Oral History Transcript — Freeman Dyson
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Interview with Freeman Dyson
Aaserud:We are in Freeman Dyson's office on December 17, 1986, and I am going to ask you a few questions about JASON. But I would first like to ask you a few questions on your more early history, if that's acceptable.
Dyson:Whatever you want.
Aaserud:We have to be careful so we don't over-do the time, of course. So maybe you could say briefly what was your pre-war education in England. I don't think that is treated in your book, as far as I remember.
Dyson:No. Anyway, I was at one of these elite high schools called Winchester College, which happened also to be my hometown because my father was teaching there. I was l5 when the war began, and spent two years in Winchester after the war started, then two years at Cambridge as an undergraduate doing mathematics.
Aaserud:You were l6 when the war started.
Dyson:l6, OK. You know better.
Aaserud:You were born in 1923, right?
Dyson:No, really I was 15, in fact; I was born in December, as it happens. Anyway, in the last two years there I was with the Air Force.
Aaserud:What about the origin of your interest in physics? Was that before the war, during the war, or after the war, and was it related to your schooling?
Dyson:It was not much related to my schooling. It started from reading, I think, almost entirely. I read for example Eddington and Jeans, and got a feeling that this was exciting stuff. My father was a musician, but he was also interested in popular science, and we had those books.
Aaserud:These books were available in your home?
Dyson:Yes, and when I was l3 or l4, I got in the habit of getting book catalogues from publishers and simply going through the catalogues and seeing what was interesting. One of the books I got from the catalogue was Georg Joos, Theoretical Physics. I don't know if you know this book. It's a marvelous book. It was sort of a standard text in the thirties, and it was translated into English, so I learned in fact most of my physics from that. I think it's true to say I never took a course in physics at all; certainly I don't remember ever having taken physics as a subject in school. But I was very much interested in it, so it was all totally theoretical.
Aaserud:Was there anybody, like a friend, that you talked to about this?
Aaserud:It was exclusively yourself.
Dyson:Yes, it was just me and the books. Then I got hold of Eddington's Mathematical Theory of Relativity, so it was that kind of stuff. So clearly I was serious about it. I got sidetracked into pure mathematics at Cambridge, because all the physicists were away at the war.
Aaserud:When did you come to Cambridge?
Dyson:194l, so that was the time when the war was well on. There were lots of great mathematicians around and no physicists, so then I became a pure mathematician for a few years.
Aaserud:Who were your teachers?
Dyson:Besicovich was the chief. I mean, he was not just a teacher; he was a very close friend. That's how I also got involved with Russian, as an important part of life. I went for long walks with Besicovich, and one of his rules was that nothing except Russian should be spoken.
Aaserud:Oh, really? During those walks I suppose, not in general discussion.
Dyson:No, he also lectured; he lectured in English.
Aaserud:Did you ever think of turning to mathematics full time?
Dyson:Oh yes, I was very much in love with mathematics for several years.
Aaserud:But then you were diverted from Cambridge later in the war.
Dyson:I went to the Air Force then for two years. Then after the war, I came back to Imperial College in London and went on doing mathematics there. And then I switched back to physics, I think more or less in 1946 or 1947.
Aaserud:When the physicists returned?
Dyson:Yes. They were back by then, and it looked like something exciting.
Aaserud:Was there anybody in particular who was responsible, or partly responsible, for that transition at the university?
Dyson:Well, no. I wouldn't say that. After I got back, the person I learned from was Kemmer. He was then at Cambridge. He taught me field theory and that was important. Kemmer is somebody who's never really got the recognition that he deserves, I think. He was a great man in many respects.
Aaserud:In teaching or in research?
Aaserud:What kind of impact did the war experience have on your view of physics, your view of the world of physics, or your thoughts about doing a career?
Dyson:That is described in the book. The fact that these physicists in Los Alamos had been opening up a new world was obviously very important, and I think that to a large extent was responsible for my going back into physics. It was clear that this was an exciting time to be in the game. I was feeling some envy for those people at Los Alamos, and thinking, well, after all, that's something I might do too.
Aaserud:But the social and technological implications of physics — was that something that was strengthened in your mind through the war experience, or was that something that was included in your original conception?
Dyson:It was clear that physics was now going to be a driving force both for good and evil, and it would be a good time to get involved. Well, I had been reading Eddington of course long before, and so I had this notion that after all sub atomic energy was going to be something important.
Aaserud:So you had been —
Dyson:— sort of prepared for it.
Aaserud:Prepared for it in that respect, at least theoretically. Just to clear up your education, in your book you say that you enrolled at Cornell in September, l947.
Aaserud:But you did maintain a formal connection with England, is that right?
Dyson:Yes. I had a Harkness Fellowship to come here from England, and the rule was, which it still is — in fact there's a young fellow in this building now who is on a Harkness Fellowship, also from England — that you had to go back for two years; they don't want just to encourage people to emigrate. So you have your fellowship and then you go back to England for two years. That's what I did, and it wasn't clear at that point whether I was going to stay or not.
Aaserud:Was it clear from your point of view?
Dyson:Well, I remember, one of the decisive moments was that I had a job offer from Columbia, which was, to me, absolutely the place I most wanted to be in the world, because at that time Columbia was where all these quantum electrodynamic experiments were going on, with Lamb and Rutherford and Kusch and Foley and Rabi and all these marvelous people. That was in a way the best place in the world to be at that time, and I had this invitation in the summer of 1949 to go there. That was when I was here at the Institute. With a heavy heart I had to say no to that.
Aaserud:Because of that requirement?
Dyson:I wasn't legally obliged to, but it was a matter of honor; I'd given my word as a gentleman. Anyway, I think that was sort of the moment of truth when I realized, after all, I really didn't want to go back to England.
Aaserud:What was the consideration on each side? What was for and against England and America at the time?
Dyson:At that time clearly Columbia was sort of the place where every thing exciting was happening, and it was obvious that that was the place I wanted to be. At that time, of course, science in England actually wasn't so bad, if one were a biologist or something else or even a radio astronomer. But it was not good for doing particle physics, so it was clear that for me it was a sacrifice to go back.
Aaserud:It was clear what you wanted to do even at this early time.
Dyson:It was what I was doing, anyhow. But I'd just finished with quantum electrodynamics at that point, so it was like going back into exile, scientifically speaking. I spent two years in Birmingham, and it was a difficult time. Birmingham of course was a friendly place, but physics there was in bad shape, in many respects.
Aaserud:You said that one of the basic motivations or lures of Columbia University was the wonderful experiments that were being done there. That brings me to the relationship between theory and experiment. How did you find that here as compared to England?
Dyson:Well, I thought it was wonderful here, because the two sides talked to each other, and Columbia was of course the great example of how it should be. The theorists and experimenters were absolutely as close as could be, and that's what I wanted.
Aaserud:Yes, because you perceive yourself fully as a theorist?
Dyson:Oh yes. But when I got back to England, there were at that time two leading physics departments really there. One was Bristol and the other was Birmingham, and Bristol was doing beautifully in experiment. There were Powell and his people who were finding cosmic ray particles. They discovered the pion and all kinds of wonderful things. They were great. But they weren't interested in theory at all, whereas in Birmingham you had a very fine theory group, under Peierls, which I belonged to, but it was a disaster in the experimental department, where Oliphant was building his machine; they had absolutely no idea what to do with it. It was one of these terrible projects where they built a machine, which just barely you could squeeze it into the available space, but obviously nobody had given any thought to actually doing any experiments with it. The thing never did anything useful, as far as I know. It was really a disaster. It was a tragedy for Peierls because he should have been able to build up a first rate center for physics, and he really tried very hard, but he could never get the kind of cooperation from the experimental people that he needed.
Aaserud:That probably was deep in the traditions in the different environments. We talked about Sam Schweber before, and I think that's one of his main theses, that American physics thrived because it combined theory and experiment. Did you find it difficult in any way to move to America in other ways, or was it easy?
Dyson:That was very easy. It was moving back which was difficult.
Aaserud:So there was no cultural shock or anything of the sort in coming here.
