Oral History Transcript — David Katcher
This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of the American Institute of Physics.
This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event. Disclaimer: This transcript was scanned from a typescript, introducing occasional spelling errors. The original typescript is available.
See the catalog record for this interview and search for other interviews in our collection
David Katcher; April 16, 1989
ABSTRACT: Early youth and education; B.A. in physics from University of Wisconsin; work in Naval Ordnance Laboratory in World War II; book with Ellis Johnson. First editor of Physics Today; work at Operations Research Office; move to Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) in 1956. Latter half of interview devoted to JASON: involvement from inception; executive secretary for seven years; impact on policy, types of projects, etc.
Katcher:I think it was in 1975 at the time of the Vietnam War, when there was a lot of criticism on campuses of the war, defense-related activities, and national security activities, that Science wrote JASON up. I have a copy of it someplace but couldn't find it for your visit. Science is well indexed and I would look around 1975, plus or minus a year or two.  I thought that was as pretty good summary. I found another thing the other day just by chance and am glad I can refer you to it. I have a copy some place, but I don't know where, my files are not that well ordered. It was an old IDA Annual Report from 1967 that had a couple of paragraphs on the JASON Division, so I just copied it and [will?] give it to you. That was the year I left IDA. I left in 1966.
Aaserud:IDA made these Annual Reports. I'm sure they have some of the archival material too I'm interested in.
Katcher:Well, as I said earlier, it was all thrown out several years ago, when the then administrative officer asked me if I had any use for the material. I went through it and took some things out for nostalgic purposes, but having retired and moved so many papers here, I had no room for it and I didn't think anyone was interested. Out it went. I don't know how helpful it would be. But there were things about Project 137 and the early days. Wheeler's and Goldberger's and Townes' interest, but these are all people that you're getting hold of.
Aaserud:But I would also like to have your side on that, because you're kind of special in this.
Katcher:Well, it was unique. When the future JASON was first being thought of as a group which the Institute for Defense Analyses could host—father, mother, whatever you want to call it -- there were some discussions between Townes and the others of how to do it. Pete Gould, who was the Administrator Extraordinary at the Institute, spoke to Charlie Townes when he thought Townes would need some inside help. Pete knew it just couldn't be done automatically or routinely. He introduced us and we said, "OK, let's try it," and I became a special assistant to Charlie and acted as executive secretary of the group. Charlie was very precise, very careful, and he was particularly anxious to set a tone for the administration of the group which, though administered from Washington, would be totally non-intrusive, and non-formal, in the sense of not being run for the convenience of the management, but for the necessities of the work and what had to be done. I had a background, by the way, both in physics and English. It has always amused me that when I came there and I had to write letters to people Charlie would look at every letter I wrote, even of the most trivial nature, edit it, and send it back. After about six months, by which time I clearly had gotten his approach and a sense of what was important to him, he gave over and from then on the contacts were free. But I had learned the outward form of the essence of his approach.
Aaserud:You talked about the Science article. I looked at the publications you list here. Is "Mines Against Japan " JASON-related?
Katcher:No, that has to do with my earlier life. When I first came to Washington, I went to work for the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, when it was a very very small organization. This was about a year before we got into the war. Hitler's secret weapon at that time was the magnetic mine, and the British, because of the dangers of bombing and what have you, at one point when they captured one of the mines which had failed to explode, brought it over here so that it could be examined in every detail. There was a great deal of cooperation between the two countries on defending against it the magnetic mine, which, at that time, was principally degaussing of one sort or another. I worked in Naval Ordnance Laboratory as a technical editor, producing their research reports and memoranda. Well, I quit. I volunteered and enlisted in the Army, and then ended up in the Philippines where, when the war was over, still in uniform, I was assigned to the Office of the High Commissioner. That was during the transition from Commonwealth to Republic, which was very interesting. When I came back to Washington I got to see people again and saw my old friend Ellis Johnson. He wanted a record of the contribution research had made to the war operations. He was one of the early pioneers in this country of operations research -- the introduction here of the method that P.M.S. Blackett of course had started in England -- and it was particularly useful with my work because the matter of chance and randomness entered which military people at that time were not used to at all. A thing worked or it didn't work. The idea that it would work 0.6 percent of the time or 0.9 percent of the time was very foreign. So he was a pioneer. He was in uniform, and, I think, a geophysicist by training. He wanted to get all that had been done down on paper, and so I helped him get the book out. He made me co-author, and about 25 years later, shortly before or shortly after he died, it came out. It's a record of the relationship of scientists in wartime and their research to wartime needs and operations.
Aaserud:That would be very interesting to see. That has general implications even though it comes out of that specific study. Has it been declassified?
Katcher:Yes, but it's a government document of some sort. I'll have to look. As soon as I get detached from this machine, I can go and look and see if I have a copy and get you the reference. I do have a copy; the question is, can I find it?
Aaserud:The other items in your bibliography are in the published literature so they should be easy to obtain.
Katcher:Almost all the work I did for 30 or 40 years was either totally anonymous or classified. Only for a brief time when I was with Arthur D. Little, I spent a month or two writing articles did I get much out in public. Well, that's the nature of the beast.
Aaserud:It would be great to have more time to talk about your whole career some time.
Katcher:Well, I don't know.
Aaserud:I think so. Absolutely.
Katcher:At any rate, that put me in a position of being able, because I had a physics background and now worked directly with technical people in editing their write-ups to use my understanding of the working atmosphere of the people who do science -- their feelings about accuracy, about certainty, about precision, about definition, about logic. The rest of the world has a hard time understanding why scientists are so fussy about details that seem so unimportant, or why they are happy about coming to a conclusion which seems obvious to everybody even though they may have no basis for it. I ended up in this business of being between the two worlds. It may have been for that reason -- because I understood scientists' feelings -- that I could help JASON get set up in a way which protected the way in which they worked against bureaucratic aggression.
Aaserud:Maybe you should say a little bit about your background, your own history before this, just briefly.
Katcher:Just very briefly, I had a BA in physics at the University of Wisconsin.
Aaserud:First of all, you were born in New York, right?
Katcher:I was born in Brooklyn, New York, April 28, 1915.
Katcher:Well, they were both immigrants, my mother in her twenties, my father in his late teens. They came to this country from Russia, my mother from Odessa, father from a small town near Kiev. He went to Cooper Union night school, as many people did. He became a mechanical engineer and an inventor, held many patents, and lived a good full useful life until he was almost 94.
Aaserud:They met in this country?
Katcher:They met in this country, yes. They came here around 1905 and 1907, and I was the second of the two children. My sister was a little older, and when they discovered that she began to talk Russian, they decided that since this is America, they would only talk English in her presence. I never learned any language other than English except for Jewish with which I communicated with my grandmother. She lived with us all these years. We kept an orthodox kosher household for her, because she was deeply religious, as we were not, so I learned Jewish to talk to her. It was sort of a pidgin Jewish. She came to this country, following some of her children. She had 13 children, of whom 7 or 8 survived. She was my father's mother. I went to public school in Brooklyn. But I got a scholarship to Walden School in Manhattan for high school, which began an enlargement of my experience. I went to the University of Wisconsin where I was torn between physics and English. I got a BA in physics. I did some graduate work in English but never got a degree, and I wandered out into the real world.
Aaserud:What brought you into the respective areas specifically?
Katcher:I loved physics in high school. I liked it, had an affinity for it. The thing I liked particularly was that it allowed you to define a problem and work on it. I've heard this from others. There was an atmosphere and a simplicity about it which I normally did not find in other of life's problems, shall we say. But at the same time, I liked to write. I enjoyed people so much. I was never terribly good at mathematics, certainly not in the early days, partly because I didn't believe a lot of the assumptions that went into it. My instructors couldn't explain them to my satisfaction, so I gave it up. The question of limits, for example, I only understood and respected years later -- when I began to read about mathematics and talk to mathematicians -- was a very legitimate question. What you have when you learn calculus is, well, it works, don't bother with those questions. How can you throw away delta x squared if you're worried about what delta x is? It gets there faster. Well, I didn't understand that, it did not seem very rigorous. It really is quite difficult. Now I think I understand. So I really wasn't terribly good at mathematics. I also wanted to derive all my physics formulae from first principles rather than memorize them, and that's a mistake for a student. I think I got about five out of about 20 we needed in one class. So I don't do too well. I knew those five pretty well, though! At Wisconsin then was a most marvelous time for physics. Wigner was there. Serber was there. Herb was there. Feenberg was there, and Slater, Mendenhall, the Rollefsons, Piore, Leland Hayworth, etc. It was a marvelous department. It was Herb who did the pressurized Van de Graaff, didn't he? I remember him building it. Because when I graduated, the neutron, the third particle, had just been discovered by Chadwick. So that was a long time ago.
Aaserud:Were these physicists about the same age?
Katcher:Oh, they were ahead of me. I was very young when I went there.
Aaserud:But you knew them personally?
Katcher:A little bit. Sure. I knew Piore. They were quite far ahead, and -- Wisconsin at that time wasn't paying very much attention to undergraduates, of whom there were only four in my class! One was Creutz who is well known. The two others just managed to get through and went off into high school physics. I was the fourth. And I never was a serious student. I only worked hard in my last year, really. Then I got unhappy with my adviser -- well, at any rate, I went into English.
Aaserud:Did you already then have some kind of sense for the relationship between science and the humanities? Was there a relationship between your English interest and your physics interest?
Katcher:Oh, sure. I guess as the odd bridge I was always very interested in philosophy and in the philosophy of science, in which I did a lot of reading. But when I was in science, most of my friends were in the arts. They were, you know, sculptors and dancers and in literature. And then when I did my graduate work in literature, I found the thinking so loose I couldn't bear my fellows and I spent most of my time with the scientists. I might say of myself that I was just one of these people who's permanently dissatisfied with what they do, and to some extent that stayed with me most of my life. I used to write about one thing and another, and the bridge came when -- it was very hard to get jobs in those days—I had this opportunity to do technical writing and editing at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, I jumped to it.
Aaserud:How did that come about?
Katcher:How I got there? I went to New York in 1939, when it turned out that opportunities in Wisconsin were limited. I made a list of 400 publishers, and I began to see them one by one, and I discovered I could take only four refusals a day, and that's the time when I'd go home and read my Sandburg on Lincoln and discovered it was possible to be a politician and an idealist at the same time, which was quite a discovery. And I got to the B's on my list. In the B's were Business Week and Business Week was in McGraw-Hill, and the person in the B's sent me to the editor of the Journal of the Institute for Electrical Engineering, who knew of two jobs, one with Bendix in Baltimore, one with the Naval Ordnance Laboratory [NOL] in Washington. I got them both and I chose Washington even though it was less money because it seemed more interesting, and I never got away from that sort of work ever since.
Aaserud:The Naval Ordnance Lab went through quite a development when you were there.
