a member of the Defense Science Board at that time, and my conclusion was that I really didn't have time for JASON when I was director. Besides, there were very important issues on the role of the Department of Commerce in consumer protection. I was concerned about a whole set of civil technology issues in the economy, like building technology and fire research, and we had some quasi-regulatory concerns having to do with flammability of children's pajamas, and what not. The Bureau of Standards was a very demanding job with a unique role in the civil sector, which no other institution has. So I concluded that that's where I should put my time and effort. It was important to the nation too.
Aaserud:There was not a conflict of interest. That was not a concern.
Branscomb:You also have to remember that the theory under which JASON was invented was to create a surrogate wartime research organization, so that in the event there was another national emergency that called, for high level scientific leadership, there would be experienced people to come into the government to address technical problems. The model assumes that history would repeat itself, that you couldn't find those people inside the government, and that you had to go outside. It also noted that some folks were not successful in World War II. Some had a long learning period. So the purpose was to create a second generation of academic leaders who had some contacts and experience with government problems. Presumptively the emergency would be a military emergency, and therefore this was a military-oriented thing. That whole model seems terribly quaint in retrospect. For it isn't at all obvious that if there were a comparable emergency today, the government would turn to universities for that character of leadership.
Aaserud:Wasn't that kind of reasoning the background for the establishment of PSAC also?
Branscomb:I don't think so. The right person to ask about that of course, is Bill Golden, and in fact a lot of that is documented in his book on the question of whether there should he another PSAC, which he deeply believes there should. No, I think PSAC was a device that followed the invention of the Science Advisor. To some extent you're right. PSAC was born; as was the Science Advisor's role, out of the problem of how does the President get the technical facts straight about the nature of the Soviet strategic intercontinental ballistic missile challenge.
Aaserud:Because PSAC also started out with essentially military questions.
Branscomb:But it moved pretty quickly.
Aaserud:— to broader concerns, yes. How would you evaluate the impact of JASON in relation to other science policy mechanisms?
Branscomb:First of all I would say that if I were listing science policy mechanisms, I would scarcely list JASON at all. That's going hack to the years I was in JASON. I haven't watched what they've done more recently. The ability of the office of the Secretary of Defense to use JASON depended upon it becoming a group of technical experts. The JASONites themselves of course were interested in influencing policy, but that was, it seemed to me, resisted with some degree of effectiveness. To the extent that JASON influenced policy it was because there were personal relationships between the JASONites and key individuals in Defense. At the time Kistiakowsky had a lot of influence. He was then vice president of the Academy, had been involved in PSAC, and had indeed been Science Advisor. PSAC was a mechanism with which people could attempt to influence policy. You can say that, like PSAC, JASON as such had an influence on the Vietnam War policy or that it tried to. I was on the Strategic Military Affairs Panel of PSAC, which attempted to deal with issues like the notion of a limited ballistic missile defense system and a variety of things of that character. Those were certainly military policy issues. You can divide science policy in two parts, as Harvey Brooks first did, I guess — science for policy and policy for science. I don't think JASON ever even discussed policy for science.
Aaserud:Nor did PSAC.
Branscomb:Oh yes! Oh, you're wrong. Absolutely. Harvey Brooks was on PSAC when I was, and in 1964 or 1965, which goes back quite a ways. We made a thousand page report for the President on the funding of basic science, recommending they increase its funding 15 percent a year indefinitely.
Branscomb:Oh, absolutely. I don't know that it was terribly effective, but PSAC was involved in those kinds of questions all along. It was clearly involved in looking over the shoulder of the NSF, and there were of course big overlaps of membership. The concept of a scientific leadership of the country that was looked to to exercise stewardship over relatively purely scientific affairs was rather widely accepted, and nobody was criticizing the old boy network, at least not very effectively, in those days, and it worked very well. I remember when I was appointed to PSAC in 1964, Johnson was president. He put a fair amount of pressure on Hornig for more geographical distribution. You were already beginning to see the civil and political side of science becoming more important, and so Hornig obliged. In that particular class of PSAC members, one was from Colorado, one was from St. Louis, one was from Texas, one from somewhere else and somewhere else, and it really looked like he had addressed the issue. It turned out that four of us were graduate students together at Harvard in the same class, so it really wasn't geographically distributed at all. It was still the Northeast "Mafia."
Aaserud:I thought that was a National Science Board kind of concern, but I was obviously wrong in that.