Dyson:No. It was remarkable. Of course, we'd been listening to Alistair Cook on the BBC for years. He did these broadcasts for England; I forget what it was called, but every week there was a piece about America. He was the BBC correspondent in America. He also, by the way, had been a Harkness Fellow. But he gave a fantastically accurate picture of American life. When I came here, everything was precisely the way he'd described it.
Aaserud:You were surprised. Why did you apply to Cornell in the first place? Why did you think of coming here? Was that entirely for physics reasons?
Dyson:Yes. The person who first suggested that was G.I. Taylor. He showed extraordinary wisdom in a way. I mean, G.I. Taylor is a hydro-dynamicist, and he knows nothing about particle physics. He never did, but he was in Cambridge. He had a tiny little lab in the cellar of the Cavendish where he did wonderful experiments. So I went to him and said, "Where should I go? I'd like to go to America." And he said, "Oh, Cornell, of course." I'd hardly heard of Cornell at that point. He said, "No, that's clear, that's the place to go." And he was absolutely right.
Aaserud:So you needed that kind of advice anyway.
Dyson:Oh yes. And the reason G.I. Taylor knew was that he had been at Los Alamos.
Aaserud:So you were encouraged from that side too.
Dyson:Oh, very much, yes.
Aaserud:According to American Men and Women of Science anyway you managed in life without a PhD.
Aaserud:What is the explanation? The explanation, I suppose, is the combination of the English and the American experience.
Dyson:Yes. It also has an ideological component as well, because I've been fighting the PhD system all my life. I think it's a thoroughly bad system, so it's not quite accidental that I didn't get one, but it was convenient.
Aaserud:But it was easier for you than for a lot of other people.
Aaserud:Even at that time it was conscious, in that way.
Aaserud:Have you had any problems with that at all?
Aaserud:It wouldn't seem so.
Dyson:Oh no. Of course, it's a badge of honor.
Aaserud:And most people have seen it that way?
Dyson:It was particularly nice because there were two of us here on the Institute faculty who didn't have doctor's degrees — myself and George Kennan. I was very happy to be in his company, also.
Aaserud:There are fewer and fewer people who manage that, of course.
Aaserud:Of course, we could go on about general matters, but we have a time limit, so maybe we should at least begin to point towards science policy questions.
Dyson:Very good, yes.
Aaserud:What was your first exposure to such questions in this country, and your first such activity? I suppose meeting the Cornell physicists was important in itself.
Dyson:Yes. The Federation of American Scientists, or it used to be called Atomic Scientists, was already very strong in Cornell when I got there, and I immediately got involved with that. That was to me something quite new. I hadn't seen that in England, although there probably was a similar organization there. But I'd never belonged to it, and at Cornell I immediately did belong; I remember being delighted with the meetings they had. Philip Morrison was one of the most active of those people at that time in Cornell.
Aaserud:How strongly did you involve yourself in that? Did you have specific tasks?
Dyson:No. Of course, I wasn't an American. I was essentially just an onlooker, but I used to go to the meetings and enjoyed very much seeing all these energetic people getting involved with political campaigns and so on. That was at the time when there was still a big fight for international control of nuclear weapons, and when they were lobbying in Washington, it was clearly something important.
Aaserud:That was the main issue at the time.
Aaserud:It was mostly a learning experience.
Aaserud:How much time did you have for such kind of thinking at the time? You were pretty heavily involved in your physics, I'm sure.
Dyson:Well, you have a lot of time if you're just a student without a family. I don't remember ever being short of time. I was always glad if there were any kinds of distractions.
Aaserud:You managed to combine the two pretty well. Did you encounter any specific limitation to what you could do, from not having an American citizenship?
Dyson:No, and that also surprised me. I sort of felt much less of a foreigner than I had expected.
Aaserud:That was something even Cook hadn't been able to prepare you for.
Dyson:I suppose, yes.
Aaserud:Because a lot of physicists at that time went to summer studies sponsored by the Defense Department or consulting for industry — that kind of thing. Were you involved in that?
Dyson:No. The summer I went to the Ann Arbor summer school, which at that time was the place to be in the summer.
Aaserud:But that was not for consulting or anything.
Dyson:No, no. Just for learning, yes.
Aaserud:Of course, then, in l956 — the summer I suppose — you went to General Atomics.
Dyson:Yes, that was the first time I was a consultant. In fact, I was still British that year. I became a citizen the winter after.
Aaserud:You became a citizen already in 1957.
Dyson:Yes. But surprisingly that didn't matter as far as the military was concerned. I actually had a top-secret clearance.
Aaserud:That surprises me too. This was also your first experience with the industrial environment of physics, and it was Fred DeHoffman who got you there?
Aaserud:How did you find the collaboration between the industrial kind and the academic kind of physicist, or is any distinction like that meaningful?
Dyson:Well, there is of course a difference, but that group wasn't yet an industry, you know; it was just really a summer school for us all to get together. The company didn't yet exist in l956. So it's true of course that a lot of those people were from industry, but it wasn't an industrial environment yet. But I found it very stimulating to meet people who had actually been in the real world.
Aaserud:So in that sense it was a learning experience.
Aaserud:You also of course wrote in your autobiography about the spirit of the schoolhouse.
Dyson:That was it, yes. That was the schoolhouse.
Aaserud:So it was not large industrial, it was small industrial. That was a major point of it.
Aaserud:Could you say in a few words what you learned from that experience?
Dyson:Well, first of all, I learned all about reactors. That was the main point. It was a crash course in nuclear technology, and I learned a lot of chemistry and a lot of general engineering. It was just a wonderful way of learning a great deal of stuff, and in addition, of course, getting caught up in a project, which I'd never been before — actually working with people and getting something done.
Aaserud:This experience and the physics research at Princeton — were they completely unrelated, or was there some kind of connection?
Dyson:No, totally unrelated.
Aaserud:There may be positive feedback in the sense that you were more fresh to do the other kind of thing.
Dyson:Yes. I don't know. I think in a certain way, it wasn't altogether positive. I mean, looking back, I think maybe I would have done more for the Institute here if I hadn't been so interested in all kinds of things outside.
Aaserud:But the Institute encouraged that, didn't it? Or how did they react to that kind of involvement?
Dyson:Well, of course it was very informal. Oppenheimer was in charge and it was just a question of going to Oppenheimer and saying, "How about it? Do you mind?" He wasn't particularly enthusiastic at all. I mean, I don't think he thought it was a good idea, but he didn't want to say no. I think he would have been happier if I hadn't done so much of that.
Aaserud:The same thing applies to Project Orion?
Aaserud:That was a full time thing for a whole year, 1958 to 1959.
Dyson:Yes. In fact, it was a little bit more; it was really l5 months. Then, of course, I took a leave of absence, and I remember Oppenheimer saying then that I could have a year, but that was it.
Aaserud:He showed more color then. Did you have any kind of extra-Princeton activity between those two efforts — the reactors and the rocket thing?
Dyson:Well, I went to Berkeley in the summers in those times and did physics, but that was respectable academic physics there; I was doing solid state mostly.
Aaserud:But still different things from what you did here?
Dyson:Yes. Actually, no. What I did in Berkeley was to sort of pick up problems in solid state, which I then afterwards worked on here. But that was perfectly normal; that's what everybody does. In fact, here they go away for the summer and pick up ideas.
Aaserud:What was your particular collaboration in Berkeley?
Dyson:Kittel was the fellow I worked for.
Aaserud:That was constant for a longer period?
Dyson:Yes, I went there every alternate year for three summers altogether.
Aaserud:We have to be careful not to get into things in detail which will interfere with our discussion of JASON.
Dyson:Well, my time isn't that tight, but I don't want to wear out your patience.
Aaserud:Well, I think you would have a hard time doing that, but my light is blinking so we'll turn the tape and turn to JASON.
Tape # l, side 2
Aaserud:Let's go directly into the circumstances for joining JASON — your motivation, how you were approached. When did this happen?
