Oral History Transcript — Dr. Harold Lewis
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
Interview with Dr. Harold Lewis
Aaserud:Your papers — correspondence, notes, manuscripts, things of that sort — what's the status of those? That's another thing we're interested in.
Lewis:Yes. I really don't have them, you know. I've long since either lost in moving or discarded everything that I had. So I have no papers around from JASON, if that's what you mean.
Aaserud:No, generally — both JASON and generally speaking.
Lewis:There are lots of things, but they're scattered in a complicated way. Generally speaking, I throw things away after a few years, so the only things I have are the things that have accumulated over the last few years and are relevant to the things I'm actually doing these days.
Aaserud:That's another thing that the Center is strongly involved in — just saving papers for historical purposes.
Lewis:Yes, I understand. But I have enough trouble keeping up with current papers.
Aaserud:But if for any reason you wanted help or advice on what to keep and how to keep it and where to go and all that, then we'd be happpy to help on that. But for JASON in particular, you don't have anything.
Lewis:No, I don't.
Aaserud:I should have asked you this long before; I may have. I called your secretary about a biography, or a vitae at any rate.
Lewis:Yes. I don't usually keep a standard vitae. When people want to know who I am, I just tell them what they need to know.
Aaserud:That's what we'll do here too, then. A bibliography — do you have that?
Lewis:Well, they do have one of those at school, but it has nothing to do with these subjects.
Aaserud:That's the problem with this kind of area.
Lewis:I have a bibliography of the things I've written in physics, but that's really all I have.
Aaserud:That would be useful too, of course. You don't have a copy of that here? I am interviewing Hal Lewis in his home on the 6th of July, 1986. We'll discuss mostly your JASON involvement, but with an eye to the rest of your career as well. It's up to you how much of that you will cover, and we'll start with the beginning. You were born in New York City on the 1st of October, 1923.
Lewis:That is correct.
Aaserud:What was the background of your parents?
Lewis:Oh, just an ordinary middle class background. My mother never did anything. My father was a salesman.
Aaserud:What did they have in terms of education.
Lewis:Very little. Both of them, very little.
Aaserud:Where in New York City did you grow up?
Lewis:In the Bronx.
Aaserud:And you stayed there for your first years?
Lewis:Yes, that's right.
Aaserud:Which generation Americans were your parents?
Lewis:Well, my mother was born here, my father was an immigrant.
Aaserud:Did you have any siblings?
Aaserud:And they're doing similar things as you?
Lewis:No, they're quite different. They're both accountants.
Aaserud:What were the schools you attended until college?
Lewis:Until college? Well, I went to high school in New York City.
Aaserud:Public high school?
Aaserud:Did that lead you on to physics in any way?
Lewis:Probably. It's hard to know how one began.
Aaserud:But there's no one specific teacher you can point to for any kind of influence like that. Outside school were there any such things?
Aaserud:Then you went to New York University after that.
Aaserud:Was that the natural thing to do?
Lewis:It was the natural thing to do.
Aaserud:Were you geared to physics at that time?
Lewis:Oh, I was probably already set on physics. I carried a double major in physics and math all through college, and I had done very well on them in high school and that sort of thing.
Aaserud:You entered NYU right at the beginning of the war, I suppose?
Lewis:That's right, 1940.
Aaserud:And you graduated in physics.
Aaserud:Then you went to these parts of the country after that.
Aaserud:What were the circumstances for choosing to go out West to the University of California?
Lewis:Well, it had a very good reputation in physics at that time.
Aaserud:You went to Berkeley.
Aaserud:Did you apply to other schools?
Lewis:No, I just went there.
Aaserud:What was the special attraction for you?
Lewis:Well, as I say, it had a very good reputation in physics. It was as simple as that.
Aaserud:So it's a general thing at this point. Did you find the environment and teaching corresponding to your expectations?
Lewis:Probably I was not able to judge that well. But of course, that was after the war was well under way, and many of the people who had been at Berkeley and made its reputation were doing other things.
Aaserud:Did you sense that at the time?
Aaserud:What was your introduction to Berkeley, in terms of teachers and courses?
Lewis:This was simply one year, 1943 to 1944, before I had to leave. The people who were there were very competent, and were later very notorious. It was a lively environment which I enjoyed a great deal.
Aaserud:Anybody in particular at that time who you would mention?
Lewis:Well, the people who were there were, as I say, notorious. They were Dave Bohm, very very competent, who had novel ideas even in those days, and Joe Weinberg, who became very famous later on. They were the principal people. Oppie was gone by then, and a lot of people were circulating in and out of the place. But I learned a lot in that year.
Aaserud:Did you write a dissertation for your Masters?
Lewis:I actually got my Masters at that time after the first year — in what I recall as a rather bizarre way. I hadn't quite spent enough time to accumulate enough credits for what was then required for a Masters degree. I needed one course, and the rules of the University of California in those days were that you could get credit for courses if you took them by examination. Since I was going into the Navy, I decided it would be nice to have a Masters degree before I left. I took a course, as I recall, in differential geometry, by examination, never having studied the subject, and so I ended up with a Masters degree.
Aaserud:After that you volunteered for the Navy?
Aaserud:What kind of service?
Lewis:Well, I served as an electronic technician, and was in the Navy for two years.
Aaserud:Through the war, then.
Lewis:Through the war.
Aaserud:Did that have any connection with your education?
Lewis:Oh, not really. As I say, I did electronics repair, and of course learned a lot from that, as many of us who did that did; and other than that, no.
Aaserud:Where were you located?
Lewis:Well, I was given some training — a month in Chicago, a couple of months at Monterey. The Del Monte Hotel was the finest naval base I was ever at. Some time at Treasure Island, and then overseas.
Aaserud:After the war you went back to the university; that was understood all along.
Aaserud:The situation at Berkeley after the war — did you notice?
Lewis:Oh, of course it had changed dramatically, because Oppie had come back. Everyone had come back.
Aaserud:You worked with Oppenheimer from the beginning?
Aaserud:What was your work with Oppenheimer?
Lewis:Oh, I worked on the things we were working on in those days, which were cosmic rays and the elementary particles — what was then called high energy physics. That was just for a year, because then Oppie went back to the Institute at Princeton. I went with him at that time. So I was just in Berkeley for one year after the war.
Aaserud:But you formally got your degree from California.
Lewis:Yes. Well, when Oppie went East, he — it was traditional at the time — took a leave of absence from Berkeley, instead of actually resigning. He was still able to be a major professor, and he took three of us with him when he went East. They were Sieg Wouthoysen from Amsterdam, Leslie Foldy who was at Case, and I. We went as his sort of last students.
Aaserud:He brought all his graduate students with him?
Lewis:Well, he brought the three of us with him.
Aaserud:He may have had others, of course. So you worked with Oppenheimer in Princeton for the most part.
Lewis:For one more year.
Aaserud:Then you got your degree?
Lewis:Yes, that's right.
Lewis:In Berkeley. We all made a journey back to Berkeley, including Oppie, and we all took our final exams one day, and all three of us got our degrees. I remember, at Oppie's memorial service much later, they had a big thing in Berkeley. They asked me to speak, and I remember raising the question of which of us was his last student. I laid the job on Birge, who was the historian of the Berkeley Physics Department. I saw him taking notes, but I never heard the answer. It was a matter of which of us took our exam last, and I don't remember who it was. I may have been his last student.
Aaserud:He wasnt in a teaching environment ever after that I suppose.
Lewis:No, that's correct. Well, he really wasn't even at the Institute. It was a research environment. He never taught again.
Aaserud:That reflects Oppenheimer's work, not your credentials as a student.
Lewis:There is a tidbit, which is that when we went Fast with him, the question was raised of whether we should get our degrees from the Institute or from Berkeley. It turned out that the Institute was empowered to grant PhDs, but had never done so. In the end it was decided not to break any new ground, and that was a wise decision.
Aaserud:So that was why you —
Lewis:— had a degree from Berkeley.
Aaserud:Any other specific influences that you would point to, either in California or at Princeton?