Branscomb:It was a National Science Board concern, but the Science Board didn't have a lot of influence in those days. It never has had a lot of influence truly on policy at the White House level.
Aaserud:So in terms of a hierarchy of influential mechanisms, you would put PSAC high and JASON toward the bottom of the list. Is that the implication?
Branscomb:For policy in all non-military areas. In military areas it's a much more complicated story. There were people involved with JASON who themselves were influential — Rube Mettler and people like that. And I don't have any doubt that JASON had a fair amount of influence in driving a wedge through which you could debate military policy issues in technical analysis terms. JASON didn't invent the RAND Corporation. The RAND Corporation was operating in parallel in a somewhat similar style. In those days the RAND Corporation had a lot of technical competence in the hard sciences and engineering; it no longer does. And by and large the RAND Corporation people took the more conservative side of issues. PSAC tended to take a more middle of the road or a slightly more liberal side. I would say JASON tried to take a more purely technical role. But to the extent that there was a policy flavor to the technical work or the choice of priorities, it certainly was on the more academic left of center position. But it may be that a lot of the analysis that JASON did had indeed a policy effect, and no doubt there were JASONites who had the opportunity to get into meetings where they could make policy arguments. But as an institution, JASON after all was an extension of the Institute for Defense Analyses, and it was a vehicle of ARPA, so it could hardly be a totally independent policy maker.
Aaserud:So its impact was never institutionalized.
Branscomb:Not from a policy point of view.
Aaserud:It was more the connections of individuals.
Branscomb:That would be my view. The analyses that it did came to conclusions on the basis of which there were clearly policy implications, but it was science for policy, not policy for what to do about technology.
Aaserud:If the impact was in terms of individual connections rather than institutionalized, the implication would seem to be that the real impact of JASON varied tremendously.
Branscomb:Yes. In some sense, it was a nurturing. From a historical perspective, I think the existence of JASON in science policy has very important implications. When you talk to people like Jack Ruina and Jerry Wiesner, the MIT group especially, Spurgeon Keeney and Sid Drell, most of them will probably say that the experience and the knowledge of the technical issues — the knowledge that those people learned about weapons systems in JASON — was indispensable to their effectiveness later on in the arms control debates and as consultants and experts in this area. Herb York is a very important person in that connection, who was involved very early. Most of the senior academic experts in arms control today learned much of the technical background through participation in JASON. There's no way you can have an influence on policy in the national security area unless you've had a clearance and have access, and the national security community tends to appoint to government jobs people that are motivated to take the military view. So, I think from that point of view this kind of institution is absolutely indispensable. Where else do you get that? The odd consultant to Los Alamos or Livermore would only learn about a very narrow piece of the problem. The RAND Corporation would be given access, and it was an important training ground for people in this area. The RAND Corporation and JASON, and perhaps places like the Draper Lab or Lincoln Labs, that's where this new generation of folks got access to the information, discovered they were interested in technical problems, and discovered how easy it was to make a contribution, because so little independent thought was given in the mainstream of government institutions.
Aaserud:I guess we started talking a little bit about this, but to what extent would you see JASON as a creation of physicists of the postwar generation?
Branscomb:It was created by the physicists of the war generation. They were the mentors, and they continued in very important roles. I would say that the transition to the postwar generation was when Hal Lewis became head of JASON. I don't know when that was, but that was certainly late sixties.
Aaserud:So you would count Goldberger as part of the war generation in that sense. He was the chairman during the first years.
Branscomb:Well, you're right. You're right about that. I guess the problem is that there were a number of people involved in JASON who certainly were mature scientists during the war. I must say, though, I was impressed with the fact that JASON did not have a heavy participation from a lot of the World War II people. People like Harold Brown were already beyond it, Hans Bethe not so much, Luis Alvarez I guess was pretty active. He's a key, an interesting man to interview because he's a conservative Republican and a fine, fine scientist. Johnny Wheeler would be — there were certain people who represented a tie. But most of them really were too young during World War II to have been in any sense part of the World War II leadership.
Aaserud:The story I have got on the establishment of JASON was that it originated in part from a summer study behind which I think Wheeler was the main person.
Aaserud:And the point of that was to prepare for the establishment of a war laboratory or a weapons laboratory that was more generally oriented than the already existing ones.
Branscomb:That I didn't know.
Aaserud:And they didn't find anybody who wanted to head that, including Wheeler and Goldberger who was also asked, so then they settled on this more flexible arrangement.