Dyson:The fact is, I remember very little about that. For me, it sort of came at a moment when I wasn't much interested. What happened was, I think, as far as I can remember, Murph Goldberger asked me if I would like to join, and I said, "Oh yes, that's fine." Then maybe I went to a meeting or something. But at the same time, I got then the invitation to go to the Disarmament Agency, which came from Frank Long.
Aaserud:That was about the same time.
Dyson:I think it was a few months later, perhaps. So I really barely got started in JASON. Then I got this invitation to go to Washington to the Disarmament Agency, which to me was much more interesting and much more real. So I spent, in fact, two summers not going to JASON at all, because I was full time at the Disarmament Agency for those two summers, 1962 and 1963. So I think I was a very nominal JASON member for the first three years or so.
Aaserud:So you did not join the very first year; you joined a couple of years after JASON was formed.
Dyson:I may have joined close to the start, but I didn't really do any thing. I mean, the Disarmament Agency was for me much more important and interesting. So I think I was a member of JASON, but I was probably the one who did the least in the way of going to meetings. In fact, it was probably three years that I didn't go to any meetings, because in 1964 I was in Europe all the summer, and so, if I went at all, it must have been only for a few days.
Aaserud:You didn't see any conflict of interest between JASON and the Disarmament Agency?
Dyson:Oh, not at all — on the contrary. No, the two things were essentially the same, except that at the Disarmament Agency we were much closer to things that were real; but the nature of the work was very similar.
Aaserud:Could you say anything about your motivation for joining JASON?
Dyson:Certainly; what I say is mostly just invention. I really don't remember much. Because of the Orion experience, I felt I had some technical skills, and that I could be useful; and I was just interested. At that time I said yes to everything more or less. I think I didn't even start working seriously for JASON until 1965.
Aaserud:You weren't one of the persons setting it up.
Aaserud:You were more a member than an organizer.
Dyson:Yes. At the beginning I think I simply came to a couple of meetings and just had a vague idea about what was going on and that was about it.
Aaserud:JASON of course might have had something of the school house spirit too, that you talked about. It was after all a limited number of persons with few bureaucratic constrictions on them.
Aaserud:And that might have been part of it too.
Dyson:That it still has, of course. But what it doesn't have is the feeling of achievement, of actually having done something.
Aaserud:Some people might have that feeling. Well, we can get back to that — which projects would be a candidate for that kind of feeling or the origin of that kind of feeling. Then you had become a citizen, so you didn't have to wait for becoming a citizen; that was arranged already. What about the relationship between the kinds of questions that you discussed and worked with in the Arms Control Agency and the early work in JASON? For example, in that Foreign Affairs article, you argued against the test ban. ["The Future Development of Nuclear Weapons," Foreign Affairs, April, 1960, 457-464.]
Aaserud:Was it essentially an overlap? I know it was an overlap with the Arms Control Agency. Was there an overlap with JASON also; was that also the kind of thing that you would discuss there considerably?
Dyson:I don't think so. I really don't remember. Of course, the Foreign Affairs article was in l960, so that was directly a result of the Orion Project. I wanted to keep Orion alive, and that was the main reason for not wanting a test ban. So that had really nothing much to do with either the Disarmament Agency or with JASON, I think.
Aaserud:Let me put the question another way, perhaps. The Arms Control Agency then seemed to take you toward more of a sophisticated science policy way of reasoning than technical national security work.
Dyson:Yes. The main thing I learned at the Disarmament Agency was to read a lot of Soviet literature. They had a good library, and so I really dug into the Soviet military journals and things like that, to see how those people think; I found I couldn't get that anywhere else. And after that, I had this feeling that if I had a unique contribution to make; it was that I could look at both sides.
Aaserud:Of course, there weren't many who could do that; George Kennan, perhaps.
Aaserud:Did you stay in JASON for the whole period since that time?
Dyson:Yes. Only there were quite long periods when I didn't go to the meetings. At the time when I handed in my resignation, I guess that was sort of the low point.
Aaserud:That was in the —
Dyson:— that was 1968, yes.
Aaserud:Let's get back to that. Your JASON involvement, as you said, fluctuated. What would be the maximum time you spent on JASON, in a year? The minimum was zero, I suppose.
Dyson:Yes. I've been spending much more time in the last few years, so the maximum is roughly what I'm spending now, which is seven weeks. That's the full length of the summer study. So I've sort of got a bit locked into that now, since I've only three years to go before I retire. It's always nice to be there; it's more or less become a yearly routine, but earlier on, it wasn't like that. I don't think I ever stayed more than four weeks, over most of this time, and I always was involved in a whole lot of other things.
Aaserud:So JASON wasn't the main vehicle for that kind of work at all during this period.
Dyson:Well, maybe it was, but I wasn't doing much anyhow.
Aaserud:Were you involved at all in the origins of JASON?
Aaserud:Were you involved in any arguments in the very early time about JASON as a proper vehicle for this kind of purpose?
Dyson:No, because it was the only one I knew about. For myself, the question was simply, either JASON or something like the Disarmament Agency. It was only that after two years the Disarmament Agency didn't want people any more from the outside.
Aaserud:I'd like to talk a little more about generalities, about the organization and collaboration and such things, of JASON, and then we could turn to projects after that, perhaps.
Aaserud:During the first years of JASON, JASON contracted almost only for ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency?
Aaserud:How new were you then to such concerns, and to that kind of contracting work? Entirely, I suppose.
Dyson:Well, no, because Orion was also an ARPA project at the beginning. In fact I think it was absolutely the first thing ARPA did. It was just about the same summer when ARPA was invented.
Aaserud:ARPA was invented as a result of Sputnik to a great extent.
Dyson:We gave a briefing to ARPA right at the beginning of Orion, so I knew all about ARPA. ARPA got narrower and narrower as the years went by. At the beginning, they had quite a broad spectrum of interests.
Aaserud:So you were possibly more experienced in that respect than a lot of other JASONs.
Aaserud:But the kind of work you did in Orion was very different from what you did in JASON, of course. That goes without saying. JASON never did any full-scale project on that scale.
Aaserud:What can you say about the organizational structure of JASON during those early years, and were you a part of that?
Dyson:Well, I wasn't involved at all. I mean, I never was really interested. The serious JASONites were the people who would go to Washington and talk to people in ARPA and arrange the activities; I never did that. I always was just happiest when other people would take care of that.
Aaserud:During those early days, who were those people — the most important ones from your point of view? Murph Goldberger of course was.
Dyson:And Ken Watson, I would say. Have you talked with him?
Aaserud:Yes, I have.
Dyson:I think he was very central.
Aaserud:More low key, perhaps.
Dyson:Exactly. He had a very good way of getting along with generals and such people.
Aaserud:So it was not entirely the chairman who played that role; there were others. Of course Ken Watson also was chairman for a brief period later. But what about the chairman? Goldberger was chairman for, I forget, seven years or something like that.
Dyson:Yes. I didn't remember.
Aaserud:Then Hal Lewis came aboard. Did the personalities of the chairmen play an important role in what projects were taken up or how the collaboration was pursued — that kind of thing?
Dyson:Not as far as I was concerned. Of course, I was generally sort of just hanging around waiting to be told what to do. I mean, I didn't come in with any grand plans. But one of the things that I did a lot of work on was what's now called active optics, and that always interested me because of its possible use in astronomy; that was suggested to me by Hal Lewis, in fact.
Aaserud:That was after he took over as chairman?
Dyson:Maybe, or maybe earlier, I don't know. But anyway it was his idea to get JASON involved in active optics, and I thought that was very good.
Aaserud:Independently of your pushing it; it came from him to you.
Aaserud:We'll get to those specific projects. You say you didn't play any role, for example, in activities like finding candidates for new members.
Dyson:Hardly. Occasionally I would make a suggestion, I think.
Aaserud:To what extent did the JASON group overlap the group that you would do physics with otherwise?
Dyson:Hardly at all.
Aaserud:You could discuss the same questions, probably, but there wasn't much collaboration.
Dyson:Of course, I've never been much of a collaborator anyhow, but the people I collaborated with here were entirely disjoint.
Aaserud:How constant was the membership over the years?
Dyson:I can't tell you that. It's certainly increased gradually, but I haven't noticed it.