Lewis:In Princeton, of course, during that first year with Oppie, there were just the three of us and it was a very lively and wonderful environment. By then he was of course very famous, so everyone of consequence came through Princeton, and we got to know a large number of people. It was the following year, which was after I had left there, that the great massive influx of physicists to the Institute began.
Aaserud:You did come back, once.
Aaserud:Was that to work with Oppenheimer also?
Lewis:Well, it was to work with him, but it was also because there was a great turmoil in Berkeley during that period, associated with the loyalty oath issue. I was deeply involved in that, so I left under those conditions. It was a battle. In fact, all the theoretical physicists in Berkeley left at the time of the loyalty oath. It was a clean sweep. I don't know what that tells people about theoretical physicists.
Aaserud:There were no other departments that were hit?
Lewis:Well, the theorists in the department at that time were Gian Carlo Wick and Geoff Chew and me, and we all left.
Aaserud:So that was the circumstance for coming to Princeton in 1950.
Lewis:Yes, correct; that's why.
Aaserud:But you came back to California again, right?
Lewis:Right. Well, let's get the chronology straight. I was at Berkeley from 1948 to 1950. The loyalty oath controversy began in 1949 and simmered through 1950. I left at that time, having refused to sign the loyalty oath. I was in the end one of the 18 professors at Berkeley who fought it out all the way. During the first year at Princeton, we were involved in litigation against the Regents of the University, and eventually it worked its way through the California Supreme Court. We did win reinstatement — that sort of thing. That took a couple of years, and by then I was in no mood to go back. I had of course the option of going back, but I was in no mood to do that. I took a job at Bell Labs because I had begun to be interested in solid state physics. I stayed there for five years, I guess, and learned a great deal about solid state physics.
Aaserud:Was that a difficult decision, to go from academia to industry, so to speak?
Lewis:Well, not really, because Bell Labs was the most academic of the industrial operations. In retrospect it was very good for my growth, because had I gone back to Berkeley at the time that we finally won the litigation — and a number of our group did do that, and they seemed quite happy to have done it — I would have gone on doing the same things that I had been doing, which were productive and useful but were not different, whereas by going into Bell Labs I learned an entirely different field of physics.
Aaserud:Did you actually choose Bell Labs over other academic opportunities at the time?
Lewis:No, it was the principal contender from the beginning. They were very interested in me, and I went up and looked at them. They had at that time more or less the highest quality group of people doing solid state physics in the country. They had Phil Anderson, Conyers Herring — a bunch of really first rate people — and of course the transistor was just being invented at the time. They had the technical people like Shockley and so forth who were also around there. It was a very lively place.
Aaserud:You were aware enough of that situation then that that played an important role.
Lewis:Oh yes. I forgot Bardeen, of course, who was then going through the agony of working out superconductivity. I agonized with him through a number of false starts that he made.
Aaserud:So you were actually happy to change fields. Did you see that as a broadening?
Lewis:Yes. I've always been happy to learn new things. It's a defect.
Aaserud:Well, in that case it probably wasn't. How would you describe the mode of collaboration — the work style — there, as compared to Princeton or California?
Lewis:Well, it is an industrial laboratory; it still is. The physics group, particularly the theoretical group, was really quite free. Nobody ever suggested what I ought to do. It had the advantage of having very impressive facilities, so that for example, when I wanted to do some experimental work, there was no problem. They set up the laboratory for me, and I spent a period doing experimental work. I searched in vain for the Hall effect in a superconductor, which the theory predicted would not be there; but the theory was ambiguous at the time. The theory of superconductivity was just being developed, so I searched in vain for it; I had the pleasure of writing an experimental paper about the negative result, and then a theoretical paper interpreting the negative result. It was a good thing.
Aaserud:Was the connection between theory and experiment different there than in the other places you've been?
Lewis:Oh yes. In most places some people do the experiments and others do the theory, and they often talk to each other, but not always. There, it was a more intimate relationship, and there were all sorts of strange people there. Bernd Matthias was there, and he was discovering new superconductors faster than anyone could; it was a close interaction. He was a nut, of course, but he and I got along extremely well.
Aaserud:Was that due to different numbers of people, or was it a function of industrial versus academic?
Lewis:It really didn't come through as an industrial laboratory; it was more a research laboratory. And it was a research laboratory with complete freedom and more or less unlimited resources. How could we ask for anything better?
Aaserud:Could it be compared to Princeton Institute in that you did research without students?
Lewis:Well, except that the Institute had no experimental work. It did have the computer project. They got rid of that as soon as it worked, which I think was one of the dumbest things the Institute ever did. I interacted very much with those people. When I worked at Bell Labs, I continued to live at Princeton. I simply went up a few days a week to Murray Hill, and so I was closely connected to the people who were doing the computer. Von Neumann remains the smartest person I've ever met — incredibly intelligent man. I did have the pleasure of knowing all those people and working with them to some extent.
Aaserud:You were actually involved in that period of introducing the computer at Princeton?
Lewis:Oh yes. That was exciting; those were exciting times. In fact, remember all sorts of things. There is one tidbit I have which I'm not free to give you, but Klari von Neumann a while back did write a reminiscence of that period at Princeton, when the computer was being developed. She was von Neumann's wife. Somebody gave me a copy of it just last year, but on condition that I not give it to anyone. So there's a delicate situation. It's not well written, but it contains little memorabilia about that period. The Institute always regarded the computer project as a stepchild, and von Neumann's interest in the computer, which was of course partly connected with his military involvement, was not well regarded by some people there. In the end the computer worked magnificently, and I remember very well the drunken party to celebrate that event. That is chronicled by Klari, but it belongs to her sister. Maybe one can pry it loose; I don't know.
Aaserud:Well, it's not ready for that now at any rate.
Aaserud:But it's good to know about it. What was your degree of collaboration at Bell? Did you work for yourself mainly or did you collaborate with others in particular?
Lewis:No, mainly I worked for myself. But it was a congenial group. We shared a corridor and we all talked to each other and worked with each other. It's just that I didn't do, as I recall, any collaborative things with people at Bell Labs.
Aaserud:"as there a corporate ethos, of sorts, of belonging to the Bell Laboratories?
Lewis:Yes, that's right. But it was also — I guess I'm repeating myself — just a very good congenial group of physicists. There was nobody working on anything who didn't talk to everyone else about it, partly because it was a relatively small group.
Aaserud:How much time did you spend at Bell at that time and how much were you able to do at Princeton during this perid?
Lewis:Well, my connection was with Bell at that period. The work I did at Princeton was simply because I knew the people and was living in the town. I had no formal connection with Princeton or the Institute at that time.
Aaserud:But the job at Bell allowed you to spend some time at Princeton.
Lewis:It was very free; I could do whatever I pleased.
Aaserud:But you left nevertheless in 1956.
Aaserud:I think I'm getting the chronology straight again. What was your reason for leaving at any rate?
Lewis:Well, I had been at Bell Labs for five years and there is always — in anyone who's been through graduate school — a desire to end up in the academic life instead of in some other life. And so after five years, the people at Wisconsin recruited me and succeeded. It's a beautiful place, Wisconsin, with, again, a good history in physics.
Aaserud:Did you have any prior connection with people at Wisconsin?
Lewis:I knew some of the people.
Aaserud:Was there any personal connection that brought you there in any sense?
Lewis:Well, I guess the person who was the prime mover in bringing me there was Ken Watson.
Aaserud:Were there other offers along the way?
Lewis:There were. They were not particularly attractive.
Aaserud:But Wisconsin was —
Lewis:— particularly attractive.
Aaserud:What kind of work did you do at Wisconsin?
Lewis:I don't think I was particularly productive at Wisconsin, as a matter of fact. I worked on some solid state things. I worked on some plasma-related things. But probably my stay at Wisconsin was affected too soon by my beginning to be involved in government affairs. It really did begin there. I think the first year I was at Wisconsin — I may be off a bit in the chronology but not much — I did spend the summer at Los Alamos; the group who were there was a pretty good group and I very much enjoyed that. That is in fact when I learned plasma physics, and of course I'm always willing to switch.
Aaserud:So that was your first encounter with Los Alamos?