Branscomb:That's interesting. I'm delighted that that happened, because what they invented was much better for the country, in my opinion — less expensive and with better results.
Aaserud:And to what extent that was the new generation taking over with a different approach that I can't really say yet. If JASON institutionally wasn't the main impact, to what extent did JASON serve as a springboard for other involvements?
Branscomb:Well, I've just said it did. It was a training ground for a great number of people who have had all kinds of influence since. A lot of it was systems evaluation, like anti-missile stuff, war gaming — fairly technical things. For example, one of the interesting people to interview is Steve Weinberg. I met Steve first in JASON, and everybody realized how bright he was. He was working on the stability of particle beams in plasmas during the later years of my involvement in JASON. He was getting into that, and you should ask him to contrast — because he's probably kept up and I haven't — how that issue of particle beam weapons was then being looked at through a JASON mechanism with the way it's being looked at now. I don't know what his conclusion would be, but I think that's an important issue.
Aaserud:There are a lot of parallels, of course.
Branscomb:The Vietnam War, of course, is way too heady for a group like that to have been able to deal with. And the politics was too important. PSAC was a more relevant weapon for trying to get some rational analysis, because we certainly had the opportunity to help the Science Advisor who tried to get through to the President, I think without much success. But JASON and PSAC were doing similar things, and there were similar people doing them. I remember a lot of quite startling things coming out of that, that the world at large never knew. One of them was that there were many claims that our Air Force was blowing up ammunition dumps on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Yet if you took the statistical probability that a given bomb dropped by an American aircraft was a dud, and then took the range of a bomb that was not a dud over which it was capable of igniting a bomb that was a dud that had previously fallen, you could explain 80 percent of all those ammunition dumps blowing up by the fact that they weren't ammunition dumps at all — they were American bombs being blown up by American bombs.
Aaserud:That was the result of a JASON study?
Branscomb:That was a small item that caught my attention. The total amount of steel imported into North Vietnam by the US Air Force exceeded in tonnage the steel imported by ships to go into their steel mills. A mad war. JASON had to struggle to find projects. It's not easy to find projects for a group like that. We looked at a lot of little things that were probably of limited consequence, as well as some major things. They searched pretty hard for problems of theoretical complexity for this group to work on. I was not on the problem picking side of it, but the people that were, I would think, would probably tell you that it isn't easy to find problems for people like JASON to work on, and there were always jealousies. By the way, there was one other feature of JASON that was very valuable, which you can say was a policy contribution of an indirect kind. JASON was funded and managed out of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and agencies like ARPA that reported there. These agencies were a common ground between the three services, and therefore there were a lot of times when we, because we had to be briefed, were the instrumentality for communications between the three services, and I think some of that had some very positive consequences.
Aaserud:You actually communicated with the services as such?
Branscomb:The service people were always involved in the meetings because they managed the big technology projects — and strategies — we worked on. We didn't do this work in the abstract. We had people from weapons labs and from headquarters and so on present. They gave us briefings. Sometimes they were in each other's presence. Rather more often, we talked to the Air Force this week, the Navy next week, and told the Air Force what we learned from the Navy and vice versa.
Aaserud:So communication wasn't only at the Defense Department level, but also at the services level.
Branscomb:It served very much the same function that a good academic consultant to a company does. He also consults for other companies. It's a system for rationalizing what's known in the world.
Aaserud:JASON certainly, during your period of tenure there, was dominated by theoretical physicists.
Aaserud:It came out from their wish to establish it, I would say, too. It was generally self-constituted, was it not?