Katcher:Yes, it went from youth to senility in three years. A little unfair. It grew up. It got to be a huge organization of 3000 people. Hard to do. I was gone by then.
Aaserud:What was the origin of the lab?
Katcher:Well, it did work for the Navy. Of the two services the Navy was then by far the most technical. In World War I there had been the great barrier mine field across the North Sea, where horned and other mines were used. In fact, there was some discussion of firing mechanisms using the changes in magnetic field when a ship went through. This was a little laboratory that went along between the wars working on one thing or another. I really don't know whether it began to expand before the German mines were used in an effort to seal off England from the sea, or whether it was directly stimulated by the knowledge of what the Germans were doing. But then the NOL began to work hard to find some countermeasures to this threat. And I was drawn into it in those days especially since it was defensive. You get into this whole question of wartime work depending on how you feel. For some of us it's much easier to make the step from being against violence as a way of settling things -- the question of defending against other people's violence -- to discovering that in order to do that more efficiently and therefore -- you hope -- with less total grief, you have to get into the business of also being offensive. These are the steps that can take place and may indeed have occurred with other people. I've never talked very much about it but these were the steps that brought me into it. And for what bearing it has on that, I think many of the JASON people were strongly motivated by the desire to see that there was peace in the world. In fact, the work that was done on strategic weapons in those days was essential. I think it was absolutely crucial for the decision makers on both sides to understand the potential effects of what had been designed, what had been put into their hands. If this kind of study and analysis had not been done, people could very well have been tempted to try the new gadgets out to see if they would work. This is what most practical people do. You know, you learn how to do something, how to use it, and it is pragmatic of them to say, well, do it. And I think the contribution made by the academics in this matter is without substitute. It could only have been done by taking the possibilities seriously. Now, if I wander afield, bring me back.
Aaserud:We were at the Naval Ordnance Lab. So that was a constant entity that was expanded as a direct result of the war. Did your position open up as a result of the war?
Katcher:No, not really. The laboratory expanded enormously, especially after the war started and as technical editor, I had more to do. I did some training films or educational films on the nature of this beast -- the magnetic mine -- that people would deal with and the countermeasures against it and so on. It got to be a big operation. As a matter of fact at that time I had something like 40 people in my group, which is more than I've ever had before or since. And then I decided nothing they were going to do in the laboratory would reach the front. I was not married, so I said I'd quit as soon as I finished the job I had taken on. The word got out, and this is sort of an interesting story to me. I heard from a friend. I didn't know he knew anything about photography but he was with Eastman Kodak in Clinton, Tennessee. He said, "I can't tell you what we're doing but it's very important; if you're tired of NOL, come to work here." I said, "Nothing you people do will ever reach the front." I got a letter from someone at Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico. He said, "I can't tell you what we're doing, but --." And he was an expert in magnetism. I thought, my God, he's going fishing, you know, or whatever they do in New Mexico. "Can't tell you what we're doing but it's very important." I said, "No, nothing you people do will ever reach the front where it matters." I got a third letter from someone, and I didn't know he was a metallurgist, but he was at the Chicago Metallurgy Lab. It said, "Can't tell you what we're doing but if you're tired of there, come here." I said, "No." And I was sitting in a replacement camp outside Manila in the Philippines, watching a movie, when they interrupted it to say that the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, and all of those three places came into it at that time and I realized what it was I had said would never reach the front. I was never sorry not to have worked on the bomb. I really wasn't. I'd much rather have put on a uniform. Then it's someone else's fault.
Aaserud:Who wrote to you and how did they know about you?
Katcher:These were people with whom I'd worked with at NOL who had gone on to other things. The Naval Ordnance Laboratory at that time was really a very lively and intellectual place. There is a generation of heat and excitement that can take place when you get some people together, as I think the JASON group demonstrated. NOL was like that too, a collection of marvelous people. Ralph Bennett, who was professor of electrical engineering at MIT, was one of the major heads there, and Ellis Johnson who also came from MIT was another. Between the two of them, they really got good people. John Bardeen was there, for example. You can go through a great number of alumni. Well, these were the people that I worked with. The chap at Santa Fe was with Lyman Parrott, as far as I remember. I don't remember any more who wrote to me from Chicago or Clinton, but they were other people I'd worked with who knew what I could do. People always look for good editors in the hope they can fix up what they do. The reason I got out of the business eventually is that by and large you can't fix up what was done if it wasn't good, logical, and well thought out in the first place. These are the people who need editors less than they need better guidance. The ones who need help the most think that their problems can be handled cosmetically, but their problems go deeper.
Aaserud:I just wanted to ask you, to what use did your work at the NOL come and what are the products now?
The Laboratory made an enormous contribution to the war effort, especially in the Pacific. My own part of it was all internal, and the only thing that may have come out of that was the book that I helped Ellis Johnson get out at the end of the war, when he felt that the lessons learned ought to be put down on paper so that you don't go through the procedure of learning everything all over again. There were things in World War I (and even back to the Civil War) when the National Research Council was formed when the scientific and technical community came to the aid of the government operations that needed them. Then the whole establishment was disbanded afterwards. There was a great feeling, it seemed to me, after World War II, that the close relationship between civilian scientists and the military should be abandoned, that this should not be. The contribution to maintaining the connection was to see that everything was put down, warts and all, and in the early chapters particularly I was always fascinated by Johnson's approach. His approach to working with people, working with scientists, the relation between the scientists and the military, the relation between the technical people and the operational people in order to make it more general, was lively and vital. So the opportunity to help get this down on paper after the war was a fine one, and I took it. As I say, it was classified, and for a long time was kept that way. It was a little critical of some elements in the Navy establishment, which made people unhappy. I used to argue with Johnson that it didn't do any good to get any of the old turf fights down on paper because they happen all the time, and they would obscure the main message. But one or two of them got through because he just refused to eliminate it, and it caused some problems.
At any rate, the book was declassified by someone and published some twenty-five years later without first informing me. I was upset about it because I would have rearranged it somewhat for open publication -- rearranged the emphasis. There were historical records and plots of mine fields and so on which really were of no use to anyone except a person in that field. I think the early philosophy and what is now called science policy was what was important. See, policy is a new word to me, in a sense. When I came back to Washington from Arthur D. Little in 1972, I discovered everyone was talking about policy. I said, "What do you mean by policy?" "Well, everyone knows what policy is." "Now, what do you mean by policy?" And I discovered that it's an ambiguous word and forming policy has two very different meanings to people. One is that in setting policy you are telling other people what to do, giving them procedures for carrying something out. The other meaning is that in setting policy you defined a goal or an object. Many of the arguments people had about policy were because neither would make clear which of the two meanings they used. One sets an objective and leaves the means of getting there to be worked out. The other sets the means and assumes the objective will emerge. I also find policy seems to be attractive to people because most of us like to tell other people what to do, even though we couldn't always do it ourselves. And so it's a seductive field, and it's getting overcrowded.
Aaserud:My understanding of it is rather pragmatic. I use it to get to a certain series of problems, rather than trying to define it.
Aaserud:Instead of physics, instead of politics --
Katcher:-- it's the interaction between the two.
Aaserud:I have been criticized for that myself, you know. People tell me the main thing about American science policy is that we never had a science policy in a well defined sense.
Katcher:Yes, you get that call from a lot of people; I think it's a naive one. I remember early in the American Institute of Physics, being informed that one of the purposes of Physics Today should be, "to unify physics." What did they mean by unifying physics, how to unify it? I don't know. So there's a call for unity or for a clear statement of what we ought to do in circumstances where no clear call for what we ought to do is possible. Now, people like Murph [Goldberger] in particular who, as I think, is one of the really remarkable people in so many ways, understood this about things, about people, about organizations, about governments and so on. The JASONs in particular never made any effort to find unambiguous definitions in ambiguous situations. It will come up again more naturally, but I just wanted to say that Murph understood better than many people that unambiguous definitions cannot be made in certain areas, about certain ways of acting, which are not natural to them. There are neat and orderly people who want things that way, no matter what, and who generally don't have breadth of understanding.
Aaserud:To get back to where we were, could we round off your Naval Ordnance involvement?
Katcher:At any rate, so there I was. Most of what I did was classified. Nothing got out except this one odd book, and that was it. And that's all. I went on from there. I enlisted in the Army as a private, went to OCS, became a lieutenant, and was in the Signal Corps for three years -- went and served overseas. I got out of uniform, fortunately with both legs, both arms, my head, and I had a second life.
Aaserud:Would you say the work of the Naval Ordnance Lab provided the kind of bridge you hadn't found at Wisconsin?
Katcher:No, I wouldn't make that generalization, because it was a different sort. At Wisconsin I was just dithering between two fields, in both of which I had some capability, and in neither of which I was very brilliant. I never could decide. I still haven't. I would still like to do both.
Aaserud:But to some degree you were able to do both in that job.
Katcher:To some degree. That's important, quality. It was not totally satisfactory.
Aaserud:No, not too much should be made of it. Then of course there was Physics Today.
Yes. I got out of the Army, I wandered around to see people, to say hello. I came back to Ellis Johnson who said, "Good, I need your help. I've got someone trying to do this. It isn't working." I used to sit down and talk to Ellis and then write out our talk, and we'd hammer out what had got to be done in the written part of this book, and other people collected all the photos and the documents and so on. Then it was then that I heard, and who was it? It was the son of the great acoustician Sabin. I think it was Gordon Sabin -- the son, not the father -- who said, "Hey, the American Institute of Physics wants someone to do a popular magazine for them, you're just right for it, Dave." So I went up to see them. The American Institute was indeed looking to put out such a magazine, and it wanted very good well-known people whom it couldn't get. It looked like a headache. I found out why and I'll tell you. Lesser known people in general didn't impress them as having the capability of doing what they wanted. Better known people didn't want the task. Well, they got hold of me and I started seeing people. I saw about 20 people, Pegram, Harrison, Fisk, you name them, everybody. It was a marvelous thing, and the more people I saw, the more reluctant I became to do the job, because it was clear that everybody had a completely different notion of what they wanted. Furthermore, they were fairly intolerant of everybody else's ideas of what the magazine ought to be, so by the time I'd seen a couple of dozen of them, there was just nothing left but minority opinions. They meanwhile had become interested in me, because I guess I talked a good line and they'd looked up my references. Sam Goudsmit was another who became a very dear friend. And they gave me the job and in a sense gave me my head, because they didn't know what they wanted. After about six or eight months, and I put out what I thought was to be my dummy.