Lewis:Yes, it was. I had never been there before. The group we had included, again, Watson, Goldberger, Conrad Longmire, Francis Low, Geoff Chew, Keith Brueckner — a really good group of people. We were all at that point — younger than we are now — when we had small children, all of whom played with each other. I think we had a lot of fun and did a lot. But mostly we worked on plasma physics, and we were involved with fusion which was then a relevant subject.
Aaserud:It was a very well-defined group working on a well-defined project.
Lewis:Well, we worked on a variety of things, but it was a well-defined group.
Lewis:You may have heard some of this from other people.
Aaserud:Yes, I have, but I always forget to ask some questions, and I get additional information. So, could you describe the work? Was it the same work that went on for summer after summer?
Lewis:Well, we did it for a few summers. We had an understanding that we would go back every summer and continue the sorts of things we were doing, which again were mostly associated with what was called Sherwood in those days. Of course, then the idea of forming JASON came out of the existence of that group.
Aaserud:I spoke to Brueckner a couple of days ago; he said that also, of course. There are no particular achievements you would point to at Wisconsin except for that?
Lewis:No, that's right. It diverted, there's no question.
Aaserud:On the other hand, was it Watson at Wisconsin who was the main influence for bringing you to Los Alamos?
Lewis:That's right. Well, no — he wasn't the main reason for bringing me to Los Alamos. It was in part a coincidence that he was at Wisconsin, because the people who asked me to Los Alamos were, Conrad Longmire, and actually, I think Garwin had a hand in it at the time, too. You have to understand, the physics community was smaller in those days, and we all knew each other very well. It's different now.
Aaserud:Maybe we should continue with your academic career and then go back again to the science policy involvements. You stayed at Wisconsin until 1964.
Lewis:Until 1964; I was there eight years.
Aaserud:What were the circumstances for your leaving this time?
Lewis:I came here then, and I've been here ever since. I. had not wanted to leave Wisconsin; I was really quite happy and comfortable there. But these people, of whom I confess I had never heard before, solicited me. I came out on a trip to give a talk and talked to them, and it was too good to resist because it's a beautiful place. It was a part of the University of California, which is a solid institution, but it was a part that was just being born; I think there were three or four people in the physics department when I came here, and essentially unlimited resources to hire anyone you wanted. It was an opportunity to start at a beautiful place — a small place that was destined to grow, and at which we could hire nearly anybody we wanted. I remember going to the Chancellor at that time and he said to me, "What do you need in order to make this the finest physics department in the world?" And I said to him — at that time, 1964 — "That is really no problem. If you give me ten 50 thousand dollar full professorships to dispense, I may not get the ten best physicists in the world to come here, but I can get ten out of the first twelve, given the physical environment." And it was true. He said, "Ah, we can't do that kind of thing." Which was rather short-sighted.
Aaserud:Who was here when you came? Who were the founding fathers so to speak of physics at Santa Barbara?
Lewis:Well, they were people who had been here. This campus has gone through a period of having first been a branch of a State College, and then having been the only four year college in the University of California system, without a graduate school. So there were people left over from that who were nice people, but in honesty not first rate physicists. I think it's fair to say that the only first rate physicist who was here when I came here was Herb Broida, who was a sort of atomic and molecular experimentalist who had come here from the Bureau of Standards. He was a first rank person in that field, but there were many who didn't think it was the most exciting field in the world. So there really wasn't anybody in what we would normally call first rank. I'm probably doing a disservice to the very nice and competent people who were here.
Aaserud:But essentially you were asked to develop the department.
Lewis:In a sense, yes.
Aaserud:Did you have specific goals for the department, in terms of kinds of research?
Lewis:No. Being a theorist, I concentrated on getting theorists to come here, and it built up fairly rapidly, because we were able to do reasonably well.
Aaserud:How quickly were you able to develop the department?
Lewis:Well, I have trouble with the chronology of those days, knowing when people appeared. I went to a cocktail party the other day, and said to somebody, "I remember your having arrived fairly recently; how long have you been here?" And he said, "Well, it's not quite 20 years." We did reasonably well reasonably fast, and it builds on itself, of course. In the academic world your reputation out of town never grows as fast as your capability in town, so I think it's really only been in the last five or ten years that people have begun to notice that we're a first rate operation. And of course now, with the Institute for Theoretical Physics — and people going through that who come from all over the world — I think the word has gotten around. Everybody now knows. But that wasn't true ten years ago.
Aaserud:There's an inertia there, of course. To what extent did that kind of administrative work take away from your doing physics at the time? Were you able to combine the two?
Lewis:It detracted pretty substantially, because by the time I came here, I was deeply involved in JASON, which I regarded, and still regard as important, and I was doing other government things. For example, there was an advisory committee for the Sherwood project — for the fusion project and I was on that; it had by then been declassified. And there were various advisory committees I was beginning to serve on. They certainly did distract from my academic work. I never had more than one or two students at a time, and there's no question that I did not devote full time to my academic work.
Aaserud:Just building up the department must have taken a lot of energy.
Lewis:Yes, that took time, and also, I guess, that I came here in 1964 and became chairman of JASON in 1966; I'm pretty sure it was 1966. I was then chairman of JASON for seven years; our term was supposed to be four years, but for complicated reasons I served for seven. I just was very busy and did too much. Then I was chairman of this department for four years or something like that in that same period, so it was fairly time consuming.
Aaserud:But it was never a complete transition; you still maintained a close connection with physics research.
Lewis:That's right. I still had graduate students, and they tended to do strange things. My first graduate student here came to me and asked if he could do a thesis on the mechanism of tape recording, which he said is not well understood. I said, "Well, I don't know anything about it either, but we can learn together," and he did a very good job. I now know more about the subject than I probably want to know, but it's in fact a fascinating and very nonlinear subject; I think you will find that virtually no physicist knows anything about the subject, but it's of some importance. This kid actually went on after he got his degree and founded his own company in Del Mar to make better tapes and tape heads. He's still there, and he sold his company to Kodak for 11 million dollars, so he did OK on his thesis!
Aaserud:Better than most, I would say.
Lewis:That's right. All he's given me back is a few airplane rides in one of his airplanes.
Aaserud:And then there was the Quantum Institute.
Lewis:Then there was the Quantum Institute, yes. I guess I directed that for, I've forgotten, two years or three years.
Aaserud:Four years, 1969 to 1973.
Lewis:Was it four years? It's entirely possible; I don't remember. But that was a thing in which we wanted to find a mechanism to bring people in to do research who were not part of the physics department, and serve as a focus. I was not one of the people who wanted to create the Quantum Institute; that was Broida's idea. When Herb first wanted to do it, I think he wanted it as a kind of a retirement home for used-up spectroscopists. Spectroscopists have, you know, for many decades had this problem of being kind of in the backwash of physics, and Herb was in his heart a spectroscopist, and all his friends were. He wanted a place to bring them, and so he started the mechanism going for setting it up. I was able to dissuade him from using that particular function, so we were able to set it up as an institute for the study of the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with matter, which I figured would cover nearly anything one wanted to do. Then we did a wide variety of things, but it was never a coherent operation, and it still isn't a coherent operation.
Aaserud:How closely connected was it with the physics department?
Lewis:Loosely, as it is now. Vince Jaccarino is director of the Institute now. It's gone through a series of directors; generally speaking it has served as a holding company for a batch of independent projects. The biggest single thing that has been done, of course, is the free electron laser, which is much more recent, but we had a number of things. I guess I'd gotten some sort of loose money from ARPA to feed into the Quantum Institute, and we supported a number of projects; but it was never coher- ent. It's just a holding company. I'd forgotten about that.
Aaserud:The background for becoming concerned with science policy questions or advisory questions; you said that started at Wisconsin.
Lewis:That's right. Really, it started when I began to spend time at Los Alamos. I know it's hard for young folks now to bring themselves back to that period, but that was the time of what turned out to be the fictitious missile gap, Sputnik was 1957 as you recall, and I had been to war. I think many of us developed a certain amount of social consciousness about the position of the United States, and so we became involved. There was none of the negativism about it that there is nowadays, and so it was a fairly natural thing to do. As I say, I got involved not only with Los Alamos, but also JASON, and a batch of other advisory committees. That has been building over the years; I have no idea how many I'm on now.