Aaserud:And you didn't have any personal relationship with the agencies, either, to speak of.
Aaserud:Did you play a role in presenting results to the agencies?
Dyson:Just occasionally, but as little as possible.
Aaserud:You had some projects of your own, right?
Dyson:Yes. The two things I did most of the work on were active optics and this laser propulsion thing. And I did, I think, go to the agencies to talk about those — once each, or something like that.
Aaserud:To what extent did you do technical tasks, and to what extent general policy arguments, in JASON?
Dyson:Well, almost always just technical. I mean, I have two skills. One is calculating and the other is writing English prose. So I would sometimes be asked to write a summary report or something, which would be a political thing. I would sometimes do that, just because I could write a letter that was more or less comprehensible. That was my main activity, as far as the policy business went.
Aaserud:But JASON was open for that kind of thing also, although perhaps that's a smaller part of the activity.
Dyson:Well, yes, there's a good deal of that, but when I went to JASON, I mostly wanted to do honest science, which meant technical stuff. For example, in the last years, we have been working quite a lot on the test ban verification, and I wrote some stuff which you might call sort of more broad policy stuff rather than technical there.
Aaserud:When I looked through your JASON file here, I came across an unclassified report of yours for the JASON Middle East study of l967. It's just one arbitrary thing I came over, but that was more policy anyway than technical. It was called "Inspection and Control of Nuclear and Biological Weapons," and consisted of six handwritten pages. I don't know if you remember that.
Dyson:Yes. And I don't think that even got as far as being an official document at all, as far as I remember. At that time, there was some floundering around with the Middle East, and I think Gell-Mann was particularly interested in that. He always likes to dabble in such things. And so I wrote that, but I don't think it got anywhere.
Aaserud:Was that a question that came from him, or from yourself, or was suggested from the outside?
Dyson:I don't remember.
Aaserud:Just one thing from your book — you are talking about defense as opposed to offense. That is your basic philosophy there, where you put yourself in opposition to the MAD people. Was that something that was discussed in JASON?
Dyson:Oh yes. That's of course been a central question from the beginning, and one of the very first studies we did was on missile defense. That's been gone over so many times. But there was a big Nike X study; Nike X was essentially the ABM system, which might or might not have been deployed in the late sixties. JASON I think was working for two years on Nike X. Ken Watson was the leader of that, I think. Anyway, you could find out more from him. I was always ideologically in favor of Nike X . I thought it would be fine if it could be made to work, and the problem was of course that it didn't work really. So our technical report came out quite negative. But I was anyway always hoping that maybe it might finally do some good. I was emotionally quite well disposed to it.
Aaserud:Yes, of course that whole problem is coming back now with the SDI and all that.
Dyson:Yes, it's almost all completely de'ja` vu — almost everything there. You know, there's really not much difference.
Aaserud:Even within JASON, there may be the same kind of sides, the same kind of discussions.
Dyson:No, I think that is a bit different now. Now the thing has become just so ludicrous that I think we laugh at it more than we used to. The SDI has been so over-sold, which of course wasn't quite true of the Nike X. The Nike X was a more serious undertaking.
Aaserud:So you have a different opinion of SDI than you had of Nike X at the time. Well, let's not get into that because it's long after the period we're discussing. What about JASON as expanding your interdisciplinary experience? Was it a means of doing that?
Dyson:Oh yes. And of course, we've been active also in environmental things. Have you talked yet with Gordon MacDonald? He's one of the important people.
Aaserud:The environmental involvement starts later, though.
Dyson:Yes, but we've been doing that at least ten years. I learned a great deal from Gordon. I got involved with carbon dioxide and with nuclear winter and various other things through that.
Aaserud:So JASON is a learning experience as well as an input experience.
Dyson:It's mostly learning, yes.
Aaserud:How have you been working practically in JASON? Mostly in collaboration with one or two others? Mostly by yourself?
Dyson:Well, I tend to work better by myself, but what usually happens is that we start with two or three people. We're supposed to be collaborating. But we always have more jobs than people, and so it ends up with me doing everything, or me doing nothing, as the case may be. And then in the end a report finally gets written with three or four names on it. But usually one of them in fact is the one who does the work. Of course, there are also big projects where you do have a lot of people collaborating. I tended always to get into the small things, like active optics, but I don't remember how many of us there were — probably two or three. But I was the one who actually sat down and did the calculations.
Aaserud:Is that typical of the way JASON works, or does it more typify you?
Dyson:No, that's me. No, I think that it's more typical for three or four people to be in a group, and working more closely together.
Aaserud:We have mentioned some of your projects briefly in relation to our discussion of other things, but maybe you could say something about what were the main projects you were involved in from the beginning — say during the first ten to fifteen years — to the extent that you remember.
Dyson:Yes, that of course is awfully hard to remember. I certainly was involved in the Nike X business.
Aaserud:Was that some of the first that you were involved in?
Dyson:I think the first serious thing, yes. But that's hard to remember exactly.
Aaserud:Is that, by the way, a project that would serve well as a case study, do you think, as a typical instance of what JASON was doing?
Dyson:I think it might. It depends on, first of all, whether the documents are unclassified by now. I don't know whether they are. And it depends very much on what Ken Watson thinks about it. If he would be willing to tell all he knows, and if he remembers, that would be fine. I certainly can't tell you anything in detail about it. You'd have to find the reports. But I think it is a typical sort of activity.
Then, of course, a very special part of JASON, which unfortunately it would be hard to track down, is Nick Christofilos; probably you've heard a lot about him. In the first ten or fifteen years, he was a very important part of JASON, and he was the one who had all these grand and ambitious schemes.
Aaserud:And sold them successfully to you as well, or he sold them to everybody?
Dyson:Well, we all made fun of him, but he was a very big positive contribution. I mean, his ideas always had some kind of sense behind them, even if they didn't make sense in the real world. But they were always interesting, and so he livened things up very much. I think without him it wouldn't have been anything like as much fun. I mean, in many ways we still miss him.
Aaserud:Nobody has taken his role?
Dyson:No. It's a shame.
Aaserud:What were some of his projects that might be interesting in their own right?
Dyson:Oh yes, those would be worthwhile, if you could ever find out more about them. Of course, the thing he's best remembered for was the extremely low frequency transmission for communicating with submarines. It was called Bassoon originally, and it's gone through five or six reincarnations since then.
Aaserud:There's still related work, isn't there?
Dyson:Oh yes. It's one of those things which never quite get killed.
Aaserud:Let's concentrate on your own involvements, perhaps. It was the Nike X, and other things.
Dyson:Yes. Then one summer, I did this study on Oregon Trail. I don't know whether you've ever heard of Oregon Trail?
Aaserud:You have to remind me what it is. I think I remember the name.
Dyson:Well, Oregon Trail was actually an excellent piece of work. It was an enormous study of — what do you call it — limited war, essentially.
Aaserud:Limited nuclear war?
Dyson:Both nuclear and non-nuclear small scale war. It was run by the United States Army, I think. It was a huge enterprise. In the end there was a huge shelf of reports, about 50 volumes or so. Unfortunately, a lot of it was Top Secret, which it needn't have been, but it was. It had a lot of very good stuff in it.
Particularly, they did an analysis of the history of small scale warfare, which I thought was marvelous, and it came to all the right conclusions. I mean, it divided up small-scale wars (mostly colonial wars), into those that were won and those that were lost. They found a strong correlation between winning and the amount of effort that was put into political and peaceful responses rather than into military responses. The stock example was Malaya, as compared with the French War in Vietnam, which was more or less contemporaneous. In Malaya, the British won, and in Vietnam the French lost. They made very good comparisons there, as to why the outcome was different. It turned out that in Malaya the British government spent 90 percent of the money on social welfare and l0 percent on fighting or something. I don't remember; anyway, the ratio was very favorable. It had a lot of very interesting historical studies of that kind anyway.
We were asked to go over this Oregon Trail and do a critique. On the whole we found it a very good piece of work, but it's also true that I think we had no influence whatever. I mean, our main recommendation was that this stuff — this great wisdom that the Army had accumulated — should be brought out into the open, where people could actually read it and use it, which never happened.