They were pushing me to send it out, and I did. And it was a marvelous experience. I did have my head. Harry Barton was very cooperative. Scientific American came out the same time. The three years I was running Physics Today I don't think they had an article on physics in their magazine, because I had the country tapped. At the time I left, there were about 300 article ideas all set up. By the way, it took about 30 possible ideas to get ten acceptances and possible approaches which in turn would produce three articles of which maybe one or two would be published. I did a tremendous amount of rewriting in addition to production and design. But I had an arrangement which might be normal for a scientific magazine, but not usually done for a popular science magazine: I never put out a single word that wasn't approved by the original author. The trick in editing there was that if you knew what the authors wanted to say and you said it better than they did, they never knew that you changed anything. Only when you went wrong did the fur fly. And I was fortunate enough to go along for about six months before I ran into trouble with somebody, and by that time the Institute had enough faith in me so that we just laughed it off. In general I had very little trouble with authors. I left because of differences of opinion on what ought to be done at that point.
They were dithering between having Physics Today as a captive organ sent to everybody, and having it open to subscription. When it was subscription, it had about an 80 percent renewal rate, which is very very high. Then they sent it to everybody. And they had various ideas on what to do. We hit a slight recession. They made a very poor decision on advertising that I fought against and lost. They hired an outside person to represent the Institute in advertising who was running a magazine competitive with the Review of Scientific Instruments. It was a very poor idea, I thought. He had no use for Physics Today at all, and so our advertising suffered because of it. In three years when I was supposed to break even I still had a $5,000 deficit. They were upset about that, which is pretty silly really when you think about it. The budget was 60 to 75 thousand a year, and a new manager at the Institute began to make decisions on what kind of paper should be used. There began a kind of corporate interference unlike Harry Barton's very understanding kind of approach. A number of decisions were made that would have governed the quality and approach of the magazine. I just wouldn't accept them, so I left. It has always amused me that for a few years after that, the Physics Today budget was buried in the AIP budget, and you didn't know what they did in that time. No one else knew or cared. Anyway I left. We got lots of prizes, you know, and one of the satisfactions was running into an editor of a magazine afterwards, the editor of the Johns Hopkins magazine, who said he modeled his magazine on Physics Today. He had come from Baltimore to meet me. It pleased me to hear that. Now of course it's old stuff.
Aaserud:When was the Johns Hopkins Magazine founded?
Katcher:In the middle fifties, or maybe it was revived or changed or something like that. But I worked very well with the art director at AIP, with whom I'd worked in Washington at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory. It was like having a pair of hands that could do things right out of one's head. I'm not an artist. I have no skill at it at all. We would talk things out, and the sketches would come and then we would comment on the sketches, and almost everything would come out the way I had it in my mind, and it was unusual. It worked very well. It was a very happy procedure, and it got a magazine started that's still healthy today. It found a niche. I run into people who remember it when they were graduate students. Some of the JASONs, for example.
Aaserud:During the time you were there you got free rein more or less?
Katcher:Oh yes, absolutely. It was well supported. Obviously I wouldn't do anything that went against either Institute wish or Institute principle. One of the differences there was that some of the people wanted it to be more of a house organ, in the sense of having more about the people who were doing important things. I still had rather the student's point of view: to the hell with the professors, what really matters is work that's being done, and to get it out in a way which would make sense to the public. The purpose of the magazine then was to make a bridge between physics and the intelligent layman, and so I always had the eye on the newspaper. I used to write releases, for example, so to point out to the newspaper people what was being published. The releases were used, and we would get quite a lot of coverage one way or another, and so it went. Of course, the function of Physics Today is different now. It really serves more as an organ internal to the field of physics. It's very technical. And it has a function that was partly performed by the Reviews of Modern Physics in those days, where you would have these collected articles. Now physics is so complicated that the Reviews can't do it at every level, so there's Physics Today to try to do it.
Aaserud:The audience has always been a problem with Physics Today I think, or at least for a long time it was.
Katcher:Yes. It was clearly outside the field at that time. There were just differences of opinion. I remember seeing Rabi once, and he was very critical of it. In fact he said, "It stinks." I said, "OK, why does it stink?" and it turned out it was because it didn't satisfy his needs. Well, why do a magazine to satisfy Rabi's needs? He gets all the information he needs on the telephone. As soon as someone finds a peculiar something on the West Coast, the network is such that everyone who cares knows it in 24 hours. I wasn't doing it for Rabi. And so it was. Karl Darrow was very helpful. There were a lot of people there who really were good and helpful and understanding: Eric Walker, who may not remember me, Sam Goudsmit, Dick Bolt, Phil Morse, whom I got to know later when I went into operations research. So it was all good. It was an effort that served its purpose then, but it doesn't exist now. They have other magazines to do it. Nothing I think that does it quite how it ought to be done, but I'm too old to start that battle again. There's too much emphasis on people and not enough on ideas.
Aaserud:Then you got a new job again, with the Operations Research Office. That came after that?
Katcher:That's right. That was simple. We were right in the middle of the Korean War. I'd been asked by Ellis Johnson earlier to come out to them. He's a person with whom I'd worked at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory, and I said, "One war's enough, I'd really like to get into other things." But we were having a bad time there, and I had a dream that he was captured by the North Koreans or something like that, and I felt it was all my fault. If I'd listened to him and come to work for him, he never would have been captured by the North Koreans. Well, he hadn't been, of course, but I got back into military work and didn't emerge for 15 to 20 years.
Aaserud:Even though the work was different.
Katcher:Yes, different work. So I worked for them. I set up his report section. We were juggling, did annual reports. All internal, all classified. I made a lot of friends that way and learned a lot, but there is no written record.
Aaserud:So the institutional place of that was Johns Hopkins.
Katcher:The Operations Research Office (ORO) was part of Johns Hopkins University. We were doing work for the Army. At that time the services still had the memory of the contribution civilians had made to their work during World War II. They were willing to go outside and look for the outside help, advice, comments, evaluations, which they didn't always welcome, by the way. But the idea here was, you say what you think is right -- at least that was the arrangement with ORO, and I think it was true of the other service organizations -- and we will decide whether or not to distribute it. And this is how it worked, and it worked well for a while, until some political differences would arise. I think all the services then recaptured the field, by sending their own people in uniform to school and getting them PhDs and then getting them back. Operations Research became a defined area, defined in some way, and the services developed their own inner expertise and thought they could get objectivity which they could control by having it done by people in their own uniforms, so all these organizations got eaten up. But by that time, I had gone on from ORO to the Institute for Defense Analyses, which was above the service rivalry business, and at the JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] level. It was with the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group. Meanwhile, I'd been an officer of the Operations Research Society [of America, ORSA] and helped Thornton Page get their magazine started.
Aaserud:Did the ORSA come out of the Army or out of the scientists primarily.
Katcher:They were scientists who had had military experience, who had done work in World War II, and who were aware not only of the contribution that could be made to military operations, but now that it was peace time, aware that operations research could make a contribution to peace time problems.
Aaserud:It was somewhat independent.
Katcher:It was totally independent, and it was open. There is a section of the Operations Research Society called the Military Applications Section which goes into military work. It's quite small. I was never a member of it. I don't know what happened. The exciting thing to all of us was that you could extend quantitative analysis to the complex problems you face in government and business and so on by introducing this method. Now, the economists said, "We've always done that," and the statisticians say, "We've always done that. You've got a new name, but nothing different." And the operations research people say, "No, what's different here is that we are not tied by any one particular methodology. What we look at is the problem in its own right, and then bring in the methodology most suitable," including the old physicist business of jumping by intuition from one careful way of handling things to another careful way of handling things. This intuitive jump in the middle of course drives mathematicians crazy, but it's one of the things that distinguishes the two fields. This was an exciting area. People would go out and they'd work for example, for the government of India -- I think Russ Ackoff did that. There was an effort at handling all sorts of problems in the United States government, and the method also crept into the outside real world, especially through corporations like Arthur D. Little, Inc., who were very early in introducing operations research into industrial and commercial problems. Then as a consulting business grew to be fun and profitable, other people got into it, Price, Waterhouse, Lybrand, Ross Bros., etc. -- just all over the place. Like anything good, as it got more popular, it got more corrupted, but that's another story.
Aaserud:What is the relationship between the ORSA and the ORO?
Katcher:The ORSA and ORO were entirely different and independent. ORO is the Operations Research Office. That was Johns Hopkins. It worked for the Army on Army problems. ORSA was a professional association called the Operations Research Society of America, which consisted of professionals in the field. It included and was really started by people who started in military OR in World War II but spread into civilian fields. Its members came from professionals with the Navy, the Air Force, and increasingly, of course, from academic and industrial work as well as from the Army.
Aaserud:Which came first?
Katcher:The service groups. ORO, OEG, which was the Navy Group, the Operations Evaluation Group. OAO in the Air Force was the Office of Operations Analysis. LeRoy Brothers, Jay Steinhart, Ellis Johnson, Bernard Koopman, and people like that were the ones who got together to found the professional society. And that began to include everybody, and it was totally open and unclassified. And it was their magazine or journal that I helped get started. ORO put out nothing. I may have done some work for them, but it was all classified. I never kept anything.
Aaserud:What was the background of those early people?
Katcher:Physics, chemistry, geology, geophysics -- the hard sciences. There was an effort at that time—and Ellis was a pioneer in this -- to bring the social sciences into it. ORO did a remarkable study on integration in the Army that was pioneer in the field, because it was done very very flat. It was a statistical analysis of the behavior of integrated and unintegrated troops. Without going into questions of morality or right or constitutionality, it proved that integrated troops did a better job than segregated ones. It may have helped the Army, which was early in desegregating, in its move to do so. But in the fifties these things were coming along. So there may have been other social science things also that I don't remember. Kissinger I think as a matter of fact was a consultant to ORO, so they were beginning to get into strategic stuff, which I kept out of, on the whole. I never had too much to do with it. RAND of course went into that to a great extent and ORO had people who made contributions to that sort of discussion.
Aaserud:But the origin of all this was the Second World War.
Katcher:Yes. Absolutely. And the experience people had in it—and the feeling that they could make a contribution with their background and training and skills and methodology which the military normally would not have been able to do themselves. This was welcomed by the military in those days, and always has been since, though there's always an argument about at what level it should come in and how seriously to take it. That's normal.
Aaserud:Yes, but from your early mines work it had been a very strong development.
Aaserud:How was that kind of thinking accepted within the Army and the other services?
Katcher:The other groups -- I don't know if you've seen anyone in the operations field -- were in some respects far more integrated in military operations than was ORO. It was a little bit more like the British experience; they had people work on radar. You've read the Blackett book, have you? It's part of it; it's quite an interesting thing. The operations analysis people in the Air Force were actually in headquarters, analyzing. Ellis Johnson, though with the Navy, Director of Mining with the Twentieth Air Force in the Pacific. I think he was probably the person responsible for having LeMay have his Flying Forts go in about nine or ten thousand feet rather than twenty, because what they found was an area where the low altitude weapons were ineffective, and the high altitude anti-aircraft weapons had not begun to be effective. But they needed the courage of their convictions -- or should I say analysis. Having made a recommendation, the analysts would often have to ride in with some of the planes, so they were pretty careful about what they advised anyone to do. But they went in, and the attrition rate dropped by 90 percent. Normally a high level bomber was a high level bomber, but they found a period where there was an ineffective coverage, where the overlap was inadequate between these two types of systems. That kind of contribution that was made made people feel pretty heady about what they could do, and so it continued. There's a new generation in now, of course.