Aaserud:So the war experience was important?
Lewis:It played a role, because those of us who went through World War II remember that it's possible for the country to be in a war in which we're on the right side and we're all on the same side. The younger people don't have any such experience. They remember only bad things about American wars. So it was a formative experience, I think, for everyone who served in it. Any war is a formative experience for anyone who serves in it.
Aaserud:Was this a general feeling among physicists of that generation, do you think?
Lewis:No. There was a hiatus between the end of World War II — which is after all 1945 — and the beginning of these things about ten years later. During those ten years, what was called pejoratively the cold war had developed; the general lining up of the world into two camps had occurred, and it was quite clear by the mid and late fifties where things were going or where things were. It was fairly natural to want to contribute, and, of course, one thing leads to another.
Aaserud:What was your particular background for joining JASON?
Lewis:You mean, physics background?
Aaserud:No, just who approached you, how it came to be that you became a member.
Lewis:Well, we were all in Los Alamos at the time — the four people you've probably spoken to: Brueckner, Watson, Goldberger, and Gell-Mann. I think at least one of them, whom I don't particularly want to name, was a bit greedy and thought that it would be very nice if physicists could be paid what we knew so many other people were paid. They were originally going to form a private company — you've gotten that story from them, I'm sure. They were dissuaded from doing that, and at that time Charlie Townes was Vice President of IDA, and IDA was then run by a consortium of universities of which I think there were seven. So Charlie, who had been consulted, tried to dissuade them from becoming greedy. Instead, after speaking to a batch of people in Washington, including Howie Wilcox and Cy Betts, he generated the idea of making it a division of IDA which would be devoted to these things. At that time — I guess the previous year — there had been the so-called Project 137 meeting of which you've heard a great deal. So I think that it drifted from being a private company into being a branch of IDA fairly easily, because Charlie Townes, though he was serving as Vice President of IDA, was one of us physicists. I was approached at Los Alamos, and asked to be a charter member of JASON. I said, "Sure," and so JASON was formed on January 1st, 1960. The only amusing tidbit about that is that the letter forming it was, I think, signed by Cy Betts and written to Charlie Townes, I believe. The letter says, "Assemble the finest physicists in the United States, put them to work on national security problems, and it is anticipated that they will make minimal use of computers." That's in the original letter which set up JASON. I thought that was extraordinarily farsighted at the time. Honestly, when it began, leaving me aside, we really did have all the finest theoretical physicists in the country joining; no question, it was a very high quality group. It was a pleasure to be part of it, because you didn't waste time.
Aaserud:How closely involved were you with those first developments, like the 137 study?
Lewis:I was not involved with either the 137 or with the efforts of these people to make a company. I was only asked when it was already a fait accompli. I think there were 20 of us who were charter members or something like that.
Aaserud:But you were asked very soon after.
Lewis:No, right away.
Aaserud:You were asked right away, so you were in at the at the beginning in January 1960.
Aaserud:And you stayed in JASON until —
Lewis:— about three or four years ago.
Aaserud:We'll come back to that. At the outset, JASON was considered a vehicle to introduce a new generation of physicists to advisory work.
Lewis:It had really three functions; I've made the speech so many times during the period I was chairman. The three functions were, first, to provide a vehicle for introducing very fine physicists into the world of national security in the broad sense, not weapons systems in particular. The second function was to actually solve problems and help the country, and the third function was best expressed, I think, by Pief, when he said, "It's committee fodder." That is, it's a group of people you know are highly cleared, so if you need to form an ad hoc committee to solve a national problem that requires clearance, here's a membership list you can draw from. That in fact a number of us did: using JASON as a base, then do things involving ad hoc committees for government. In the early years — the very beginning of JASON — the principal issue was missile defense, and we spent the early years working on reentry physics and missile defense problems of that kind. Then we branched out and did other things.
Aaserud:Were there any discussions that you were involved in about the appropriateness of JASON as this kind of vehicle?
Lewis:Not really. In the early days I think there was no ambiguity about where one's loyalty ought to be, certainly not within the group. I do not recall any misgivings on anybody's part until Vietnam, which was six or seven years later. I guess the chronology is just a bit fuzzy to me, but I think we had our first summer studies devoted to problems of Southeast Asia in 1965 or something like that.
Aaserud:1964, I believe.
Lewis:1964 is entirely possible; I'm prepared to believe that.
Aaserud:I'm not only thinking about internal discussion in JASON, but also discussion within the physics community.
Lewis:No, I don't think there was anything. There was a certain amount of jealousy; there has been from the day JASON was founded. It was an elite group, there's no question about it, and there's room in the world for elitism; so there was that. There were some people who thought JASON was a bad idea, and I remember specifically Hans Bethe thought it was a bad idea because Hans felt that if you really want to help the country, you shouldn't do it in this congenial way. Instead, everyone should go around the countryside and become a consultant to one of the big defense companies that actually does things and help them do their job. That was Hans's mode of operation. He's been a consultant to all these places for many years. So he didn't think JASON was a good idea, but he didn't press the point in a substantive way. And I think there were no real issues of propriety raised until Vietnam.
Aaserud:One of the reasons for forming JASON, as I have understood it, was a negative reaction to that kind of consulting — that you felt too little independence in doing industrial consulting, without any control of what you were doing.
Lewis:Well, it was partly that; I had not done any industrial defense consulting. It was partly that, but also partly that forming JASON pro- vided the other two functions — a means of bringing in new young people, and somehow a somewhat less venal connection with national defense. That is, the people felt that we were part of a semi-independent — really pretty independent — group that wasn't working for a defense contractor; in that sense we were also taken much more seriously by the government. IDA was at the time when JASON was formed a nonprofit organization run by a group of universities in the national interest. Therefore it had itself a privileged position within government circles, which we used.
Aaserud:During this first period, JASON did only military related work, right? ARPA was the only contractor?
Lewis:Military, but certainly national security.
Aaserud:National security in a broader sense, yes.
Lewis:It's a delicacy, but it's a real one. That's right. There was nothing else.
Aaserud:That came in the seventies, I believe.
Lewis:It came later.
Aaserud:What about finding new members? I guess there was this core group of people with a very clear conception of what JASON was going to be. I don't know how many people it was essentially; it wasn't more than five or ten people, I suppose.
Lewis:Well, no. I think there wasn't really any core group with a con- ception of what it ought to be. The original core people who founded it, we've named, and they formed a steering committee which really governed the organization. Murph Goldberger was chairman of the steering committee. Murph is, you know, the sweetest of all possible people; there's nobody who dislikes Murph Goldberger. That's still true. He's just a nice guy; he's a dear old friend. So he was just a very natural choice to be chairman of the steering committee. The steering committee really managed JASON, within the framework provided by IDA, which was the host organization. Much later, there was a feeling that one ought to, not introduce democracy, but at least rotate the management. The steering committee was then ex- panded, and began to rotate. Murph left as chairman, I became chairman, and so forth. But for the first six years it was run in that fairly cozy way. But I don't think it's true that anyone had any clear conception of what they wanted it to be. We wanted to have the best physicists in the country in it. As time went on, smart young people like Steve Weinberg were brought in to help the group. Some people fell by the wayside, but never for reasons that had anything to do with more than their careers changing and that sort of thing. The first six or five or four years — something like that — which were mostly devoted to missile defense, were free floating. That is to say, I don't think there was any direction provided by anybody. We sort of learned the problems. We fell into the pattern very early of having two meetings a year, and then having a summer study. The summer study in the early years alternated between Coasts, in order to be as democratic as possible. It was through the meetings and the briefings at the meetings, which had been negotiated, that we learned what the current national problems were, and we tried to work on them.
Aaserud:To what extent was JASON originally a generational phenomenon? The people in JASON were largely the same age, right?