Aaserud:That was perhaps too much to hope for.
Tape # 2, side 1
Aaserud:So that project was more of an evaluation than an independent piece of reearch.
Dyson:Yes. A lot of what JASON does is just that — simply acting as tame critics, to evaluate what the services already did. But in this case, the punch line is that in retrospect you can say that if the US Army had read their own documents, they would never have got us into Vietnam. It was very clear that what happened in Vietnam went exactly contrary to what Oregon Trail was saying should happen.
Aaserud:So that produced a report, probably.
Dyson:Presumably, yes. But who wrote it and what form it took, I don't know.
Aaserud:But you were involved in it anyway.
Dyson:Yes, and I found it very interesting, because a big part of Oregon Trail was concerned with limited nuclear war. That's where I got most of my information about limited nuclear war. And there again the conclusions were very clear; it was a long time ago, and they understood it very well. If you look, Oregon Trail had a lot of war gaming and results of simulated wars of various kinds — nuclear and otherwise. Invariably, the limited nuclear wars were disasters, and they didn't achieve what they were supposed to achieve, I think with one exception, which was a seaborne invasion of Taiwan; a few nuclear weapons could have done very well in defending
Taiwan against a fleet of invasion barges. No doubt you could do the job quite well without nuclear weapons in that case; but anyway, that was the sort of thing. The conclusion was very strong, if you read the thing, that limited nuclear war was nonsense. And there again, that's something the public needed to know.
Aaserud:What time period was this, again?
Dyson:I'm trying to remember, but I would guess that this was late sixties. Oregon Trail was finished of course before that, so Oregon Trail was probably early sixties. I would imagine it's something that came out of the Kennedy Administration, very likely, and then continued. It must have been a many year effort.
After we'd studied Oregon Trail, then we did a little study, which got a bit of publicity, on nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia; that came directly out of it, actually. We wanted to focus on Southeast Asia, drawing what lessons we could from Oregon Trail as applied to Vietnam. And so we studied what would happen if we tried to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam.
Aaserud:In your book I think you present it a little differently. You were at some meeting with some officials and you were disgusted by the way some military people presented the possibility for a nuclear war, or the possibilites of nuclear war.
Dyson:Yes. That was absolutely the way it happened. Then we plunged in and looked a bit. We took a very hard-boiled look at what a local nuclear war in Southeast Asia would actually be. Of course, it was obvious that all the targets were American!
Aaserud:So that was also a study that you were involved in, to say the least.
Dyson:Yes, I took quite a leading role in that. I think only four of us in fact were involved, and we went after it. It was stretching the system to do that.
Aaserud:This was an extension of the general judgment of the Oregon Trail that you were asked to do.
Dyson:Yes, this was free lance.
Aaserud:The judgment of the Oregon Trail — was that something that only JASON did, or was that also distributed to other kinds of groups?
Dyson:I don't know. As far as I know, it was only JASON.
Aaserud:It certainly testifies to the broadness of the kinds of issues that JASON took up.
Aaserud:Because this is also not technical, for sure; this is more a general evaluation kind of thing.
Aaserud:Other projects? There's the Nike, the Oregon Trail, this Vietnam thing. Well, we're at Vietnam anyway; you did not involve yourself in the Barrier study although you were asked to.
Aaserud:I don't know how close a watch you kept on that or whether you kept out of it entirely.
Dyson:Oh no. Of course, I was actually talking about it every day with the people. I didn't go to all their meetings, but I was pretty much aware of what was being done.
Aaserud:I saw that you had Nierenberg's historical description of that study. I have a copy of that, and that's interesting. Is there anything you would like to add to that?
Dyson:No, I don't think so.
Aaserud:So that's essentially it. Can I press you on more projects?
Dyson:Well, let me think, because I didn't prepare for this. There were a lot more that we have done. I worked in, there was a thing called STRAT-X which was sort of companion to Nike X.
Aaserud:Which was contemporary?
Dyson:It was a year later, I think, looking at the offensive in the same fashion — the different kinds of missiles. I think the Cruise missiles came then into question, as far as I remember. But I don't know; it's a long time ago.
Aaserud:Generally, was there ever a relationship between the kind of physics work in JASON and the academic physics work done otherwise, either in your case or in the case of other people?
Dyson:Well, in my case it happened once with the active optics business. This was a JASON problem.
Aaserud:We actually haven't talked about that in detail yet.
Dyson:But anyway, for me it was a JASON problem which turned out to be scientifically so interesting that I worked on it here for a year, and published a paper in the Journal of the Optical Society of America. In addition it had other reverberations in pure science, and it gave rise also to some work I did on inverse scattering. So it was scientifically quite fruitful.
Aaserud:Maybe you could say something about the origins, and give a little more detail about the active optics study — what it is, what you did with it in JASON, and what it led to.
Dyson:Yes. I can give you the references. Anyhow, the request for it presumably came from DARPA, but I'm not sure; you can easily find out. The idea is to take clear pictures through the atmosphere, and there were various military reasons why you'd like to be able to do that. There was a project for active compensation of a telescope with a rubber mirror, and active feedback from optical sensors, to distort this rubber mirror fast enough to keep pace with the fluctuations in the atmosphere, which means on a millisecond time scale.
It's a technically challenging thing. But what I was interested in was essentially to prove an optimization theorem, to find out what are the limits in principle. The title of the paper which I published at the end of all this was, "Photon Noise and Atmospheric Noise in Active Optical Systems," the point being that you're stuck between these two sources of noise. [See attached pages of Dyson's bibliography] The photon noise occurs because the photons are discrete and you have only a finite number of them, and so if you amplify too much, the photon noise kills you; whereas the atmospheric noise of course is distorting your image. You want to have very strong feedback to get rid of that, and so the question is, how can you make the best compromise?
I studied the question in a very general abstract context. You have an arbitrary set of optical sensors, and an arbitrary set of mechanical actuators. Then there's a very well defined problem: to find the optimum computer program which will couple the actuators to the sensors in such a way as to give you the best possible image. I solved that problem. It was essentially just an application of optimum control theory. The answer was that essentially everything will work if you have one photon per square centimeter per second or so; if there are fewer of them it won't work. If you put that in terms of astronomical magnitudes, it means about magnitude l4. So in principle this could work for an astronomical telescope, provided the thing you're looking at is magnitude l4 or brighter. That was the main conclusion.
Of course, the astronomers have never been interested in it because magnitude l4 is just not faint enough. Almost everything in the universe is fainter than magnitude l4; unless you happen to be interested in bright objects, it's really not important. So no real astronomer has ever been willing to devote his career to pushing this.
Aaserud:Have you tried?
Dyson:Oh yes. I tried selling it to the Russians, in fact, too. I went to Zelenchukskaya where they have their huge six meter telescope, and to various Institutes in the Soviet Union, and tried to get them interested. I thought it was the kind of thing that might appeal to them more than to people here, as they love to do things on a grand scale, and all they wanted to hear about was space colonization.
Aaserud:It wasn't a very successful selling trip.
Dyson:No, I couldn't sell it to either side, in fact.
Aaserud:Was that open information from the beginning?
Dyson:Well, it's always been a bit on the borderline. The technology is all out in the open, but of course the missions are classified.
Aaserud:You were able to publish the work you continued to do on it?
Dyson:Oh yes. No, that hasn't caused any trouble. Of course, I did submit it to ARPA to be approved for general distribution. No problem there. I mean, they were more sensible in those days than they are now. I think I might have trouble now. They've been trying to clamp down on all kinds of stuff.
In fact, I was just about to point to the bibliography, if you happen to have it sitting there. It might be worthwhile just to make a note against those items that are JASON-related.
Aaserud:So that's a complete bibliography? It even includes your Foreign Policy article and maybe others of the sort?
Dyson:I think it's complete, yes. Anyhow, there are just two papers, I think, that came out of the active optics. They're both l975. [See attached pages of Dyson's bibliography.]
Aaserud:So that list also includes all JASON reports that are free?