Branscomb:It was never a democracy. It was run by it's leadership and that suited me fine. One of the attractions — if you were one of the minor figures in JASON, which I consider myself — was that you planned for these seven weeks. Well, you really didn't; we had a couple of meetings during the winter, but you really didn't spend much time. It was something you didn't have to be committed to until the blocked out time came. Then you gave 100 percent to it. That's the easiest way to do things like that. Under those circumstances, somebody else is involved in the politics of trying to generate the money and the program. I think it's also, by the way, very important — because I can't imagine that JASON is as effective today as it once was — to appreciate that JASON worked in part because it was elitist. It was probably the most elitist institution I've ever had anything to do with. There was a tremendous amount of intellectual competition going on, and in fact occasionally some of us would get into debates about the relative intelligence of Murph Goldberger and Murray Gell-Mann. We would try to think of subjects you could try to get the conversation around to, that would demonstrate that difference, and we finally concluded that if you got the subject around to 5th century Catholic church music, Murph would flunk but Murray wouldn't, so we decided Murray was smarter than Murph. I mean, it's that kind of a thing. So it was very much that kind of a place, where, if you were an experimentalist like me, you both had to have a fair amount of self-confidence and not be hung up about whether or not you were going to be able to compete with these folks in the most sophisticated physics. Secondly, it was very pleasant. It was very well paid. It was not that the compensation was so generous — though I think it was very generous — but the important thing was that they gave you enough money to rent a very nice house in La Jolla for seven weeks. Today that house in La Jolla for even weeks in the summer time is probably $2000 a month. In those days, we had 400 bucks to rent a place for seven weeks. That was a lot of money in the late sixties. And so everybody took their families or at least their wives. For scientists, who would rather do science than take the kind of vacation their families would define, it was a way to cheat the families out of the family vacation. And if you had to ask, what was the money paid for, the money was a bribe to cause the families of those people to take their vacations while their husbands worked in these pleasant places full time.
Aaserud:So it was always a vacation in that sense.
Branscomb:In that sense it was. These people don't take vacations, or at least didn't at that stage in their careers. Nowadays, no auditor will allow any government agency to spend the equivalent levels of money. Nor would all those people who determine who can have limousines in the government and stuff, whoever those folks are. After the late sixties, you couldn't do this stuff. You couldn't have a group that's as elitist as this.
Aaserud:JASON still exists, though.
Branscomb:But maybe it's changed. I don't know if it's changed its character or not. I really can't believe that something like that would work today. It was out of another era. Are there any women in JASON, for example? I can't imagine that there aren't some women involved; I certainly hope so.
Aaserud:I think there's one or two now.
Branscomb:I see. Well, maybe it's as bad as ever. Maybe the Defense Department still shields this kind of antisocial behavior, but I regard this as an un-American activity in the political sense.
Aaserud:My sense is that it hasn't changed that much, and you still have the selection criteria that you had. I think it still is a very elitist organization. I mean, the criteria for choosing people and for choosing projects were decided on mostly by the JASONs themselves, right?
Branscomb:Well, I think the selection of projects was purely a negotiation between the leaders of JASON and their friends in IDA. You ought to go back and look at who occupied the key position in IDA. By the way, Maxwell Taylor is important because he actually was running IDA or at least very involved in that. Charlie Townes is an important individual for that reason. Taylor was involved in that for a period of time. So the IDA people were kind of a halfway house between the independent folks in the universities who didn't know what problems were going on that they ought to work on, and Johnny Fosters and other technical executives in the DOD, who in some sense were probably on the side of wanting this thing to be useful, but surely not wanting to give them too much rope. So I think the task of finding jobs for something like this is an in-group task. The JASONs certainly didn't sit around and decide, what are we going to work on? Not in my time.
Aaserud:They didn't work out something and then present a report.
Aaserud:The interaction started from the very beginning of choosing a project.
Branscomb:I'm sure that was all negotiated, but when we arrived for the summer study, the work areas were laid out. There was some pre-negotiation. We had to volunteer; we had to decide who was going to work on what. Of course, the peer pressure was such that it was very embarrassing for anybody to be there and not have something important to do. You went off and invented contributions you could make to the existing committed program.
Aaserud:Was there a demand that you always had to have something to do that you had to show a record of?
Branscomb:Too damned embarrassing if you didn't
Aaserud:Of course, but beyond that?
Branscomb:Because if you didn't have something to do, the implication was that you weren't as smart as somebody else.
Aaserud:But you weren't up for a formal review or anything; it was just that internal competition.
Branscomb:As we did our work, we presented progress on our work in seminars and so on. There was a fair amount of peer exposure. An important principle in JASON was that everybody had access to everything. Most of the important briefings everybody came to. So everybody kind of knew about everything. I think its principal value was educational — mutual education for us and for the Pentagon. We presented written reports on everything. There was a physical work product; we produced classified documents. It was serious from that point of view. But I just don't kid myself as to how many of those actually caused somebody to make a major change in strategy. They did in some cases and didn't in others.
Aaserud:The security clearance was the same across the board?
Branscomb:That's right. The big exception to that was this special Vietnam interdiction project, which was not done as part of a JASON summer study. We didn't learn about it until later.