Aaserud:Then it was the Institute of Defense Analyses.
Katcher:That I went to.
Aaserud:That was after this period, right?
Aaserud:And you went in there right from the beginning, you went in there when it was --
Katcher:-- first formed, in 1956, yes.
Aaserud:Did you have any involvement in the establishment of it?
Katcher:No, none at all. They were putting it up, and I knew some of the people. I knew Al Hill, and I went to see him. MIT carried the thing for a couple of months until it became formally incorporated. I'd known Al Hill since the early Physics Today days, when Manny Piore, who was then teaching up at MIT, said, "If you want any comments on Physics Today come on up." He had this marvelous group of Al Hill, Ramsey, Purcell and Piore, and we had an afternoon's discussion. They were very helpful, by the way. Rabi is Rabi -- that was Rabi. They realized that they weren't the audience for it. But Al Hill remembered this. It was really through the Physics Today work. I wanted to get out of ORO for a number of reasons. I'd wanted to get into analytical work and Ellis didn't want me to get out of running the editing and production of their technical and annual reports—I was being too useful to him. So I left. I went to work for Al. He's a professor of physics at MIT and he had a lot to do with the Radiation Laboratory, and I guess he read Physics Today. I knew Manny Piore from the Wisconsin days. He's a friend of my sister's. He was a graduate student when I was a freshman, I think, and he gathered this group together for comments to help me on the new magazine. That's when I met Al Hill. He remembered it, and when I came to see him, he said, "Sure, you could be of use to us." I went in as an editor. Then the JASON thing came along. When Charlie Townes started it up, I went to them.
Aaserud:IDA was established in direct relation to the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group, right?
Katcher:Yes, it grew out of that, that's right.
Aaserud:It was kind of an arrangement to avoid civil service?
Katcher:Well, no, I think that's an unfair way to put it. What makes it sound like that was the effort to introduce a quasi-academic atmosphere to this work, which you don't find normally in the civil service. I say normally because you do in places like the Bureau of Standards, the Naval Research laboratory, the Bell Laboratories -- the purely technical places. But normally you wouldn't have it for such a small group, especially when it deals with policy matters which the high command always takes to itself very seriously, and for which the high command is concerned that the range of data gathering and fact gathering is so broad that it ought to be reserved only to people who are responsive only to them. Now, the civil service thing wouldn't work. Maybe salaries was part of it. I think really it was more atmosphere and freedom from some of the administrative rigmarole, and the ability to get good people in for a short time and have them live in the sort of environment they were used to, have them move in and out. That's why "avoid" is not a good word -- avoiding civil service. The main thing was to provide a working atmosphere which you normally couldn't get with civil service.
Aaserud:Where did the initiative for that come from?
Katcher:It's hard for me to know who started it, but probably you'll find people like Killian involved in that. And maybe Vannevar Bush. I mean, all of these people who operated at very high levels of government had a large view. Maybe DuBridge. I really am not sure who got into it. I'm sure Killian probably was part of how to integrate efficiently the input, to use a modern word, of what the universities could do to government problems at that level.
Aaserud:That preceded Sputnik?
Katcher:Yes, it preceded Sputnik. You don't get people like Charlie Townes to come into civil service. You couldn't get Murph Goldberger or Elliot Montroll into civil service, you couldn't get anyone. But on the other hand, to give them a mechanism by which they could have something to do with the nature of their contribution was a great step. It was really quite an exciting place at that time. No institution ever goes out of business after its work is done. There are some people who feel that after a while it should. But very often if they last long enough they rise again from the ashes. Maybe that's what's happening with IDA now.
Aaserud:It was more of a real institution than one just being created as a formality.
Aaserud:Does it make sense to compare IDA and RAND?
Katcher:Well, RAND grew out of, I think, the Hughes Corporation, to address particular problems of the Air Force, which is very technical service and there are a lot of numbers around. But through the nature of their organization -- it may have been due to their first president -- they introduced a kind of intellectual atmosphere to their work that you normally don't get, either in civil service or military connected operations. They had a very broad view, and they had people who went into a lot of strategy, questions having to do with nuclear warfare, deterrence, and so on which are much more commonly discussed today. But RAND was service-connected, and to the extent that IDA made a contribution, it was because it looked at things from an over-service or tri-service viewpoint. I won't say broader, because RAND was really quite an institution. In some respects they were similar as to the atmosphere they provided, and the people working for them.
Aaserud:They contracted with several agencies.
Katcher:Since then, yes. Everybody enlarged. IDA I think did some work for others too, but RAND in particular I think went out. It's a rather different organization now under Don Rice.
Aaserud:What came out of your work as editor with IDA? Has any of that been retained?
Katcher:No way. Not by me. Nothing. It was all classified. If any of it remains, it would be in the Defense Department files.
Aaserud:Was that lost in the general cleanup of IDA material too?
Katcher:No. There must be some of these technical material in their files. The records tossed out in the cleanup were administrative and management records. The actual work probably exists somewhere. Again, I didn't have any records, but there weren't any records. You know, there may be some of the administrative ones, like how IDA was formed or how ORO was formed and so on, but I never had anything like that. At that time of ORO I wasn't worried. But with JASON, since I was in from the very beginning, it would have been expected I had some. My old administrative officer is still at IDA, and as I say, had to move his files and had me go through a whole file drawer of them. I didn't find anything there of extraordinary interest, except some of the early letters on Project 137 and so on which I suppose Wheeler or maybe Charlie Townes would have.
Aaserud:Townes has something he was willing to show me, so I'll go out there. That's going to be interesting.
Katcher:That can be very useful.
Aaserud:Because even though the documents themselves don't say a lot, certainly not to a person who never was involved in these things, they may produce associations.
Katcher:It will give you a hint. The fact is, I don't know what it was that got Wheeler and others to bring together a group of young, very bright scientists to do some work on defense problems. Perhaps it was simply a matter of passing the torch. My understanding, as I remember it, was that this was Project 137. What the young scientists found -- and it's important -- was that they so much enjoyed working together, and that there was something they could do. Therefore there was some enthusiasm for continuing it. People like Wheeler, and I think to some extent Wigner and whoever else was involved in the thing, were teachers by nature. I mean, all of them, and especially I think Wheeler has always had these young people he's bringing along. They want to pass on their interest in work at a national level to young people, and this was a mechanism for doing it. So they began to discuss a way of handling it. IDA looked like a good place for it for all sorts of reasons. I guess that was when they got Charlie Townes. I found that out later, because I didn't meet Murph until sometime after it got going. He was a natural one. Murph was the sort of person who could in a sense reach almost everybody on their own terms, and he became the chairman.
Aaserud:What were the circumstances for your leaving your first position in IDA and becoming the "den mother," as you call it, for JASON?
Katcher:Editorial work, by and large, is very unrewarding. By this I don't mean copy editing, but where you really try to contribute to the nature of the work by getting in very early doing the planning. You not only have some understanding but there are times when you can make input on the approach that's used. After all, what's done in the middle, which is done by professionals, is subject to all sorts of criticism by colleagues. But the way in which what comes out is related to what went in, is something most people don't pay any attention to. This is what I concentrated on. I suppose this is why I proved useful, because I never forgot the assumptions that went into a study, and therefore tried to make sure that the conclusions were interpreted in that light. People doing the work begin to take assumptions for granted after a while. And as an editor I could make sure such important aspects of a study's foundations were not neglected. But editorial work can be very unrewarding -- this is unburdening myself of one of the difficulties in the work I've been in all the time. Because in some cases, to the extent that you really make an important contribution, takes away from the author a sense of what he did, unless, of course, the author is a person of unlimited capacity like the JASONs. One of the reasons I enjoyed working with the JASONs was that they were not only not afraid of giving credit they were always ready to give credit to others. It took nothing from them. Ordinary people aren't like that. My other work, in general, I found it unrewarding because as time went on, the measure of my contribution would be reduced to cosmetics when I often felt it was more substantive. This is a very personal sort of reaction, but you wanted to know why I left. The opportunity of working with people who are so good and so bright was worth trying. Having talked to Charlie Townes, I got some idea of what he was like. What he tried to do looked like an exciting possibility. As it turned out, I stayed with it a long time. I was there seven years.
Aaserud:You indicated before we started recording, I think, that you were in from the very beginning of the planning of JASON, particularly with Townes, perhaps.
Katcher:That's right. That may have been an overstatement, because to the extent that the group grew as an effort to continue or make more permanent the work that was done with Project 137 -- to get right people together who enjoyed working together who could be informed of defense problems, and choose what parts of them their skills could contribute to -- that all sort of started before. When I came in, the decision had been made to go ahead and do it. Here were a bunch of people to be reached in some way, and whose time is so valuable that you don't want to spend a lot of it on red tape. IDA needed someone to help in seeing that they're brought together. I just got involved with that. Then as time went on I became involved in arranging for the briefings and what subject areas they would be introduced to. And I began trying to -- mediate is almost the right word, in a sense acting as a bridge -- between what JASON did and what the professionals in IDA did, and what they could learn from each other. Which was never very easy by the way, because well -- how can I put it? People who work at something full time feel that those who come and dip into it and only spend a little time on it often are either being superficial or indifferent to the detailed facts. So there's an edginess between the two that is overcome only by the big ones on the professional side. The nature of most of the things that IDA got into are not the sort of things that the JASON people would do. The nature of what the JASON people got into was also a different kind of work, and it looked pretty far removed because it tended to be terribly theoretical. But as time went on, my liaison moved from the business of just being administrative and helping get things set up to acting as Murph's man in Washington. You know, when Charlie Townes went, then Elliot Montroll came in, and others.
Aaserud:So Townes was the first.
Katcher:He was the first. He was the vice president for two years, and it got going under him really.
Aaserud:How clear is the relationship with Project 137?
Katcher:Well, since I didn't know Project 137, I can't give you any personal judgment on that. From what I remember of it and from my feeling of how Wheeler and some of the other elder statesmen went into things, it must have been a very direct result. Murph and some others were I think members of the 137 group, which is what got them involved. From then on JASON in a sense took off and became self-selecting. They had pretty high standards, and it became a group, because of the collection of stellar lights in physics. It became a matter of some attraction to people, which I think was intended. One of the things we had to do back at IDA -- and not just me but anyone who got involved in it -- was fight off the normal bureaucratic argument that, "You guys are just choosing yourselves; you ought to have rotation to bring more people in; there should be a limited term;" and so on. Which is really quite beside the point. If they weren't doing anything that was useful to everybody, that's a different story, but to go in and try to set up standard operating procedures for bringing people in, running them through, and getting rid of them, just violated the spirit of the group which is to treat everybody as a very unique resource.