Dyson:No, I don't know whether the laser propulsion thing is in here or not. These are things which were typed here, so that JASON thing is probably not in. It's sort of accidental whether things get in or not. This carbon dioxide thing might also be described as JASON-related. ["Can We Control..."]
Aaserud:Do you have a separate bibliography of JASON reports then?
Dyson:No, I don't, actually. I haven't written a large number. This is JASON, but this is an example of a collaboration in which I was the one who didn't do anything. But still it's on the list; it just happens the paper has my name on it. The work was really done by Walter Munk. ["Interpretation of Multipath..."] Did you talk to Walter Munk?
Aaserud:Yes, I've spoken to him. You know, I was at his party. I had interviewed him a couple of days in advance of that.
Dyson:So this is also active optics. ["Old and New...," "Image Processing...;" see attached pages of Dyson's bibliography.]
Aaserud:Yes, I'm glad you do that. One of the problems I have is that I have not gotten access to a whole list of titles of JASON reports which of course is almost a necessity to do this kind of thing.
Dyson:Yes. Well, I'm not going to say anything about that. There are some people who are a bit paranoid, as you know.
Aaserud:I'm not going to say anything about it either. Well, maybe I can establish a better relationship. It's in part a question of time and trust, I hope.
Dyson:Yes. Anyhow, I think you probably will get that in the end, if you're patient.
Aaserud:And conceivably it could be gotten through the Freedom of Information Act and all that kind of thing, but I would prefer to do it the open way. But I will talk to Will Happer tomorrow.
Dyson:Oh, good. I have very great confidence in Will Happer.
Aaserud:Yes, in every sense a new era. I mean, he's the first chairman who hasn't been in from the very beginning. Well, Nierenberg wasn't either but practically speaking he was.
Dyson:Yes. Anyhow, so this is really all. I read through this just because sometimes one forgets that things exist.
Aaserud:That goes all the way up to 1986?
Dyson:More or less.
Aaserud:Well, as you know, I'm interested in the history of it, so as long as it's full for my period, that's the most important thing. But as I said, we do maintain these lists for a more general audience at the Center as well.
Dyson:So there are just four things in fact that are JASON-related here. They're all 1975, 1976.
Aaserud:It's an arbitrary list, then, you would say, of your real involvement, or is it more than that?
Dyson:Well, these are the only published papers that came out. The unpublished stuff just doesn't get in here.
Aaserud:But that doesn't indicate anything about the relative importance of it, either in terms of the amount of work or anything else.
Dyson:Well, it means that it had some scientific interest, yes, in fact, there are actually five items. Three of them are active optics, one is carbon dioxide, and one is what Walter calls ocean tomography.
Aaserud:How typical or untypical is that of your involvement in JASON generally speaking?
Dyson:It's not very typical. These are only just the things which happened to be scientifically exciting.
Aaserud:Exactly, and that's the minority of it.
Dyson:They were the ones of interest to people on the outside, yes. And then, you see, there are various things which have red arrows pointed to them. That's I think totally irrelevant. The red arrows were only for somebody else; I forget who it was. You can disregard those. Somebody was interested in extraterrestrial communication or something.
Aaserud:I guess that wasn't JASON work.
Dyson:No, it's not one of the things that JASON does.
Aaserud:Not yet, anyway. We were talking about some of your projects. We were beginning to stop that, but I remember that you showed me this JASON laser propulsion study which we haven't talked about at all. Of course, it's a bit later in time than the other things that we talked about. At the same time, you indicated that this perhaps is the study that you valued most highly yourself. So maybe we could talk a little about that as well, then.
Dyson:If you like. I happen to be sort of fundamentally interested in getting us into space; that's been one of the main themes of my life.
Aaserud:Not in the way that it has developed, essentially. I mean, you're not pro-NASA.
Dyson:No, I think that NASA has made a terrible mess of things, and that goes back a long way. I find it's a pity that this report, written nine years ago, wasn't published, because it really identifies in a way the problems as they existed then, which were just the same as they are now. NASA is just basically not interested in new technology and never has been. Already then they were terribly defensive about the Shuttle, and not allowing anything to be done that might compete with the Shuttle. We said that explicitly, in fact.
Aaserud:So there's some agreement on this, if not within JASON, then within parts of JASON.
Dyson:Yes. So anyhow, I think laser propulsion does have a great future. It's much better than Orion. It has the possibility of being cheap and economical and environmentally benign and so on and so on. And I think that's something that NASA should have been doing for the last 20 years. Of course they won't. They still won't.
Aaserud:Is anybody doing it?
Dyson:Well, it's possible. ARPA got a little bit interested in it and asked us to do this study, so we reported there very positively, with no result. There was a very small program, but they dropped it, and nothing happened.
There is some chance it might get revived. There are always a few hopeful people, trying to push things like this, so I haven't given up hope. I think in the long run it's so obviously a good thing to do that sooner or later somebody is going to have the good sense to do it. Maybe the Japanese.
Aaserud:I think you have some vision about that in your book; I don't remember exactly.
Dyson:No, the thing about laser propulsion, of course, is that it not only would be a great thing for space science, which is my primary motivation; it would also be a great thing for the military, in fact. That's what they need. I mean, if you really want to have a sensible military satellite system, what you need is to be able to launch lots of small things in a hurry, and that's precisely what we don't have.
Aaserud:What about political views within JASON and the importance of them in choosing a project, or choosing not to take up a project?
Dyson:Yes, I think you can really say that we are very neutral, but I don't have much to do with the choosing of projects, of course.
Aaserud:You could say, I don't want to take this project, if something is proposed to you. Like the barrier study.
Dyson:Oh yes. As individuals, of course, we have our criteria; I hate submarines, for example. I like to work on anti-submarine warfare, in the hopes that maybe one day we'll get rid of submarines, whereas other people love submarines.
So everybody has his prejudices. But one thing that's certainly true is that we're totally neutral when appointing new members. I mean, this is very explicit, that we don't give a damn how peacenik or warmongering the JASON recruits are. We absolutely ignore that. And I think to a great extent it goes for the projects too, but I really don't know. So much is in the hands of the chairman, in fact.
Aaserud:And political views, political disagreements, discussions have not played a role in terms of collaboration?
Dyson:No. Very little.
Aaserud:Would you say the political range is broad or narrow?
Dyson:It's fairly broad, yes. Christofilos was on the extreme right wing, and I don't know who is on the extreme left; we don't go very far on the left, I suppose.
Aaserud:No, I suppose not.
Dyson:Sid Drell is very much an arms control person.
Aaserud:I think Charlie Schwartz participated in one summer study.
Dyson:That's true, yes. So he didn't last. But I think Sid Drell is probably about as far on the arms control side as we go. I mean, he's very committed to arms control.
Aaserud:Yes, Goldberger perhaps as well. But he's not that active any more as Drell is.
Dyson:It's surprising how little secrecy trouble there has been. The secrecy of JASON as an institution — not allowing people to get membership lists — is actually to me more troublesome than the secrecy of the government. I think the government has, on the whole, at least until recently, behaved sensibly about secrets. I've been several times through a complete summer without ever handling a secret document. It's remarkable how free a lot of it is.
Aaserud:I noticed that in your later correspondence there was a memorandum from the JASON executive secretary to JASONs in Princeton, saying that you have finally got a place to store classified material here. But that's not the kind of problem that hampers JASON work, generally speaking. That's what you're saying.
Dyson:Well, for some people it may. Actually, I don't have a place here for classified stuff, and I don't want it. I separate that completely. I only work on classified stuff when I'm away in La Jolla. So this doesn't affect me. There are some people who would like to work on classified stuff at home, and for them it might be a problem; I don't know.
But anyway, for the things that I've done, I find the secrecy has been quite reasonable. We do a certain amount of what we call tank work, which means, you go into a tank. You know what a tank is. It's a room which is supposed to be totally shielded. Occasionally we go down to the tank where we do things which are very sensitive, and I find that's reasonable; there are lives at stake, and you'd better be discreet about such things. But that's a very small part of the operation. And I don't find anything wrong with it. There are certain things that the less people know about, the better. The right way to treat secrets is more or less that. There should be as little classified as possible, but what is secret should be really secret. That's the way we try to do it.