Lewis:Oh, absolutely. We were the same age and we were close friends of course. On the other hand, calling it a generational phenomenon may be wrong, because in fact there is a period right after World War II in which a whole bunch of people went into physics; physics after all became popular after World War II. When I first decided to go into physics, it was well known that it was a life of poverty — because who needed physicists? It was because of the war and the revelations of what physics could do that it suddenly became possible to earn a living in physics. I may be among the very last people who went into it when it was still a guarantee of poverty. So we were, you know, part of the generation that went in at that time.
Aaserud:The early organizational structure of JASON was rather loose, but still there was one from the outset, right?
Lewis:Oh yes, that's correct. It was done through the steering committee and that's still true.
Aaserud:That steering committee, has that had a constant size?
Lewis:Oh no, it's changed over the years. It was originally supposed to be four, and then it was expanded. In fact, it was expanded by one or two while Murph was still chairman, just to bring in some new blood. And there were always problems with Keith; you know, everyone has always had problems with Keith.
Aaserud:Well, he quit fairly early.
Lewis:Yes. In any case, when I became chairman — I really don't remem- ber — there may have been four or five members on the steering committee, maybe six.
Aaserud:You were on the steering committee from the outset?
Lewis:No, the steering committee started out with the four founders. I've really forgotten whether I came on the steering committee before I became chairman.
Aaserud:I would suppose so.
Lewis:I would suppose so; I must have gotten on to the steering committee. I just don't remember; it may have been 1965 and I became chairman in 1966, or something like that.
Aaserud:There was the steering committee. Were there other member categories?
Lewis:No. Well, we tried. If you really want the history, we tried at one time to have associate members, and — this is really an unimportant piece of history — the idea was that we were all scattered around in different parts of the country; I, for example, was in Wisconsin with nobody to talk to about JASON matters. So we decided that each of us could have an associate member who would be a young smart guy at his home institution. He would not be a real member, but would be cleared into the system; then we could use him as a sort of collaborator — a kind of glorified postdoc or something like that. We had a few such people, and it absolutely didn't work out, because you had no capability of maintaining class distinctions within the group. A few people who were brought in as associate members were simply made full members, and we dropped the idea. So from then on and to this day, they're just members.
Aaserud:But some members became members because of that kind of collaboration.
Lewis:Yes. If you ask me, I don't even remember who.
Aaserud:Not even the first one at Wisconsin?
Aaserud:What constituted the Goldberger legacy, if there is one? Was there any specific Goldberger legacy in JASON?
Lewis:In JASON? Oh gosh. Murph was a coherence factor, again, because he's really such a nice guy, and he's also an excellent physicist; you know, he's a good combination. So he really served to sort of symbolize the group and hold it together; he was a good representative on the outside, too. That is to say, when people wanted to see the chairman of JASON, send Murph, and everybody liked him. I think his legacy is that the group was formed and became strong. You know, it became essentially unbreakable by the time he left as chairman, so that's a real legacy.
Aaserud:What was the reason for changeover in chairmanship? That was a previous idea of rotation?
Lewis:No, there was a slight awkwardness. I think Murph would have been happy to be chairman for life, but there was a growing uneasiness among the members of having an oligarchy. He was persuaded that it was time to do a little bit of rotating. Why I was selected as the next chairman, that you have to ask other people.
Aaserud:Did you have any specific differences of approach, you and Goldberger?
Lewis:Oh, I thinkwe're different people, you know. We're different people, and I think, again, you should ask other people to compare us. But I think I'm a little more pushy on the outside than Murph was. I was a little better able and a little more willing to take on fights in the relation between JASON and the military establishment and that sort of thing than Murph was. Of course, he's an infinitely better physicist than I am, but that isn't really relevant to running JASON. The important thing in running JASON is to have the respect of the members, because if they don't respect you, you can really get into trouble. You know, with all due modesty, I think we both had that, and that worked out very very well. I had intended — or we had decided — at the time to make the term of chairman four years. So I was quite prepared to step down after four years. The trouble was that the person I thought would be the natural successor to me was unacceptable to the establishment. Year after year, we used to go fight to get this particular person, whom I'd rather not name, to be chairman. Hell, why not name him? — it was Dick Garwin. Dick, as you know, has a capability of inspiring anger and fury among people. I remember, I went to the IDA trustees' meeting; one of the features of the JASON structure within IDA was, that the chairman of the JASON steering committee was, de facto or ex officio or whatever you like, a member of the IDA management, and therefore got to go to all the IDA trustees' meetings, who were the likes of Killian and Bill Burden — fairly old-timer academics interested in national defense. I used to go plead, and they'd say, "No, no, no. You just stay on another year." We needed their approval, and they just wouldn't sit still for it, and that went on for three extra years.
Aaserud:I asked about the Goldberger legacy. Is there a Lewis legacy? Is there something that you would mention in particular that you introduced?
Lewis:You should ask others about that, but I think I kept the group together pretty well. We began to have trouble with Directors at ARPA, because most of our money was budgeted through ARPA. It was really an accounting ploy, but every now and then people who send money seem to think they're in charge, and it's a terrible mistake. Through the beginning we did very well. I remember, when the budget was a half million dollars a year, the director of ARPA, Charlie Herzfeld, used to say — and he still says it as a matter of fact if you ask him — that when he sent a half million dollars to JASON, he had no idea what he was buying for it or what they were going to do with it. But every year he got at least one thing that was worth the half million dollars. That he thought was a good bargain; the budget is much larger now, but dollars aren't worth as much these days. That was true, but then we began to get a particular director of ARPA who really wanted to run the show. This guy — again, I'd rather not mention his name on tape — was a bit of a nut. We used to make our program — when I was chairman — in a very simple way. We always had a rule that nobody could be on the steering committee if his only involvement with national security was through JASON. That rule has been dropped. That is, we made sure that everybody wore at least some other hat on the Washington scene. And therefore when we convened a steering committee meeting among us, we knew everything that was going on in Washington in the national security area, and so we knew what was important. There was a point at which half the members of PSAC were on JASON also, and they were on JASON before they were on PSAC. It went in that direction, not the other; we didn't appoint people for prestige reasons. We really knew what was going on; we had a steering committee that knew what was important. We generated a JASON program at the steering committee meeting. Then — and this is the way it worked with me, I don't know how it was done with others — I as chairman used to go in and see what was then the DDR&E, who was really the important person on these things, and sit down with him and say, "This is what we think is important; we'll be working on this." He would often say, "That's great, but there's one other thing that I think is important you might consider." I'd say, "Fine, we'll consider it," and that was sort of the way it worked. Then we got directors of ARPA who thought that they could make assignments and dominate the program. That didn't work well at all, and we had a number of fights at that time. We usually won the fights, but only by force.
Aaserud:And it might of course affect the impact as well.
Lewis:That's correct. That's correct. Well, ARPA wasn't low enough down. We didn't think we were working for ARPA; it was just that our money was funneled through them.
Aaserud:And you had other connections as well. But ARPA was the dominant contractor even during your period?
Lewis:Well, in the sense that they sent the money. We really thought we worked for the DDR&E who is now the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.
Aaserud:Who was DDR&E?
Aaserud:During the whole period?
Lewis:There were others.
Aaserud:But he was the main one. Then finally in 1973 you stepped down and Ed Frieman took over.
Aaserud:That's correct. So was that a fait accompli or how did that come to be?
Lewis:That was complicated. That was partly externally generated. That is to say, we had switched from IDA to SRI, and SRI was a less protective organization than IDA, because SRI is a for-profit rather than a not-for- profit and therefore more vulnerable. The then director of ARPA — I'd rather not mention his name — with whom I'd had a number of fairly knockdown drag out fights, brought a great deal of pressure on SRI to make a change in the chairmanship. It was not Ed Frieman, but Ken Watson who became chairman right after me.
Lewis:So it was partly internal — it had been for three years before that time for me to step down anyway — and partly pressure from ARPA.
Aaserud:What were the circumstances of the move from IDA to SRI?