Aaserud:Which is bound to lead to some sort of conflict of course especially with the military. To finish the story about the origins, I have understood it came from two sides. The older guard represented by Wheeler and Wigner and Morgenstern at Princeton proposed something more like a defense laboratory—I think they called it an "Initiation Laboratory" -- where projects could be initiated.
Katcher:Initiation? I hadn't heard that.
Aaserud:The work was conceived to be more general than what was being done at Los Alamos, for example. And then there was this younger group of scientists represented by Goldberger, Watson, Brueckner and others, who had tried to set up some kind of advisory agency on their own. These two developments came together. One simple reason was that nobody wanted to head such a laboratory, nobody wanted to have that kind of bureaucratic position. The laboratory idea was of course given up because what came to be was more cheap and more flexible.
Katcher:Yes. It made more sense. That makes sense to me, and it could very well be, because it fits in with my own understanding that it would have been literally impossible to get most of these people to take a couple of years out of their work and come to any institutional laboratory to do it. And I would suspect when people ran into that -- when the older group ran into that as a resistance -- they realized that the only way they could get these bright ones who are coming along is to do it on a part time basis. That's why the two developments came together. Charlie Townes, who I guess was maybe just a little bit older, had reached a point in his career where he could take a year or two out without affecting it. Most of the other people couldn't. And so the notion of a full time laboratory was impractical, and also to some extent might have dried them up. But JASON was an interesting compromise, and a place like IDA was flexible enough so they could do the business of running a couple of meetings a year, and then a summer study where everyone gets together and so on.
Aaserud:Did you have involvement in any way with previous summer studies of science policy, of advising. Because there were summer studies before JASON, of course.
Katcher:Yes. I'd been involved in meetings of one sort or another. They may not have been summer studies, they may have been a two weeks study, a one weekend thing, but the ones that I can think of immediately were all classified. I had some experience with them, and I'd even had the terrible experience of having to report them, because no one else wanted to. I even ended up at some point reporting on JASON work. The JASON people do their things, but no one will write briefs. I talked to them and looked at their papers, but I could only understand the purpose. I saw what went in and what came out, but not what went on in between. I used to write summaries of what had happened during the summer study to present to the military sponsors in others to give them some inkling of the nature of the work they were doing. They were working on IR for example or working on some exchange rate problem in the atmosphere. With a little talking around, you could show what bearing it had on various problem areas and what it was the JASONs were trying to do. So people let me happily do it. I'd give it to someone to read but I suspect since the corrections were so few, they never read them very carefully. But the summaries did give a sense of what the work was about.
Aaserud:There was a prehistory of this kind of thing, although JASON was much more institutionalized.
Katcher:Yes, they didn't invent summer studies. The government had been doing that sort of thing. PSAC didn't initiate it, but there have been special Presidential commissions all the time. Both the Gaither and the Draper reports, which looked into the state of our national posture, had been summer special studies of that sort. It may have been the experience and importance of the work done in other groups pointed to the desirability of having a concentrated effort. The difference between the JASON studies and the others is that the others were directed to a particular purpose, whereas the JASON people were not. They would choose what it is they'd work on and work on them in clumps.
Aaserud:I got the sense talking to some of the originators that JASON originated in part from a frustration that their previous activities had been too much directed to specific problems, and they didn't get a chance to—
Katcher:-- look at other things. Could very well be, yes.
Aaserud:OK, IDA was established before Sputnik. JASON was established after, of course. Would you consider Sputnik an important issue in establishing JASON?
Katcher:Sputnik had an effect on the government's attitude toward science, and the use of technology. I think I would agree that it had bearing.
Aaserud:ARPA of course was a result of the post-Sputnik reorganization.
Katcher:Yes, that was direct. Now, it could very well be -- and you'd have to find someone who was in a position to say that when they looked at what ARPA was doing and could do -- which was of a specific technical nature they felt that it was too close to the technical nitty gritty, and that something that would be a little more fundamental would be of use. That may have had something to do with the need for JASON. I wouldn't be surprised, but I couldn't say that myself. It would be worth asking one of the people about that.
Aaserud:Was there an active discussion before the creation of JASON about alternatives?
Katcher:I wouldn't know. I wouldn't know because I just came in at the point once it had been decided to have the group. Then question was, "How do we help Charlie Townes get the thing going so it doesn't take too much of his time?"
Aaserud:As I said before, you describe your activities as being a "den mother" for a group of theoretical physicists.
Katcher:Yes, that was Keith Brueckner's expression. I remember sitting in the back of a car when he said, "Oh, he's the den mother, you know."
Aaserud:You took up on that.
Katcher:That was describing what I was already doing. I don't know that I changed it any. It was mostly to look after people, without being formal, just see that their needs were met and have some idea of what their work was. It included -- I'm not over-stating, it's hard for me to say, being aware of some of the technical problems that were going on in IDA and other places. I was aware of some of the fields of interest of the JASON people. So I was in a position occasionally to bring skills and problems together. But that was only part of it. My early role and introduction of course was almost purely administrative, and it was just getting to know people after all that led me into a closer relationship.
Aaserud:Could you describe perhaps a little more precisely what constituted your work there? What were your responsibilities?
Katcher:I was an executive. I saw that people got paid. I helped them. Then I set up arrangements for things like the summer study and the meetings -- I would help arrange for the meetings. I would get people together, if an executive committee meeting was called. I as executive secretary would get everybody and find out when they could come and where they could go, and make all these arrangements. I saw that the fiscal and travel and administrative things were all handled. I finally got help and got an administrative officer to do the work, but at the beginning I used to do all the dirty work too. And then I tried to act as liaison between JASON and IDA, and to the Pentagon, when it came up. There was severe jealousy of the special attention given JASON. So I was busy explaining one side to the other. It was a matter of what they do and why and so on -- answering people's questions, getting information for them, get them together with someone who can supply answers to questions they might have. It was kind of a maid of all work. Look after their comfort. Try to see that they were as unharrassed as possible. I wasn't there during the very difficult time when the Vietnamese thing came up, because I left at the beginning of the expansion of that uncomfortable war. My discomfort with it had something to do with my going. So the question of open academic work versus closed work for national security was not of a crisis nature when I was there. What we should do and on national security problems where you do it or how you should do it are important questions. I'm still not sure that it's proper to force it into a moral mode as it is a questions of all right or all wrong, which is what happened at the universities. But these were about things about which people felt very strongly. I was gone by then.
Aaserud:To what extent would you characterize the physicists involved as a new generation of advisers, compared to people you had been involved with previously? Obviously most of these were post-Los Alamos people, right? Is that too much of a generalization?
Katcher:Yes, I think it was a new generation, but I don't think it was new, in any sense different. Problems change and the ways in which people meet them change. I wouldn't say it was any different. I think the fact that there is this continuing contribution of university based people to national problems on this broad level is new. But so is the relation of industry to the academic world. It's a more complex interrelated world. People are more aware of long term needs and long term trends, and are readier to defend against surprise than they were before, and so they make these arrangements. I think it's different, but I don't know if it's new; because the problems are different.
Aaserud:These were people that came out of the war experience with academic positions. I guess the Los Alamos generation to a great extent went into science policy positions more easily because that was their interest.
Katcher:Not necessarily. I mean, I don't know. I can't speak of the Los Alamos generation because I knew only a special contingent of the people that I know who were in Los Alamos and then came to JASON, some went into policy positions, some of them didn't. Some of them just worked. Doing work in JASON didn't necessarily make you a science policy person. It's going from JASON and getting into PSAC, which some of them did that makes the difference. Or some of them emerged into this by their own nature. Take guys like Sid Drell, who is another must for you to see, or Murph. -- Somewhat different is Freeman Dyson because he's also a writer and he enters into things in different ways. So I don't think you can treat them as a lump. They're various.
Aaserud:All are JASONs, though, in that respect. Was JASON completely a result of the wishes of physicists, or to what extent did that kind of desire come out of others, IDA for example?
Katcher:Well, you know, IDA had a lot of physicists in it. This has come up again, when people say where a problem comes up, let's get a physicist. Now we have the generation of the lawyers. There was the decade of the physicists, which went on for quite some time, but my own experience has been that one of the reasons JASON worked so well is that people could talk to each other in shorthand. You could, just with a couple of words, convey a great deal of meaning. It was one of my own pleasures in working with these people that for the first time in my life I didn't have to explain myself in detail when I talked to people. They knew what I was talking about. I knew what they were talking about, if it was within my comprehension. People who don't have a physics background do speak differently. I think mathematicians would have a hard time in the group. I don't know what they're doing now. They may have brought other people in, because after all, the sciences come together. Physicists have a rather unique opportunity to isolate problems so that they can really work on them. That's something that was less prevalent in other fields. I'm on difficult ground now. I just don't think that other people, trained in other sciences, worked as well with them because there wasn't this ease of communication, this ease of shorthand, this exchange of ideas that you have among people all trained in the same field. This may have changed since, I don't know.
Aaserud:Is this a result of their being trained in the same field, or is it by virtue of being trained in the field of physics? That is, could other groups from other fields have done an equally valuable job at that time?
Katcher:It's possible, if the other groups could have made the same kind of contribution. Here you come into the nature of the problem, and there I'm not prepared to say whether physics had more or less than others. But I think it was the homogeneity of training that made for this, and in one or two efforts to bring in people from the outside, there was even a distinction between the experimentalists and the theoreticians. Now, it worked there. There were some experimentalists who worked closely with theoreticians, and they've learned to talk to each other. There are some who are not necessarily that close and they were rather far apart. Even in this one group.
Aaserud:Most of them were theoretical physicists.
Katcher:Yes, most of them were theoretical physicists.
Aaserud:I'm going to speak to one of the exceptions later today. I'm going to see Gordon McDonald. I guess he was perhaps the first non-physicist to join?
Katcher:Well, he's a geophysicist.
Aaserud:But not a theoretical physicist in the same sense the others were.
Katcher:Yes, he was one of the early ones.
Aaserud:I think he joined in 1960 or 1961. OK, we're in deep water now with this kind of discussion. Maybe a more concrete question, which I would like to know more about, and which I think you are definitely the right person to ask, is, although JASON was a very flexible group, they did have some kind of organizational structure of course which either came up immediately or which evolved. You have the chairman, you have the steering committee, perhaps you had different member categories.