Aaserud:That was very untypical, though. It was criticized as a JASON study by people hostile to the project of course like SESPA.
Branscomb:Oh yes. I got into a certain amount of mild letter writing here and there in subsequent years for having been a JASONite. That was only in the late sixties. That's never been a problem. I never worried about it. Nobody's mentioned it in ten years.
Aaserud:That was the only time, I guess. JASON has always kept a very low profile.
Branscomb:I was never embarrassed or defensive about it, because I know we were on the right side of the issue consistently, except for this. I mean, you can debate whether or not it was a constructive thing to try to build this wall, but the policy implications of a successful wall, after all, were that you didn't have to invade Haiphong harbor. You could stabilize the war in one place. And the argument on the other side, when it was clear the war was not going to get won by conventional means, was to bomb Haiphong and eliminate North Vietnam.
Aaserud:There is one more thing in relation to the choice question. What about the choice of people? That was completely internal, was it not?
Branscomb:Well, again, I don't know. We did not have an open process for identifying and appointing people. Again, that was a leadership thing. I assume that those decisions were made by the chairman and the board in consultation with the IDA people.
Aaserud:What was the organizational structure of JASON? There was an executive board?
Branscomb:There was an executive committee and there was a chairman of JASON. I thought there was some kind of board of directors. Mostly I think of these World War II senior types. So I was never a part of that and never really wanted to be, and you'd have to find out about that. My impression is that's probably where Manny Piore came in. That's probably where Al Hill came in. People like that. By the way, if you interview Al Hill, if he's still around — I don't know anything about his state of health — ask him about the famous study he did for the Science Advisor. I've forgotten which one; it probably has to be Hornig, because I was on PSAC. He did a study on national laboratories, and I remember it was to go back and figure out how to make the national laboratories effective and with what policies. Everybody thought it would take six months and he'd have a big panel. He came back the very next meeting with his report finished. It was all on one sheet of paper, one foil. On the foil was a matrix. Across the top it had all recommendations you could think of making about national laboratories, and down the side it had the names of 14 prior White House studies of national laboratories. The middle was all x's, just solid x's, because every study had recommended the same things. So he said, "There's my report. Implement any of the previous reports. That's my advice." The Packard study, 15 years later, was the same thing. It would fit right on that chart.
Aaserud:What was the prehistory of your involvement? How were you picked for JASON?
Branscomb:I don't honestly know who picked me.
Aaserud:Weren't you approached by somebody or asked?
Branscomb:Yes, but I don't remember whether it was Murph or who it was.
Aaserud:You wrote some place, I think it was in the "Physics in History" lecture, that physicists are especially well equipped for approaching or handling broad range questions like we're talking about now. Could you expand a little bit on that?
Branscomb:That's right. Engineers are very good at getting precision, but they're not so good on accuracy if you're talking about things about which there's fundamental uncertainty. Physicists are trained to try to get it right, without necessarily demanding more precision than the information you have allows. That's a very important attribute in this kind of analysis, because factors of 50 percent don't matter in military analyses. Most of the things that are wrong in a national security context are wrong by three orders of magnitude. And that's one reason why JASON was an effective analysis kind of organization. JASON people were very good at that. In fact, I used to marvel. I remember once we were working on hard point defense or something, and somebody needed to know the heat capacity or the thermoconductivity of concrete. I got up to start out of the room to go get the Rubber Company Handbook to look it up, and before I could leave the room, one of these theoretical physicists is up calculating the thermoconductivity of concrete from first principles. I just marveled at it. It was incredible. He actually got within 30 percent of the right answer.
Aaserud:Before you got the book.
Branscomb:Well, I stayed to see. I could have gotten the book in about the same length of time. But it was interesting, because in some sense it was a better way to do it, because now if somebody came back and said, "I'm not going to do it with concrete, I'm going to do it with reinforced epoxy resin," you could look at the theory and say, well, same theory applies; we have a number within a factor of 2. Whereas if you looked it up in the handbook, you don't know a priori that the other thing isn't different by a actor of 10. Those are the really important issues.
Aaserud:So the case of your work with LeLevier, using your previous work in physics pretty much explicitly, was less typical than the use of the physicist's more broad approach.