Lewis:Nothing magic. We decided that it would be good to change. We had been working on a number of things that involved radio physics and things like that in which SRI is very strong, and we had one person from SRI who was on JASON — that's Allen Peterson. So we were familiar with SRI, and we thought it would be better to be connected with an organization that has its own internal technical capability, instead of an organization like IDA which really was not a scientific organization — it was a studies operation. We felt that on balance that would be a good thing, and they were very eager to have us, and so we went out there and met with them and cut a deal and it worked well. We talked to a number of people; we talked to Batelle; we ended up with SRI. When we went out for a meeting, Charlie Anderson was president of SRI, and I remember he had a fit. We were having a JASON meeting out there just to sample the place, and I made an arrangement for these guys Targ and Puthoff, who are the ones who were doing the Uri Geller bit. I made a deal for them to come and give a talk to JASON about their work, and I remember Charlie Anderson was extremely embarrassed by the whole thing. He was very upset about that, because he didn't regard that as putting SRI's best foot forward. In fact, these guys are again not entirely with it, and Geller of course is a fraud. But they were thoroughly taken in by him — thoroughly. Anyway, it was just to go with a technical organization.
Aaserud:And IDA might not have been to happy to have you in any more, being an FCRC. There was that too, wasn't there?
Lewis:Well, IDA was an FCRC, SRI is not. IDA didn't fight. There was no unhappiness at IDA.
Aaserud:And it was a decision from the side of JASON essentially.
Lewis:Oh yes, it was our decision.
Aaserud:Aside from the people you've mentioned, are there other members in particular that you would emphasize during your tenure?
Lewis:There were just lots of fine people. You have the membership list, and they're all great people. It was actually a pleasure. We really tried very hard to maintain a membership policy that brought us the finest people in the country, and we did it in a fairly systematic way. Everybody who was proposed for membership went through a screening, just like you would hiring somebody in your department; we had, I think, very high standards. We had trouble firing people. Every now and then, people really weren't as good as we had thought they would be, and it was extremely painful to fire people. Lots of people had that problem. But no, I don't remember anything to mention in particular; there were all sorts of specifics. I remember Allen Peterson taught us all radar, early on. Gosh, within the first two years he gave a series of lectures on radar, which was all the radar any of us knew for years, you know; that sort of thing. People worked on different things. I don't have any specifics. They are all fine people. Dyson is crazy, but a genius; they're all good people.
Aaserud:Did the selection of members or the way people were selected change during your tenure? Was it formalized?
Lewis:Yes, it was formalized. That is, the original list of twenty were simply picked by the original "Gang of Four."
Aaserud:Well, somewhere along the line, there was a selection committee, or whatever it was called.
Lewis:Membership committee? That was formed much later. It was done all during my tenure by the steering committee. We didn't ask that many people, you know. We could afford to take the time to do it well.
Aaserud:To what extent were JASONs the same people that you collaborated with in physics proper in the academic context?
Lewis:Largely. Largely, because again, we knew and respected each other, and we had worked together, and it was very easy. In fact, there was a tendency for the work people did in JASON to drift out into their academic careers, just because it was natural; you learn new things and you want to apply them. Any number of papers that people wrote in their academic lives were based on their JASON work, which was not all classified. I remember explaining the eikonal equation to Steve Weinberg. He never heard of it before. I knew optics, and he really didn't know optics. And then he went on to do some really very beautiful work by using it. There was a batch of papers that had to do with particle beam instabilities; you know, the fusion program involved instabilities in plasmas. We all learned about that from Marshall Rosenbluth. Then there were these proposed weapons systems that had to do with extreme relativistic particle beams. We worked for years on the instabilities and problems associated with those weapons. Deep in our hearts none of us believed it could be done, and didn't even want it to be done. You wanted to find a technical reason why it couldn't be done, and so we worked on that for a while. Again people then went into the outside world and published academic things involving relativistic particle beams, so there was a fairly continuous outflow.
Aaserud:So there was in effect input both into government and into the field of physics, so to speak.
Lewis:I don't know about most physicists, but most JASON members will tell you that their careers in physics have been profoundly influenced by what they've learned within JASON. They've learned new fields, new subjects, new emphases, and when you learn things, it's good.
Aaserud:Well, there have also been some debate about how closely related those things should be.
Lewis:I don't know what should be means. If you're going to work in physics, you should work on a subject that interests you, that hopefully you can do well. If there is a feeling that perhaps the future of physics has been influenced by the fact that this fairly influential group has banded together to do military related work — it probably has — I don't see it has having been for the worse. I think it's probably been for the better, because all of the people have been made broader than they would otherwise have been, and that's a good thing.
Aaserud:You were chairman during the hottest controversy — over Vietnam.
Lewis:Oh yes. That was no fun.
Aaserud:How did that affect your chairmanship? How much did you have to involve yourself in that?
Lewis:Oh, very deeply. It was the first real dissent within JASON. Others will have other memories, but we started — you told me 1964 and I believe it — we had a summer study which Bill Nierenberg chaired. As I recall it, we tried to explore the parameters and to understand insurgency a little bit — both from a technical and a social point of view.
Aaserud:That was entirely JASON's initiative to start that?
Lewis:That was JASON. You know, at any JASON summer study, once we decided to do something, we'd try to bring in some experts on the subject. Particularly on this subject, we were not especially expert. So — I don't remember names, one can find out — people were brought in. We did bring in experts, but it was mostly internal. Murray in particular was especially hot on understanding the sociology of the subject, and Murray was in many ways a frustration, because he's such an incredibly smart guy too. I remember when we were first beginning to study Vietnam, we got this big thick book called The Two Vietnams that everybody was reading in those days to understand Vietnam. I labored through it, I remember, over a period of nights. I remember once talking to Murray. I said something, and he said, "No, no, Hal, that's wrong." "How do you know it's wrong?" "Top left on page 187 it says quite the opposite." It's hard to deal with people like that. I had much the same feeling in an earlier era — actually before JASON was formed — working in La Jolla on the bomb—propelled space ship project, Orion. We were all working for Ted Taylor in those days. Dyson was there that summer, and he was also a pain in the neck in the same respect. That is to say, at the end of the day, we decided what an interesting problem was that needed to be solved. I would come in the next morning prepared to go to work on it, and he'd come in the next morning with the solution. That sort of thing can be very annoying! But all these things are pleasures. These are smart and wonderful people, so it's easy to deal with them. In any case, we did bring in experts. Murray was interested in the sociology. Bill Nierenberg was interested in the technology and the sociology. In fact, the summer studies in 1964 and 1965 were the precursors to the big one in 1966, when we really got involved in Vietnam. The war had of course been developing. Dissent about the war had been developing. And motives, certainly, I think in 1966, were as pure as the driven snow. That is to say, there was a complicated problem. There was a social problem within South Vietnam; there was a genuine insurgency in South Vietnam, and I think most of us really didn't take any sides on that. We were not, you know, Bao Dai lovers or Diem lovers or anything like that. But it was complicated by the infiltration — the effort of the North Vietnamese to conquer the South. I think most of us held the thing in our minds as a problem of isolating the battlefield in South Vietnam, of keeping it free of North Vietnamese and Chinese influence, and to let them fight it out and see what happens. That was the direction we took as these things developed. We also learned a great deal about the country and the subject, and there was dissent. There was unhappiness, in particular, but it didn't crystallize until after 1966, in my memory. In 1966 we had this really major summer study, in which the so-called barrier concept was introduced and invented. The barrier concept, about which you've heard a great deal from others, was really an effort on our part to isolate the battlefield. That was the term we used. We wrote a report, but we particularly went to see Mr. McNamara and others, which people may have told you about. In a sense, his constraint, under the national priorities, was that he was allowed to spend infinite amounts of money, but he wasn't allowed to send an extra division to Vietnam; those were his constraints. We went to him with something that must have appealed to him. It was a technological way to isolate the battlefield, hopefully, that didn't involve troops. I remember, at the study we had a particularly nutty small group who were proposing barbed wire fences, with patrols that would have involved 78 divisions. Ours was an unmanned system. So we went to see Mr. McNamara and had lunch in his dining room.
Aaserud:"We" being the steering committee? Who are "we" in this context?