Katcher:Yes, actually they did. There was a group of advisers, and the advisers were the elder statesmen, some of whom had started it, like Wheeler and Wigner, Bethe and Teller. They were called advisers, and that meant that they didn't have to come to all the meetings, that they could come when they wanted to, that they were there if people wanted to talk to them. They showed their connection to and support of the group. They had the executive committee, a group of the JASON members with Murph as chairman, and their purpose was that of any executive committee, to think a little bit about what problems they ought to do, to raise issues that maybe the Institute for Defense Analyses should push for them, to go over subjects they were interested in.
Aaserud:Was that a rotating thing?
Katcher:It changed. It was again not rotating. It's like a lecture I once got from Al Hill. I was going to put out a report and I was going to call it No. 1 or something like that. He said, "My God, don't number it, then you'll have to number the others and then everyone will ask for the missing ones." So I began to put out reports without numbers on them. The librarian would come up and say, "How can you do this, put in reports without numbers? Then there's no way to refer to them." I laughed. Al was so good. He said, "What if you did 1, 2, 7 and 8? You'll get nothing but questions, where are 3 and 6?"
Aaserud:There was no formal system.
Katcher:There was no formal rotation system, for the same reason. I think it depended on how much time people wanted to or could devote to it, because it did mean spending Saturdays and Sundays, and taking my telephone calls. When I had a lot to worry about, I would bend their ear for half an hour to try to get something settled or done or get started on something. Then there were the members. They later introduced -- if I remember correctly this came along later—a group of associate members, that I'm not sure about this.
Aaserud:How large was the steering committee anyway?
Katcher:Four or five. I think all the people later became chairman like Ken Watson and Hal Lewis. I don't think Murray Gell-Mann was ever chairman but he was on it. They were people like that. There were four or five, and the size of the group I think was 35, 40, or 25. I don't remember.
Aaserud:It was close to 40.
Katcher:Then there were others who came to summer studies. People would come in summer -- sometimes they were working with someone. They wanted to bring a bright student along, wanted people to look at them and so on and I just don't remember. Maybe Joel Bengston would remember or Jack Martin.
Aaserud:You didn't have categories of members like secondary or primary?
Katcher:Oh no, they were members. As I say, I don't know about the associate members -- the younger members who were brought on. In general I guess proposals were made by people and I would suspect that the acceptance was made by and large by the steering committee, or maybe it would be a matter of talking things over with the advisors. Again, there was no set rule and no set vote. I would imagine that no one would be brought in to whom there was any particular objection. The elite quality of the group got to be better known. I'm sure there were more and more proposals, because, I mean, I had some people leaning on me. "Now, why don't I get asked to join JASON? I've had an august career." This sort of thing. And you know, you couldn't tell them, in some cases actually, that it was because they didn't merit the appointment. You can't tell them that. I'm sure everybody got that kind of question. I mean, more so than I did, because I was an odd channel. If they came to me, it was clear they didn't have any in.
Aaserud:What was the background for selecting members -- merit entirely?
Katcher:They knew each other. Here's someone who would be good, and they probably wanted to see if they were interested in working on national security problems.
Aaserud:There was no limitation on that for security reasons?
Katcher:Oh, then of course there would be the question of going through a clearance procedure which was long and difficult, and for physicists always, because they're always into everything.
Aaserud:Would that lead to problems ever?
Katcher:Well, you know, it may have in some cases. I wouldn't know. In general -- and again I'm being very general, not specific -- I think the way in which people would do this, so as not to create any crisis, is to send out feelers to see if there'd be any difficulty. And if for some reason or other there would be a difficulty, then they would kind of lose interest. But I personally do not know of any case in which there was a desire to have someone a member of the group that didn't work out. But I wouldn't be surprised if there were some. Some precursor feelers were sent out.
Aaserud:How constant was the membership during your period?
Katcher:Very constant. I think it was the Vietnamese business that may have caused some changes. Because there were people who were unhappy with the nature of the struggle.
Aaserud:Would you single out any particular members who were important in shaping the group? Of course Goldberger, who was the chairman.
Katcher:There are so many, it's a little hard to say, and they're all so thoughtful. As far as the actual running of the group, I think that, to me, Goldberger is important, and Drell, of course -- Townes, Goldberger, Drell. Lewis had a lot to do with it. He's kind of a strange duck, and in his quiet way if you can get him to talk, Ken Watson. He's not very communicative. Now, Keith Brueckner, that's another odd duck. He of course had a lot to do with it too. You know, that's enough of a start. I think they can tell you other people.
Aaserud:I've spoken briefly with both Ken Watson and Keith Brueckner.
Katcher:Boston isn't far away. Francis Low was not always terribly close to the group. Sometimes he was. But he's such a thoughtful and intelligent person that I would talk with him. If I were in your position, he would be one of the people I would want to talk to.
Aaserud:I just wrote him. Is Henry Kendall in Boston?
Katcher:Yes. He's interesting especially since he's one of the people who went into really another approach to national security, which is to be concerned far more with the dangers of these weapons we were dealing with -- with the arms control aspect.
Aaserud:He was the founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Katcher:I've only seen Henry once since those days, at a meeting. We met and didn't have a chance much to talk. Now, Henry would know other people who felt as he did. I don't think he's a member of the group anymore. Dick Garwin of course. You've got him down to talk to?
Aaserud:Yes, I have.
Katcher:I've probably just not thought of a couple of very quiet people who have ideas on it, who never got into the political aspects. Low I don't suppose was very political. He did get to be provost. Norman Kroll is a very thoughtful guy. I think Matt Sands may have dropped out at this time, and he would be someone if you want to find out if there was any disaffection, and they would know others. See, I was away from them by that time, gone on. I'd left, and I really had no contact for about 20 years.
Aaserud:I'm mainly interested, just to limit the study to the first ten or fifteen years anyway, so you probably covered most of them.
Katcher:Well, seven of the fifteen years.
Aaserud:Pretty much half. JASON members were selected carefully. Was there some kind of trial period, or any test performance criteria?
Katcher:No. If there was any observation period it might have been, "Why don't you come and work with us this summer?" Then they would decide. It may have been a mutual testing, where people would come and say, "Would I like to join this group, what are they doing?" But I think on the whole that was minimal, because it was such a goddamn nuisance to get cleared that you didn't go into it unless you were pretty sure you wanted it and they were pretty sure to have you. There may have been some cases where someone was looked at, but in general I don't remember, or I wouldn't have known.
Aaserud:We talked about the selection of people. What about projects? How were they selected? Did they come out of the physicists themselves or were they selected from a group of possibilities given by the military in some sense?
Katcher:All sorts of ways. If the military thought it would be good to have these guys work on something, then what we'd do is arrange the briefings. Or it would be discussed at the executive committee. Some of the executive committee members -- I don't know who or what period -- were connected in some way with PSAC. They would know what critical technical problems would come up in PSAC discussions, where there were uncertainties that ought to be settled so they could come up with some sort of recommendation, do some sort of analysis. Sometimes things would come from the executive committee, and they would see if they could get someone interested in it. I would pick up stuff because I was in IDA all the time. I'd pick up stuff where it looked to me as if it might be of interest to the JASON people, and then arrange to have those people talk to them. They might get their own ideas of what might be done from their own reading. So any way in which they came in was acceptable. The final criterion would be, "Can I do anything that I think would be useful and of interest?" I don't know what order that would be, of interest or usefulness. I think interest would come before use, because you never know what use, and use is a funny word. I mean it only in the very broad sense, not in the usual utility sense.
Aaserud:It was more in the form of informal, indirect approaches.
Katcher:Right. No formal tasks. You didn't write task orders, you didn't say, "You work on the IR, you work on this part of the atmosphere."
Aaserud:Were there meetings at regular intervals between the scientists and the Defense Department people for instance?
Katcher:No, they weren't formal. It would occur, of course, during the two weekend meetings that were held during the year, when there were briefings, and at the cocktail parties where people would talk informally. Then there were informal arrangements all the time, if something would come up. In the summer very often people from the Defense Department would come out to the group and talk to them, or if they had something they felt they wanted them to do, come in and present the idea. So it could happen in almost any way. And by the way, the universe of problems on which the group could work, -- that the Defense Department felt it had need for at any given time -- is not very large, because most of them are not in a position to know what the JASON people can do. So the burden, it seems to me, falls largely on that inner group of statesmen who were aware of the problems at the national level, and are aware of what the JASON people can do. That, I suspect, was probably the source of most of the work.
Aaserud:By statesmen you mean like members of PSAC?
Katcher:That's right. And it was better if they were physicists because they knew what it would be. Later on when it grew into other things like second guessing how anybody else is doing anything, that becomes another story; but in my day that was at a minimum, I think.
Aaserud:To what extent was it independent work on projects, and to what extent was there evaluation of other people's proposals?
Katcher:Very little of the latter, except on some occasions I knew -- one for example in which the JASON people were asked to do an evaluation of a program at one of the Navy laboratories. I remember it particularly because Walter Munk, who would be another good guy to see, was heading the group. He came in—and the Navy is very formal—and the group was welcomed. Then someone got up and started to explain the organization of the Navy with an organization chart, and Walter said, "Let's dispense with organization charts, we're really not interested in that at all," in his own way, which is more charming than this. And there was total consternation because the Navy had set up such a tight schedule. It meant was losing two hours and everything had to be shifted forward. I'll never forget the look of panic on people's faces, as they scurried around and began to get the subsequent briefing of what the group could do. Walter Munk –- shook –- loosened -- them up right away! But JASONs were informal and they demanded informality too. This was a case where they were asked to do a specific job, and in my own recollection, there weren't too many like that. But it began to grow as people began to know about the group.
Aaserud:I have the impression, from some people anyway, that there has been a development from the independent project towards more evaluation. Of course, there have been more agencies coming up that can do JASON's kind of thing.
Aaserud:I don't know to what extent you are willing to or feel that you can talk about the kinds of projects that were taken up during the early years of JASON.
Katcher:Well, my memory is poor, and I would therefore have a hard time distinguishing between the things that are to be talked about and not to be talked about, and I just don't know. Let's see if I can categorize it in some general way. For a large part -- at least before the Vietnamese business, and then it may have changed -- almost everything really had to do with the physics of something that was going on. Which would include weapons effects that everyone was working on, but certainly not be confined only to it. And problems having to do with sensors of one sort or another which a physicist could contribute to and must continue to contribute to and probably have been doing all these years. I also have a very convenient forgettery, because if there's something that is classified, there's no point remembering. If it's not possible to do anything with it or talk about it, I just forget about it.
Aaserud:I guess the ABM is a case in point.
Katcher:ABM, for example, that's right.
Aaserud:Or nuclear testing.
Katcher:Or effects in some way as they would affect instrumentation or sensing or what have you, they would work on that. And I suppose it would get specific, to systems of one sort or another. But they generally went into areas that were not well understood, because what they could contribute was an understanding of the physics of the situation that would allow the engineers and others to go on from there and decide how it could be used in some way.