Aaserud:Of course it might be more of a problem for people whose work in JASON is closer to their general scientific work than yours.
Dyson:Yes. It might be. I don't know. I mean, Walter Munk is of course a good example, but I don't think he has problems.
Aaserud:No, he didn't give me that impression.
Dyson:It's just a very reasonable separation between oceanography as a science, and naval warfare.
Aaserud:You indicated that the development might have worsened in the last few years in this respect.
Dyson:Yes. Walter was complaining that they were now classifying some ocean charts which he felt was very foolish.
Aaserud:What about the developments in the early l970s when JASON went from IDA to SRI? At the same time JASON started contracting to a much greater extent with other agencies than DARPA or ARPA, which led to different degrees of classification, different degrees of clearance, according to which agency you were working for. Was that a problem that you felt was serious?
Dyson:Well, it was annoying. I mean, it didn't affect me. I was not in any of these boxes, and I didn't want to be. But it was annoying for some people. I was glad; I thought it was a good idea that we broadened the clientele. I mean, that was the time when we started getting involved in environmental things and working for DOE, that I thought was very good.
Aaserud:It expanded away from the military, at least; it broadened the involvement.
Dyson:Yes, and a lot of that stuff I think we did fairly well on.
Aaserud:Were there other general changes in the way JASON worked as a result of that? I'm just fishing now.
Dyson:It made very little difference to me anyhow.
Aaserud:I was thinking for example in terms of independent projects in relation to evaluation of other projects — that kind of thing.
Dyson:Well, I didn't feel any difference. But then I was never in the policy-making role anyhow.
Aaserud:The number of scientists giving advice to the government internally has certainly increased very strongly from the creation of JASON until now.
Aaserud:From that perspective, JASON might be thought to play a different role.
Dyson:Yes. Of course, JASON has never been important. I would say it's very peripheral as far as the government is concerned. We are a small side-show of a small piece of the Defense Department. We don't operate at a high level. I would say, the importance of JASON is much more that it gives a way of making contacts for people like Sid Drell, who then actually operate as public figures; Sid Drell does much more important things testifying to Senate committees, than JASON as a whole does. But of course Sid, like me, learns a lot from being in JASON.
Aaserud:So there again we have the learning experience as perhaps the most important aspect.
Dyson:Yes, and especially getting to meet the right people.
Aaserud:But it's had a long life, so it must have had some kind of right to life.
Dyson:Yes. I don't know why the thing survives, really. I think the most useful thing we do is killing unsound projects. But then that hasn't been very successful either, at least in the last five years.
Aaserud:I've had stories about difficulties in teaching people Maxwell's equations, or at least trying to convince people that they still might be applicable.
Dyson:I was actually present on that occasion which you probably are referring to.
Aaserud:Well, I think I had it as a general comment, so if you can put it into a specific occasion, that would be fine.
Dyson:Well, this was a particular occasion when we were talking to some Navy people about magnetic detection at sea. Magnetic detection of submarines is of course a well-developed technology, and the Navy is always a little bit nervous that somebody might find a better way to do it. We were talking about this, and somebody was trying to sell the Navy a new magnetic detection system, which was much better than the old one. We remarked that it was fine except that it seemed to violate Maxwell's equations, and this Navy captain said, "But have Maxwell's equations ever been verified at sea?"
Aaserud:OK, have they?
Dyson:I believe they have.
Aaserud:That's not your main concern. Wonderful. Well, I guess he was corrected.
Dyson:Well, I think it was a good question, actually. They shouldn't take anything for granted.
Aaserud:Better that they ask than that they don't dare to ask, that's absolutely true. Has there been a general development from independent study to the kind of evaluation that we're talking about now?
Dyson:Well, we've always been doing evaluations from the beginning. It's been mostly evaluations.
Aaserud:That's been the majority of it, but the largest studies have been independent probably?
Dyson:No, almost always they are evaluations of things the services have done or are doing.
Aaserud:What about the limitation that JASON participation imposes on public involvement in the same kinds of questions? Of course, there has been some, although most JASONs keep a low profile; there are persons who don't. I guess Richard Garwin, to mention names, is the most obvious case in point, with SST and other matters. Have you felt that as a problem?
Dyson:No. No. It was a problem for PSAC, because PSAC was politically much more exposed. Garwin clearly went beyond the reasonable limits in that case, because PSAC was supposed to give confidential advice to the President, and then to come out in public wasn't such a good idea. But I don't think it really applies to JASON at all. We're not in the business of advising the President. The kind of advice we give is generally very technical; although there are cases where you'd better keep quiet, when you're dealing with a choice between two contractors or something. I haven't found it hampering at all. As you know, I've been talking on the outside quite freely.
Aaserud:And there's never even been a hint of suspicion of whether you go too far?
Dyson:No. I've never been hauled over the coals, anyhow.
Aaserud:Conflicts of interest in a more general sense — that hasn't occurred either? I'm thinking of things like using that kind of information in other connections. I think it was Garwin who told me that during the early days in JASON he saw involvement in both PSAC and JASON as a possible source for conflict.
Dyson:Yes. But of course I was never in PSAC.
Aaserud:So that's a wholly different matter.
Aaserud:To what extent is there discussion in JASON about these things — about to what extent people should be outspoken or not?
Dyson:It's never been an issue.
Aaserud:That would be more of a problem in PSAC in any case than in JASON; that's what you're saying.
Aaserud:What about the relation of JASON to the physics community? Has that always been good? Of course the Vietnam period might have been problematic in that respect.
Dyson:Yes. Oddly enough, it was never serious in this country. It was only serious in France and Italy. People did get a very brutal reception in France and Italy at that time. It never affected me, but it was a problem, and in some vague sense it still is.
Well, of course, then there's the hassle which continues to go on at Columbia, but that isn't really concerned with the physics community. I mean, the people who are fighting JASON there are just students and chaplains and people like that.
Aaserud:There are some university people too I think who signed on.
Dyson:Oh yes. But anyhow, as far as the general physics community goes, it's always been considered to be legitimate.
Aaserud:Well, except for SESPA perhaps, but that was a fringe thing anyway. I guess it was Charlie Schwartz more or less who ran the show. There wasn't too much more, I suppose.
Aaserud:The book or the semi-book or whatever to call what was produced from that, The War Physicists, is a collection of material on JASON, including correspondence with JASONs.
Aaserud:I found it very interesting, in a way, a very useful source.
Dyson:Oh yes, certainly there were a lot of individuals who have been upset about JASON, but there's never been any kind of professional split.
Aaserud:How unique has JASON been in combining basic research and advice in the sense that it has been doing?
Dyson:Well, I think it is rather unique. You know, we tried once to get a British JASON.
Aaserud:Yes. Gordon MacDonald mentioned that. I think he was involved in it too wasn't he?
Dyson:Yes. I wasn't, because as an ex-Englishman, I obviously wasn't the right person to be involved, but it didn't work anyhow. It seems difficult in any other country to do it this way.
Aaserud:Why is that? Is that a reflection of the very special relationship between academic science and the military in this country, as opposed to other countries, or are there other reasons?
Dyson:I don't know, really. As far as England goes, I think the difference is, in England you have a much more influential civil service. The civil service really runs England, in a way that it doesn't in this country, and the civil service has its own people on the inside; they don't want any advice from outside. I think that's basically the difference. That's probably true in most European countries.
Aaserud:Would you point to some similar bodies who were either competing or collaborating — RAND for example, or some other organization?
Aaserud:It's not comparable at all?
Dyson:No. Of course we visit RAND from time to time, but they're just a bunch of full time experts.
Aaserud:How arbitrary or how significant is it that JASON originally consisted of, and I guess still consists mostly of, theoretical physicists?
Dyson:That's more for you to judge. It's strange; we've tried very hard to broaden the group, and we don't succeed. Somehow or other, the people who come in always seem to end up being physicists. I don't know why.