Lewis:I've forgotten who the exact participants were. Bill Nierenberg must certainly have been there; Gordon MacDonald must certainly have been there; I was there. I don't remember who else was there, but I do know that Bill has made a great effort to remember who was there, and he will have the exact names. I think MacDonald will also have the names. We told McNamara that we'd studied this for a little while during the summer. We were not convinced it was a good idea, but we thought it merited further study. Not in these words, but in effect, he said, "I've got a war on my hands. I'm not interested in further studies. If you think it might work, we'd better just do it." So the whole organization, which came to be known under the cover name of DCPG, was set up very secretly; nobody knew about it. It was given top priority by McNamara, and we did OK, because we predicted that it would cost a billion dollars and could be done in a year. I may be wrong about the numbers, but I think it came in in 13 months at a cost of 900 million. You know, nowadays toilet seats go for so much; that was pretty good stuff. So I think it was done technically very well, and in fact those sensors are still being used on the Mexican border. They really also worked very well. The problems were that it was not invented by the military services. It was not welcomed by the military services, neither the Army nor the Air Force. So in a sense as a system it didn't work well, but as a technical achievement it worked magnificently. The one place where it did contribute a great deal was, it saved the Marines who were encircled at Khe Sanh. General Cushman, who was in charge of the Third Marines at that time, later testified in Congress that "these scientists saved our ass" or something like that, because there's no question they would have been overrun if they had not had the sensors that we gave them. But that's a long and complex story. That was a deep involvement in which we were also involved with the really big shot wheelers and dealers from the East — from the Cambridge area — and that was in a sense a coming of age for JASON.
Aaserud:So the Vietnam involvement was an atypical effort for JASON.
Lewis:That was very unusual, because we were put into collaboration with the people from Cambridge — Jerry Zacharias, George Kistiakowski, Jerry Wiesner — the people who really had been manipulating Washington for many years. In a sense it was good because although we could do good technical work and they could not, they had the entree, which we did not have. We could not have gotten a luncheon with McNamara without those people's help. But on the other hand, that did involve a major JASON involvement in the war, which had not occurred before. In particular, when DCPG was set up, there was also formed a Scientific Advisory Committee for the project, and a number of us were on that. I don't remember exactly who in all honesty, but I was certainly on it from the beginning to the end. So we were participating directly for government in helping to do this thing. And all during this period, in the academic world, distaste for Vietnam had been developing. It was a lousy war — no question about it — and we did other things. We did a bombing study that was really, I thought, very good. Only a very small number of us were involved, and we demonstrated the bombing campaign against North Vietnam was doing more harm than good, in terms of winning the war; it was just a loser for us. That of course fell on deaf ears because nobody wanted to hear that. People by then were so embittered in Washington against the North Vietnamese, they really would have clobbered them without any good excuse. So that didn't work very well. That actually had a sad note, because when we finished that study, I think it was three of us who had an appointment with John McNaughton to tell him the results of the study and get them implemented. He was late for the appointment, so we called his office. His secretary said, "His airplane is overdue, and we fear there has been a problem." He was in fact killed with either one or two of his children in an airplane accident on his way to a meeting with us, which was a very sad event. But that report was one of these things of which two copies were made; it was very very closely held. I don't even know what its status is these days, but again, it really was to show that the bombing campaign was a loser. Anyway, JASONs became disabused. There were people who left JASON at that time because of the war, and it all came to a head at a famous meeting at Eglin Air Force base. I don't know whether others have told you that or not. I was chairman at the time. There were people who said, "We ought to all resign en masse. We ought to go tell the President to stop the war." And then, "If we threaten to resign, of course they'll stop the war." There's no limit to the ego of physicists. We had a sort of town meeting at Eglin Air Force base, I've forgotten what year it was. I led this bunch of prima donnas through a discussion of the war, which was interesting. I have no trouble chairing meetings — maybe that's one thing I do do well — and it ended up with a vote not to resign in a huff. But I was instructed to go as high in the Defense Department as I could go and tell them that JASON wanted the war stopped. So I said, "Well, I'm willing to do that; I have no problem with that position, as a matter of fact." So I went. I did not speak to the Secretary of Defense, but I met one level down, and explained why the war was a dumb idea. There was just no problem; they all agreed. You know, they knew it. These were really unhappy people caught in a dreadful situation. We interacted with all of them. It was simply dreadful. At the highest levels in government, people were desperate to find a way out of the war, but it was self-propelling. In a certain sense, you know, just as it took a Republican to end the war in Korea, it took a Republican to end the war in Vietnam, because it's something that a Democratic President could not have done without the world falling on top of him. He would have been accused of all sorts of things, but a Republican doesn't have that problem. You know, I'm a lifelong Democrat, and my first vote for President was cast for Franklin D. Roosevelt; that's a legacy you glom on to early and you stick with. But still it is true that it took Republicans in both those cases to stop the war. It could not have been done otherwise. But we always had an ambiguous position, and even during the latter part of the war, once we had decided not to disband, there were members of JASON who really did not want to work on that kind of thing. In fact, there were a couple of members for whom we made a dispensation who did not have to work on anything associated with national security until the crisis was over. They're friends, you know, and their consciences hurt.
Aaserud:Did people leave as a result of that air base meeting?
Lewis:No. I don't remember anybody resigning as a direct result of that.
Aaserud:But a few people did as a result of the war.
Lewis:A few people did during that period, and I understood perfectly well. Their consciences hurt. Strangely, some of the people who were under the greatest pressure at the time back in their home environment, were the toughest in sticking it out. These were hard times.
Aaserud:Did you have any exposure to that kind of thing, like student unrest?
Lewis:No, I didn't. Not in Santa Barbara.
Aaserud:I guess Columbia was the most affected.
Lewis:Columbia is the hotbed; that's right.
Aaserud:And Berkeley to some extent.
Lewis:That's correct. I did not have that. Hell, I was chairman of JASON and everybody knew it. I never kept it a secret. It's just that there wasn't that kind of agitation, and also I'm such a nice guy; how can anyone be mad at me?
Aaserud:I've spoken to some people who encountered that kind of reaction during foreign travel. Did that happen to you?
Lewis:No, that never happened to me. That happened I think to Sid Drell.
Aaserud:Yes, and Gell-Mann, I think.
Aaserud:Roger Dashen told me of an incident in India.
Lewis:OK, I believe that.
Aaserud:We've talked about members; we should talk about projects as well. Maybe we should start with the general question about how projects are selected — how that mechanism works and how it has worked.
Lewis:Through the steering committee. Well, in recent years, meaning the last decade or so, JASON has had a big Navy involvement which is generated on its own separately, but again I can speak most easily for the period when I was chairman.
Aaserud:Yes, please do that.
Lewis:In that case I think I've already described it. What we did was, we had on the steering committee people who knew what was important, and we sat down, made a list, and we simply promulgated it. Now, later, there came a much more formalized procedure, in which we actually started soliciting the government for suggestions. We never did that in the early days or during the whole period when I was chairman. But there was a tendency for the government to begin to take over the tasking of JASON, which happened just about the time I stepped down as chairman. People were circulating papers through all the divisions of ARPA and other agencies, saying, "What are you interested in JASON working on?" We'd get back these long long lists — which were not well thought through, and not really closely correlated with the sort of things that JASON can do — and then we were selecting out of that; but also there were always a la ge number of self-generated projects. During my chairmanship, it was all self- generated, or almost all self-generated.
Aaserud:Oh really? You must have had briefings and some connection with the agencies.
Lewis:Oh yes. Absolutely; we had briefings. We still have a fall and spring meeting, and the pattern has been to use the fall meeting for general education. That is, to learn about what's happening with things we're not working on, and to edge the spring meeting toward introductory briefings on the subjects that are going to be worked on during the summer. You always have to have pre-summer study meetings; even smart people can't come into a summer study cold and accomplish anything. In fact, one big change in JASON since its beginning 25 or 26 years ago, is that the government has become much more competent than it was in those days; that affects what you can do constructively. In those days, anything you did technically was a major contribution. Nowadays not only is the government more competent, but also its contractors are more com- petent, so there are very few things you can think of doing that really somebody hasn't already done. Even so, you do have to select your own projects according to what you can do in a summer study. The advantage JASON had when I was chairman — and still has to some extent — is, you are smarter than the other people, and so you can make up for a lot that way, but you do need previous discussion. For example, I'm on the Defense Science Board now, and we're going to have a summer study in Colorado Springs in three weeks or something like that. We've had four meetings just to prepare for the summer study, but the DSB summer study is only two weeks long. You virtually have to come in with the problems essentially solved, in order to make that work.