Aaserud:That was mostly technical detail you were working on. Of course there must have been some discussion about the wider issues that you get into, but that was done in JASON?
Katcher:That's right. In general, at least at that time -- as I say I don't know how much strategy the group got into later -- that kind of thing was more apt to be done in PSAC. It may have been done in small groups. What JASON was working on was the understanding of the phenomena that underlay some of the problems of nuclear or national security.
Aaserud:How was the work done? Was it done in distinct groups or by individuals?
Katcher:Both, but mostly collaboratively. I think one of the pleasures of the summer study was that they worked together, and not in the way that they did when they went back home. So I would say there were small groups, usually, at the most and some singly. If you'd ask me what was the prevalent mode, I would say it was pairs. Pairs work better almost than anything. You know, you get a larger group, and it gets complicated. Sometimes they'd have a problem and they'd organize themselves. They would say, "You work on this, you work on this, you guys work on this, you work on this," and then they'd talk together, in six months. It depended on the problem.
Aaserud:Was there always knowledge within the whole group of what the others were doing?
Katcher:Oh sure. That was the idea. At least in the early days, everybody got reports from everybody on what everybody was doing. This was very early. This may have changed later on. But in the early days it was not so, so everybody was aware of what was going on, and they could also volunteer to join something if they were interested.
Aaserud:I've been struck by the diversity of political views in JASON. There's a wide variety of views that only came out I guess in connection with the Vietnam affair. I suppose that diversity was possible in part because of the technical nature of the work. It was very rarely that the political views came into the work itself.
Katcher:Never. It may have affected attitudes, you know. I mean, the peaceniks would prefer work on one thing or the other. It had something to do with the subject, with what they chose to work on, I would suspect, but it never intruded.
Aaserud:Except for the Vietnam episode, it was never a reason for leaving. We talked a little bit before about the response to secrecy which seemed so foreign to the physicist's kind of work. Did that ever become a special issue in any way?
Katcher:Never that I remember. It was one of the rules of the game. If you went into this work, you accepted it as a condition of the work. I don't remember anything ever having come of it.
Aaserud:No. Of course it was a whole different world. As you said before, Munk's comments to the Navy, represents that kind of distinction.
Katcher:"Don't bother to go into your organization," he said. Let's get down to what you do." Something like that. Consternation! The JASON people after all were mostly in the open world. They were used to open publication. Those people who were in it all the time like myself, who have spent most of our professional lives doing things which never emerged, have a different feeling about it. I probably felt it more strongly than they did.
Aaserud:Physicists usually communicate things in the open literature of course. And that's the way they're most often evaluated, so it's conceivable that conflicts could appear when they were unable to publish.
Katcher:No. It didn't bother them. After all they communicated with each other -- with their peers. I wouldn't be surprised if the nature of the work they did inside was not reflected in some way in the nature of the work they did outside. So there can be an interaction in which the question of classification just never came up. You asked how much of the work was open and unclassified. It's hard for me at this time to say. Classification is such a funny business. Sometimes classification can apply to just the name of the problem. And sometimes it can apply to what you're doing. Any one of us in classified work, if we develop the skill, can carry it into an unclassified area without violating the rules in any way. And I would suspect that none of them suffered from that classification business. What they learned in one could be used in another way, if it were not directly attributable.
Aaserud:Yes, no question there were different degrees of classification.
Katcher:A lot of the theoretical work was unclassified. In fact the work was mostly unclassified. The basis for it -- reapplications. The results were more often classified.
Aaserud:And some of the people worked in fields where there was hardly any interaction between what they did in JASON and what they did outside.
Katcher:My own most recent example of this is that I got into some work having to do with the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and the effect on climate and so on. I heard that JASON had done some work on it, and I think it was Gordon McDonald's influence that got them into this, of course, because he's been in that for a long time. They did some very important work on the significant contribution of trace elements to the possibilities of increased atmosphere warming, which the rest of the world didn't know much about, hadn't given much credence to. There JASON could make a real contribution, and it did. That was in the open literature. It took a little while to penetrate, because what happens is, there are various kinds of security. One security is to say something that no one understands, even if you publish it. Their problem was one of being a little quick and a little bit too spare in their writings for the understanding of other people in the field. I remember trying to get comments on this. This was just a couple of years ago. But it's penetrated from what I read in Science Magazine just a short while ago. They're beginning to realize that it is relevant. And that was JASON work. You might ask Gordon about it.
Aaserud:The area that JASON is involved in has expanded of course since you were there. It was mainly military when you were there, right?
Aaserud:ARPA contracts mostly?
Katcher:You know, I should know. I forget who paid. It could have been ARPA or it could have been the DDR&E. They're the people who overlooked them and they're the people who understood them, so York was essential. The JASON sponsorship in the defense establishment came from DDR&E, by and large -- Harold Brown, Herb York, Johnny Foster and others, people who knew it and understood it. I suppose the contract was let through ARPA because they were the contracting agency, but I just don't remember. Maybe it was direct from IDA and IDA got its money from whoever it got its money from. Come to think of it, yes. I just don't remember.
Aaserud:I got the impression from a chapter of York's yet unpublished autobiography that IDA was more or less passive in defining the questions, whereas ARPA was contracting IDA for doing the things that ARPA wanted. That was the impression I got from that.
Katcher:IDA started ARPA on its way as a division in IDA. The contracting should never have been part of the Institute, and so that part was cut off, and what IDA then went on doing was to have a division called, I think the Advanced Research Projects Division in support of ARPA, to respond to questions they might have. The man who can tell you how that worked is Pete Gould. He's a special assistant to the provost at MIT, and Pete would know how ARPA started and how passive or active IDA's role was. He's one of those rare people who understand what administration of scientists should be like.
Aaserud:Had all the JASONs had the same kind of clearance? Was there any hierarchy in that respect within JASON?
Katcher:I don't know. I think they did. You know, the military are funny. They are special, you know. So there could have been. But in general everyone had the same clearance, because everybody heard what everybody else did, mostly. At least during the time I was there. It may have changed after I left.
Aaserud:I've heard the comment that if you were a member of JASON, that was a kind of protection in the sense that if you were criticized for saying something in public based on knowledge of JASON projects, then the other JASONs would provide protection. I think the example would be Garwin's involvement in the supersonic thing, that there was some question about taking his clearance away or some protest about his being a member of JASON.
Katcher:That is after my time. I find that thing very interesting, of course. It's interesting, because Garwin himself is so bright and such a public spirited citizen, who will come out with things that other people might disagree with. He's afraid of no one, including the establishment. I think JASON would come to the support of anyone who voiced an opinion or a judgment in making a contribution to a problem of national security, even if it wasn't very popular. And I don't know if it's a matter of JASON gathering around him. I hope anyone who believes that a person ought to be able to make his own judgments, stands up for his right to do so, even if the establishment doesn't like it. I'm sure people reacted against it. Why did President Nixon discontinue the use of a Presidential Science Advisor? Well, most of the scientists were not on his side; they were on other sides, and he might have found them not useful, so it does get into it. People say they don't like what Garwin says, and therefore he oughtn't to be in the defense establishment. If Garwin did not violate any security rules in what he did, then I would think he's totally completely entitled to state his opinion, especially when you realize the motivation is for the good of us all, not just personal feeling. He's quite a guy. And you know, he doesn't have a reputation for being either very polite or very politic in what he says. Other people might have felt the same way and put it in a way that was less irritating. He's a bit of a bright boy that way, I guess.
Aaserud:Generally speaking, JASON has kept a low profile in any kind of question that relates to their work.
Katcher:It tends to. I think there are a few people who are comfortable in treading that narrow line between what you can talk about openly, and what you know of that is classified. It's been something he's been in for a long time, and he's done it. There are some others who have been like that. Who do I think of? I don't know. Most of them have kept a low profile, in my own knowledge. It's a headache. I mean, you have to be prepared to get rocks thrown at your head.
Aaserud:Yes, of course. There were a lot of rocks thrown at one time of course which may not have been totally justified. I'm talking about the Vietnam episode. But other than that, JASON hasn't been too much in the public view.
Katcher:No, it hasn't. Of course, again, that came really primarily after I left. When I was there mostly it was still a high honor all over the place. It was not identified with a national policy that some people were getting very upset about.
Aaserud:What relationship did the kinds of problems that JASON took up have with the operations problems that we talked about earlier?
Katcher:If one can't go into the specific nature of what they do, this is difficult to define any better than I did before. That is, in general what they did in the time that I was there, was try to develop an understanding of the phenomena that took place in certain areas that were of broad national interest, like weapons effects, in particular nuclear, because it's so complicated, and sensors and instrumentation of all sorts. This has very broad applicability. It doesn't take long to run into a real problem there, where you don't really know what's happening or why, or if you want to find out about something, where you run into some physics problems right away. That is how I would characterize the thing they did then. And after I left, they might have broadened out and gotten into things that were more political or had more to do with what with a funny word may be called the softer sciences.
Aaserud:That's where you would put operations research?
Aaserud:So their work was more basic, more technical.
Katcher:Yes, more so than operations research where you deal with actual operational data which as you know no physicist would ever trust, because there's a bunch of numbers that's about something so complex that you leave it to someone else.
Aaserud:But that kind of problem always comes into the picture when you're dealing with military or applied questions in any way. How unique was JASON at that particular point in time -- unique in the sense of a group of people combining full time work in basic research with doing that kind of advisory work.
Katcher:To my understanding, that's the only group like it that I've ever heard about. Every so often people would come up and want another little JASON, and they have a hard time. I don't know that it's been done. I'm sure there are other efforts to reach young scientists and to try to get them interested in problems. I think the Institute for Defense Analyses may indeed be trying that now. It's something you'd want to pursue. You'd have to ask them. But I don't know of anything like JASON other than JASON.
Aaserud:Even now at this point?
Katcher:Even now I don't know of any. I don't know if JASON is like JASON now.
Aaserud:Well, it is and it isn't. A lot of the old members are still in JASON.
Katcher:Well, that's also part of the problem, because one of the things when it first started is that it was new and it was to meet a need that was current and very well felt. What's happened to it in almost 30 years I couldn't say.
Aaserud:How would you characterize the physicists' original motivation for joining such a body -- what was your feeling about that? Were they concerned with national security, or was it something else like broadening of intellectual activities?
Katcher:I think obviously both mechanisms are involved. The proportion between the two I suppose varied between individuals, but one of the attractions was working with colleagues at an average level which was higher than anything you could find at any university, in theoretical physics especially. And I am sure that national security was part of it. But for each individual the proportion of the two would vary.
Aaserud:The activity also added to their income and might have given them more influence in the longer run.
Katcher:Oh yes. I think the pay was compensation for time, but I don't think people were bought, you know.