Aaserud:Hopefully I will be able to make a judgment on it, but I'd also like to ask the participants themselves. Do you think, as some do think, that theoretical physicists are particularly suited for that kind of advisory role, as opposed to say a biologist or even a sociologist or an economist?
Dyson:I suppose it may be true that we are more accustomed to being impersonal and objective about things. I don't know.
Aaserud:Of course, you have some good words to say about the biologists in your book, as opposed to physicists, in terms both of arrogance and in terms of pushing or not pushing weapons.
Dyson:Yes, well, I think Matthew Meselson is a good example of a biologist who has done a lot of good. He could have been a JASON, I think. It's sort of accidental that he isn't.
Aaserud:Of course, there have been other kinds of JASONs, but very few. I spoke to Alvin Despain, and he's still the only computer scientist in JASON. And I guess there's only one mathematician. But it must be a question of effective collaboration as well; these are the kinds of people who are used to working together.
Dyson:Yes. That helps of course.
Aaserud:But it's not that the selection mechanism has been a constriction? It's not only that, you're saying?
Dyson:No. I think we have tried to broaden the net, but it doesn't seem to work. Anyway, you should talk to the young people. Did you talk to Paul Horowitz?
Aaserud:No. I haven't.
Dyson:Anyway, you should get a view from the new generation.
Aaserud:I haven't spoken to many of the young people. I have spoken to Roger Dashen, who is not very young. And I am going to speak to Al Despain, who is also not all that young.
Dyson:No, you want to talk to the really young people, because they're going to be running it pretty soon. Well, there's Nelson, who is, I think, at Harvard.
Aaserud:Well, I'm limiting my study now to the first ten or fifteen years.
Dyson:Oh yes, so then it's not so interesting.
Aaserud:Well, it's interesting, but I just have to limit myself somehow. We talked about JASON as a springboard for other science policy activities. It has served as that.
Dyson:Oh, it still does.
Aaserud:Well, I guess it's both ways. There are people who come from other activities to JASON too, of course, but mostly perhaps it has been the other way. Francis Low, when I interviewed him, made the distinction between white collar and blue collar JASONs, which I think is amusing.
Dyson:Yes. I hadn't heard that. That's very true, yes.
Aaserud:White collars being those of course who either use it as a springboard or come from other places, the blue collar ones being the ones who are in JASON precisely because that is the kind of advising activity that is close enough to physics that they're willing to work with that.
Dyson:So I'm definitely blue collar, anyway.
Aaserud:In that respect, yes; but not in terms of general interest, I would say. I mean, you were part of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which bleaches your sleeves a little bit. Has it been part of your motivation for being in JASON, that you do technical work rather than political or policy work?
Aaserud:So in that respect, your motivation is blue collar. Do you have anything to say about JASON in this more general context of physicists' science policy activities? What is the kind of impact it has had in relation to other bodies, like for example PSAC or committees of the National Academy of Sciences?
Dyson:Yes, well, I'm just not an Academy person; I've never taken any part in the Academy at all. It seems to me the primary function of JASON is to try to establish some kind of respect for competence in the government, which is always a losing battle. That's the primary emphasis, that we are supposed to be technically competent people. Therefore what we say might be taken seriously. In that we're rather unique; I mean, as compared with all these other advisory committees who don't really do any work.
Aaserud:That's another possible distinction. Now, you have said several times that the impact of JASON has been minimal, I think. And I think you mean that seriously.
Aaserud:But as to degrees of minimalness, have there been different times or different projects that have been more important, or have had more important impact, than others, would you say?
Dyson:Yes. I think there were times when we were successful in killing projects. That was what we were best at — just providing technically sound arguments for not doing things that were stupid.
Aaserud:Some of the projects were scrapped.
Dyson:Yes. Of course, the most recent of those was Dense Pack. I think it would have died anyhow, but we certainly helped a lot to push it over the edge.
Aaserud:I didn't know JASON was involved in that.
Dyson:Yes, we did a study on Dense Pack, and so we provided the technical arguments to back up the politicians who were against it for other reasons. That's the kind of thing we do rather well. Of course, the same thing happened with various other things, the B-l — well, the MX in its various incarnations. But just recently of course these things have all been resurrected, except for the Dense Pack, which at least stays dead. But still, I think we have been good in killing projects. The SST was one of those also, of course.
Aaserud:So that to choose a typical JASON project, it would make more sense to choose that kind of activity than to choose an attempt at a positive contribution.
Dyson:Yes. Laser propulsion was a case where we were trying to promote something. We just don't succeed in that.
Aaserud:Have there been any instances of promoting things where you have been more successful than in other instances?
Dyson:I don't know of any. One might think of something. But I suppose Christofilos was the best at that, and he almost succeeded with the Bassoon.
Aaserud:Was that because he also had good personal connections, or was it just his energy?
Dyson:Well, he had tremendous will power and drive. I don't know. But it got killed in the end.
Aaserud:How should I go about to get an answer to the question of to what extent JASON has been heard within the agencies — and how far up in the agencies? Do you think it makes sense to go outside JASON to try to answer that?
Dyson:Oh yes. Certainly. We have of course an exaggerated idea of our importance.
Aaserud:You less than others.
Dyson:I think you should definitely talk to people who have dealt with JASON from the outside.
Aaserud:That's my next step, actually.
Aaserud:I suppose, ARPA directors are good candidates.
Dyson:Yes, the former ARPA directors are more likely to talk than the present ones.
Aaserud:And fortunately I'm more interested in them since I'm still doing this early part. And I can easily find their names, of course; that hopefully is not a problem.
Dyson:And the DDR&E. Those are the people we deal with, too.
Aaserud:And perhaps other agencies as well, after l970 anyway.
Dyson:Yes, but generally the DDR&E is the person who has the best view of what we're doing, I should think.
Aaserud:DDR&E's have generally been very pro-JASON people, is that correct generally speaking?
Aaserud:Was York the first one?
Dyson:Yes. Of course, he's now actually in JASON, so he doesn't count.
Aaserud:No. There are some people who have crossed that boundary; Jack Martin I suppose is a case in point.
Aaserud:You've done some other science policy kinds of activities as well. You've been involved in Congressional testimony, for example.
Aaserud:Well, you give one example in your book.
Dyson:Yes. I think that was the last time I ever testified, and that was ten years ago.
Aaserud:I see. That was the DNA question.
Congressional testimony — were there other testimonies before the DNA thing?
Dyson:Yes. I've only done it three times in my life, as far as I remember, and the last time was the DNA hearings, which was about ten years ago. The line I was pushing, which was to say that one shouldn't be too restrictive — that after all you have to take some risks in this world if you ever want to get anything done at all — has prevailed, in fact. I mean, I don't claim any credit for that, but the DNA business, I think, has been a good case in which regulations turned out to be just about strict enough, but not too strict. It's now been going ahead for ten years, and the science is doing wonderfully well. So far no health problems have arisen, and so it looks good.
Aaserud:The question I forgot to ask you was about the circumstances for your decision to quit JASON? That was in l969, was it?
Dyson:1968, I guess it was.
Aaserud:The letter is from you to Hal Lewis, l8 March l968, in which you thank him for rejecting your resignation.
Dyson:Yes. And of course, I don't remember. I mean, clearly it was general disgust over Vietnam. That was certainly the main point. But exactly how and when, I don't remember. I suppose I'd been under attack, to some extent, from the students here. And I felt, well, to hell with it; I don't think I should have anything to do with this. But anyway, for a couple of years I didn't go to JASON meetings.
Aaserud:Here, of course, you say — I quote from your letter — "This leaves me in a kind of limbo," referring not to your decision to re-join, of course, because you were a member all the time, but your decision not to quit. "This leaves me in a kind of limbo, where I propose to remain until the dust settles a bit."
Dyson:So I suppose it was just when the Vietnam business would be over.
Aaserud:So the dust was created by the students here, essentially.
Dyson:Not only the students, but I think in fact, as far as I remember, we had some problems in Boulder, which you may have heard about. The students in Boulder were upset because we had a meeting there on the campus. I don't remember, but anyhow, it speaks for itself.
Aaserud:So it was not dust settling within JASON, it was dust settling —
— in the society.