Branscomb:No, what I did was very much like what this group did. Because Bob and I didn't have the data either, but we knew the principle. We had the physics right. We had the identification of the key phenomenology in the atmosphere right. And we had a nonlinear analysis to do, and that worked out in a quite interesting way. We did develop new physics (which we published in the AGU Journal) in the course of solving the problems of missile wakes and nuclear atmospheric explosions. I looked at what you could expect in the persistence of missile wakes in the atmosphere at different altitudes, and those kinds of things. We invented some ideas. That's something else JASON did — the notion of seeding wakes with cesium or seeding them with chlorine, depending on what you wanted to have happen: ideas that we couldn't prove were good or bad in that six weeks period, but which some defense contractor or government laboratory could look at and explore and see if it made sense or not.
Aaserud:I have a lot of questions here. How unique do you see JASON, as a group combining basic science research and government advice? These were mainly people who retained their science positions.
Branscomb:You mean how unique JASON was in bridging those two communities. Well, it's no longer unique at all. In the pre-Kistiakowsky days — before he wrote his book, before the late sixties — it was pretty unique. In the post-sixties, of course, my goodness, you have all these environmental institutions, you have the whole Academy Panel structure, which is much bigger now than it used to be and more professional, you have zillions of policy organizations all over the place. Universities are loaded with science policy institutes. All of the civil issues get a lot of attention from people, and they're not just physical scientists, either. Social scientists now have a major role to play. That's terribly important. And they have influence because they can influence the private sector too. I think in fact on the military side this independent influence is very seriously attenuated since the Reagan Administration. That's just their approach. It's attenuated on the civil side too, except that there exists a private sector in this country that can be influenced by those things.
Aaserud:But JASON was the first. Whether or not it was a model I don't know.
Branscomb:Well, it's unique in being a general-purpose thing that was explicitly part time, and yet had a fairly large group of people generally speaking of unusual ability. The closest thing to JASON would have been Academy summer studies. There are quite a number of those. In the old days too they were very pleasant and invigorating, and the problems were easier. With military problems, the implication was that we're just here to do this technical analysis. The policy was hidden agenda. Politics was hidden agenda. But civil projects aren't like that at all. If you don't treat the politics and the economics and all that as brought up issues, then you're working on the wrong problem. And so they're much more difficult to deal with. If you deal with them in an elitist structure, you're more likely to get in trouble, because people are going to look at who did the study and not at what. Contrast OTA with. JASON — you won't find any similarity at all.
Aaserud:JASON helped the academic physicists toward becoming more interdisciplinary perhaps too. That might be another aspect of it.
Branscomb:At least this group of high-energy theorists.
Aaserud:It's a limited group, of course. The implication of some of your writings has been that industrial physics is more mission and less discipline bound than academic science, so maybe that's an analogy.
Branscomb:Well, academic science is becoming very interdisciplinary now, and some of these people are making it happen, but it wasn't JASON that caused them to do that.
Aaserud:I was thinking of the relationship between physics work in JASON and in academic physics. Now close was that relationship?
Branscomb:Not close at all. People exploited what they knew from their academic work. We were doing applied work, and they were exploiting what they knew. Nobody was inventing any new physics. There might have been some rare cases. Maybe Weinberg did that in his plasma thing; I don't know. I invented a little bit of new physics but not much. Some of it I could take back to look at more academic atmospheric science problems. But no, it has to be thought of as a way for academic people who were in a very competitive but intellectual set of tasks, to do something real worldly, and get both technical satisfaction out of it, and also a change of pace. It's very good for scientists to do that.
Aaserud:What about JASON and the development of systems thinking?
Branscomb:I think the work was interdisciplinary, but if you go talk to George Danzig or somebody like that who's an expert in systems theory, I don't think JASON made any fundamental contributions to the methodology.
Aaserud:But it might have affected JASON the other way around, in that it has become more necessary to do that kind of study. This is a big question.
Branscomb:It might be interesting to talk to somebody who was prominent in the RAND Corporation back in the heyday of JASON before the days of Don Rice, who has now been president of RAND for many years. He became president right after the great debacle about the copied Pentagon papers.
Aaserud:Anybody you can think of?
Branscomb:I don t know who that would be. I think they'd probably give you a somewhat more skeptical view of JASON than you'll get from JASON. That's probably important, because RAND was doing all the same sorts of things. But they were doing it with a client relationship. They really had to serve the client. JASONites could go write a paper that was offensive to the politics of the Navy or somebody or other. I'm sure somebody up above would smooth it over and JASON was protected. It wasn't as though you wouldn't get your next contract — or that it mattered.
But that might also mean that they didn't have as great an impact.