Aaserud:They didn't get to be millionaires from it obviously. To what extent was JASON a springboard to further more obvious science policy activities? You said before that these were mostly theoretical physicists who still to this day are theoretical physicists.
Katcher:Many of them. Some of them have become presidents of universities, you know, and provosts and heads of large accelerator establishments. I think JASON was always looked upon as good recruiting ground for things like PSAC. But the fact is that PSAC changed. At the time that JASON first started, it was a very important organization and source of advice to the administration, and was used as such. In fact it did draw from JASON for the physics input to PSAC, which weren't all physicists, you know. Sid Drell went in and there were a couple of others. I would suppose to this day that as JASON goes on, you'll find some people who have an interest and a liking -- susceptibility is the wrong word, but talent -- for that kind of mixed and heady world, and they go into it. But I don't suppose it was at all ever intended to be 100 percent recruitment. Some people would just stick out and be good for that sort of thing, and advantage was taken of it. Murph would know. Murph would be good on that one, of course. I'm sure you'll ask him. So would Sid Drell who went in, and there were others. I never followed it into that kind of work. Classification being what it is, I didn't hear what went on there unless a problem came out of it that would come back to JASON. Then there would be this feedback, and then I would become aware of it,
Aaserud:But very few JASONs I think went on to full time science policy positions.
Katcher:I don't find that at all strange. I think that their attitude about that would be like their attitude would be about philosophers: they talk more than they know. It was too uncomfortable and insufficiently rigorous for them. I think of the few people who sort of went into it -- Gordon McDonald is really one of the few. Dick Garwin is rare in having his foot in both worlds. He's unique in that regard. Can you mention anyone else? I don't think there were. I don't think it's a natural place to bring up what we might call science advisers. Bill Nierenberg is a third example. But Bill Nierenberg always had that kind of leaning. He was an Assistant Secretary General at NATO before he became a JASON member, and he became Director of Scripps and so on. Bill has always moved in that world. Roger Revelle is not a JASON. And I just simply don't know of others --
Katcher:OK, that happened after I left. Ed's gone on into it, and I'm sure that the corporate world, speaking of Ed, may have seduced some of them. Also, Robert LeLevier, but he was always in that kind of thing. So I don't think that JASON did anything but provide a good recruiting ground for people who might otherwise have gone into that anyway because of their own interests.
Aaserud:I spoke to Mal Rudeman about this and his point of view was that if there hadn't been a science policy activity that didn't allow him to continue in physics entirely, then he would never have tried it.
Katcher:That's very good, yes. That's very accurate and very good and speaks for most of the people there. In fact, those who did move out into it were people who would have done it anyway or had that interest and bent.
Aaserud:That I think leads us naturally to a crucial question, the question of the impact of JASON, the importance of it -- how its advice was taken. Their unwillingness to take the full step might have been a limitation, or it may not.
Katcher:I'm not in a good position to respond to that, because if it had any, it took place in a sense after these early years in the beginning. As it became better known and more and different kinds of problems were thrown at it, and particularly to the extent that they were involved in Vietnam, I would suppose that this would have some impact. But I'm not in a position to judge.
Aaserud:If the question is limited to your time, what was your sense of JASON advice being heard, being taken seriously.
Katcher:Well, let me put it this way, because I think of a couple of things in which some physics work was done, having to do with sensing and signals and so on may have had impact. I think a very small part of what they did proved immediately useful. But that small part was so useful that it was worth the whole project many times over. So the contribution in terms of the proportion of their output that had impact was small, but that small proportion had great impact at the fundamental level where you do physics. And beyond that I would find it hard to get more specific. My own feeling was that it is kind of hard to judge. As you can imagine, everyone says, "What do we get from these guys for spending so much?" and you have to say, "Well, this might be useful here, this might be useful here, this might be useful there," which is true with everything. Usefulness is a funny word because we wouldn't speak of it. The JASON people didn't choose things that way. But I think it's a fair statement that a very small proportion had direct impact, and that small proportion had important impact. I would then add that that which had indirect impact may also have been important, but I wasn't around long enough to catch that reverberation as it moved out.
Aaserud:And it's a very very difficult thing to measure --
Katcher:-- because everyone does some of these things.
Aaserud:But in doing a study of JASON that question has to be addressed.
Katcher:Of course it does. Everyone asks. I think it's a very worthwhile question, because if it turns out on looking at it that they had no or very little impact, or if it was very diffuse, then the question would be, why do it? We had to protect the fact that it looked like a great vacation, you know. We had them meet at Woods Hole, at La Jolla and Santa Barbara. I think now they're fixed in one place all the time, but then there used to be the great meeting to decide whether to meet East Coast or West Coast, or maybe in the middle of Kansas. I remember my explanation to the Managers was that since people were taken from all over the country, it didn't cost any more to have them meet in California than it did on the East Coast. That was a very important point to make, because otherwise folk thought it ought to be in Washington. And they were having fun because they had their families. If they can have their families, then they can spend six weeks there. Later on, as time went on, when you could point to what they did, this was often a little harder for people to see because it was far down at the research end of things, even before development. But in the years I knew of them, they were clearly worth their salt, and I suspect that went on.
Aaserud:There are some specific things we haven't covered. We didn't talk about how and when the meetings were, and how they were structured. I spoke to some physicists and they told me that at some times or other they invited lecturers to brief them, or just to suggest questions or to make them think about what questions to take up.
Aaserud:Was that part of the general structure?
Katcher:Of course, and that was the idea. That was one of the means of getting people to get some idea of what fields or problems there were, which they then might work on. At the two or three day meetings during the year -- one in the fall and one in the spring -- there would be two days of briefing and then one day of internal discussion of what it meant. The briefings would be purely for information, on what was going on, on what had been done before, or an exposition of a problem on which the speaker would hope JASON could help with. Someone knowing them couldn't say, "Look, I have this you ought to work on." It wouldn't make any sense. What they'd do is just paint the whole picture, and then through the questions JASON's possible contribution would develop. During the summer this was also done at the beginning -- reviews and what have you -- and then sporadically as time got on a JASON would say, "Hey, this is something we've got to find out about." You'd just call up and make arrangements for someone to come out and give a briefing. There was a continuous interchange. It was informal. It was specifically directed to the idea of either getting information across, or getting problems across, or responding to questions.
Aaserud:These lectures were invited by JASON?
Aaserud:That was entirely decided by JASON?
Katcher:Yes. What the program was to be was decided by JASON, but anyone could suggest topics for it.
Aaserud:I don't remember who told me this, but in relation to the Vietnam problem there was some scholar or journalist from France, I think, who gave some lectures.
Katcher:Yes. Bernard Fall was his name. Bernard Fall had comments on what problems the French had run into, which turned out of course to be the same problems that we ran into. Sometimes we don't learn from other people. And this was a period in which JASON I guess was interested in things having to do with what was going on in Vietnam. It was at the time before the big build-up had taken place. But there was this increased commitment of United States interests and forces, and naturally they became interested in it. That was 1965 or 1966 or something like that. I left in 1966, about the time that that kind of thing was building up.
Aaserud:Yes. Was that a typical kind of lecture?
Katcher:Well, how many Vietnams were there?
Aaserud:I know, but I mean in terms of selecting that kind of person, a journalist.
Katcher:It could be anyone. In this case, there were people who'd been back and forth in various government agencies, and contractors had been in and out of Vietnam, so people got interested in it. Someone must have heard about him. There could have been other journalists too. They weren't just necessarily technical people. Sometimes they were commanders. Sometimes they were heads of laboratories. They could be almost anybody. Sometimes they were administration policy makers. Sometimes they were high officials in the Department of Defense or the National Science Foundation. You name it. I don't think they ever asked the President to come and talk to them, but if they had occasion to, I think they would have tried, or maybe then the whole group then would have gone to Washington. But the fact that a person was a journalist didn't mean that his observations were not respected. They were understood as those of a journalist, maybe an astute observer.
Aaserud:So there's not a list anywhere of those lectures.
Katcher:Oh not that I know of. If there were, it would be in the files of what happened—if the files exist any place, they're there. This list was obviously not classified but I didn't even keep any unclassified stuff on subject matter. It was too complicated to try to distinguish between classified and unclassified, and I found it easier just not to talk about it very much. It's easier to deal with your questions after the veil after the fog of years -- since I don't remember anything specific anyway.
Aaserud:You don't know any other lectures or people involved?
Katcher:No. To use that as an example or as a typical example would be a mistake, because it was not. It was sort of unusual. But there may be other cases where there were unusual things. If you wanted to find out how a submarine skipper feels, being under the water for a couple of months, then someone would get hold of a submarine captain and ask him. That one lecture was not typical. But the idea of having anyone who could give you an intelligent participant's view of what happened was typical. And that meant not only in technical stuff, but on the policy side, to the extent that people became interested in how different things would be used. This was part of the general education on security problems. This didn't mean they would work on that thing; it would mean they would understand the context in which their technical work would be understood.
Aaserud:I guess we should wrap this up. You've been very good. I wasn't aware of the time.
Katcher:I've enjoyed it. Yes, it's really flying along. I'm sorry.
Aaserud:To wrap this up, I should stress that I'm doing this as an example -- not a typical example of physicists' involvement in science policy. In that connection I'd like to pick up on what you said before about a physicist's decade, a lawyer's decade. I was wondering what you meant by that, whether it was a particular decade, a particular period in which the physicists played a particular role in that.
Katcher:I think this is something you'd have to find in Atlantic or Harpers or what have you. But the fact is of course that the atom bomb made such an impact on everybody that for a long time the contribution of physicists to matters of deep import not only weighed heavily -- it was welcomed. Of course that creates a lot of professional jealousy. Who are physicists that they can go outside their own field and make pronouncements? So as we move along, civilization moves from one to another thing. Physicists are taken less seriously now I think than they were then, perhaps because they didn't speak with one voice. Now, there was a group of people in between the physicists and the lawyers who I think are taking over the world right now -- maybe economists, or environmentalists, or even operations researchers. My memory is such that I can't remember who. They're not as important as physicists, obviously. It was just rather a light remark.
Aaserud:Yes, of course, but it might be just an idea to help tie things together.
Katcher:We tie things in the lawyer business, for example. Look at the question of risk and people's attitudes towards risk and certainty in daily living, and the contribution that lawyers and the lawyers' approach is making towards being safe in anything that's done or decided. It has enormous impact, and not only always a very happy one, because it isn't understood.
Aaserud:Then of course it's not the physicists' decade entirely or the lawyers' decade, but it might just be a challenge to try to look at it like that. I want to prove that the physicists did play some certain role and I would like to put my special study into that more general framework in some way or other. OK, I'll turn it off.
Deborah Shapley, "JASON Division: Defense Consultants Who Are Also Professors Attacked," Science 179 (2 February 1973): 459-462, 505.