Aaserud:That's similar work to what's done in JASON?
Aaserud:So essentially even if the problems were decided on by JASONs themselves, they were decided on on the basis of suggestions from the agencies?
Lewis:No, there were never suggestions, except that we spoke to those people. As I say, when I was chairman, we made sure that every member of the steering committee had his finger on the Washington scene — a bad metaphor — so we really knew everything that was important. Later, when that stopped being the case, we began to have people on the steering com- mittee whose only knowledge of the Washington scene was through JASON, and you can't use that so well. Then we started appointing individuals to be liaisons with the various agencies; somebody would be liaison for ARPA and it was his job to go see the people at ARPA from time to time and say, "What's new around here?" That, you know, helped a great deal, although people had a tendency not to take that liaison job as seriously as they should, and there are other mechanisms that have been used. During that period we also began to get direct suggestions from government.
Aaserud:It was on the basis of a sense of what was needed, more than on the basis of any specific suggestion.
Lewis:That's right. For example, when we did the Vietnam thing, there was certainly no request from the government to work on that.
Aaserud:They didn't look over your shoulder while doing the project either; it was choosing a project, doing it, and presenting it.
Lewis:Yes, that's right.
Aaserud:And the presentation of those projects took place at the end of the summer meeting, right?
Lewis:Yes, that's right.
Aaserud:When they were published as well, of course.
Lewis:Yes, that's right; reports were written.
Aaserud:Classified and unclassified. So the connection with the agency was rather loose, then, during your tenure.
Lewis:Yes, it was.
Aaserud:And that worked well. You still thought that you had a strong input. One might think when you have a very independent way of choosing projects, the input would be less, because the relevance wouldn't be seen as as high — but that wasn't the case?
Lewis:I don't know what you mean by input — from us to them, or them to us?
Aaserud:From you to them.
Lewis:Oh, I think that we were effective. That is to say, in the very early days, we actually solved problems that they couldn't solve; then that became harder and harder to do. We had, in many ways, an influence which was disproportionate to what our real contribution was, because we were as a group very well respected. There was one episode in which three of us went out to Kwajalein where the ballistic missile test facilities were. We were shooting into the lagoon at Kwajalein, testing reentry physics and making measurements. I remember, we made some really not well considered comments when we got back; we found that major programs had been redirected on the basis of these. We weren't wrong, but we had no idea that they would take them that seriously. So I think we were taken very seriously.
Aaserud:My point was just that when they didn't ask for the projects, they had to decide not only on their technical validity, but also on their relevance to their project.
Lewis:That's right. My feeling, on all advisory committees I'm on, is that half the job of an advisory committee is to tell the people you're advising what they should be interested in. You know, you're not a good advisory committee if you go to the director of an agency and ask him, "What do you need help on today?" — because he can get help.
Aaserud:But that presupposes a very large element of trust, which you had. What would you consider the main projects during your tenure — particularly the ones you were involved in yourself, of course — to the extent that you can talk about that?
Lewis:Well, there's obviously a constraint, but I think the biggest single thing we did was the barrier project in Vietnam. I think before that, we made really major contributions to reentry physics, and to the whole ABM question at a technical level. We also were the central focus for many years on the subject of relativistic particle beams and particle beam weapons — the feasibility thereof or not. And the Navy group has of course had a major influence on the Navy. But if you try to evaluate in terms of projects started or projects cancelled, I always used to tell people that we ought to drop all our financing, and simply take a cut of 10 percent of every project either started or stopped by our influence; then we'd be rolling in wealth. Of course, that doesn't work. But the biggest single one was the billion dollars that went into the barrier project, plus the technical influence that we exerted all through the project in bringing it to fruition; that was certainly the single biggest thing. Then there was lasers; when we first studied lasers, I remember Norman Kroll was our focal point on that. We pointed out that you really could have a megawatt laser, and the system was very responsive. There were real contributions to the project, but the group has drifted — partly because the contractors and the government have become better — more into a critical role and less into a productive or innovative role. I think that probably was inevitable. One can talk about the extent to which it was inevitable and the extent to which it's happened. I think the barrier was certainly the top one.
Aaserud:Your own involvement — you were involved in that of course.
Lewis:Oh sure. I was involved in that, and I was involved in many things.
Aaserud:I'm asking in part because I think I should have a good handle on at least one project or series of projects, to be able to deal with JASON during the first ten to fifteen years which I intend to write about. Of course, it's not only a question of the most important project; it's also a question of what I can get access to.
Lewis:Oh, most of the things that were published then have been declassified. We've always tried to make things the lowest classification consistent with national security; I've certainly always tried to do that. Sometimes you can write a thing unclassified with a classified appendix, and that helps. But as I say, the bombing campaign evaluation was extremely ensitive at the time and is probably still. On the other hand, all the things we wrote about particle beam instabilities were done unclassified, nd that was a major part of the activity for a while. Most of the things that were written on reentry physics were unclassified at the time. Things only become classified when they deal with specific military projects, functions or weapons; the technology tends not to be classified. Just off the top of my head, the things I remember from those early days, are the barrier program, the laser involvement, the particle beam involvement, and reentry physics; those were the central themes in those days. Then later there developed the major Navy involvement. It's no secret that I thought that was a bad thing for JASON, because it split the group in half, Navy versus non-Navy. I thought that was a terrible mistake at the time. I still think it was a terrible mistake. It took away the coherence that was really our hallmark. We tried very hard to get everybody cleared to approximately the same level, so that we wouldn't have internal compartmentalization. When JASON was first formed, everybody was cleared to the Secret level. We discovered within one year that that was not enough, so we got everybody cleared to the Top Secret level. Now, in terms of higher clearances, I think for a while — probably still now — we had the biggest concentration of highly cleared people outside of government itself, which was very good. But I was just involved in many things. I sort of did what came to hand. I'm not being evasive; I just don't remember any impressive list.
Aaserud:Would either of those projects you mentioned be typical of the JASON activity?
Lewis:Those are typical of JASON projects. We've done other things. In recent years we've done civilian things. We've done carbon dioxide and that sort of thing. And those tend to be typical JASON projects. A group of people commit themselves to work the summer on that. There's also a lot of multiplex things. People will sign up for three or four things and go back and forth between them. So it's a floating crap game, to some extent.
Aaserud:We talked in general terms about the relationship of work in JASON with academic physics. To what extent has that been the case with you?
Lewis:It's certainly intersected my professional life. You can't separate a way in which you've spent a major part of your intellectual activity for 20 years from what you know and do; they're so closely interrelated; there's no question. The kinds of physics that I'm interested in are certainly related to the things I find interesting in the outside world. I'm not, you know, a standard type physicist. That is to say, I haven't made a career built on the rheology of high density hydrocarbons or anything; I'm picking a ridiculous example, because I've always just been very rambling and disparate and unfocused, and still am. As a matter of fact, in recent years — the last half dozen or so — I've been so involved in things that I do on the outside, I've done damn little physics at home. Yet the last few things I've published, in the last two or three years, have all been on subjects that came up because of my involvement in nuclear safety, which is, you know, actually a dominant part of my life these days. You know, in a sense, there's an example. In 1974 — 12 years ago — the Physical Society decided to do something of social benefit. Those were the days when people wanted to do things of social benefit. As you get older, you see these things come and go, and you become a little more whimsical than you used to be. In the loyalty oath days I was very concentrated on that, but now I've seen that come and go and I have a better sense of history. In 1974, the Physical Society decided to do something socially useful. Up to then, the way I usually put it, all it had done was to guarantee that at Physical Society meetings all the talks you're interested in happen at the same time in different buildings. They did that with consummate skill; it must have been computerized. But they decided to do something, and they picked reactor safety as the first example of such a subject. I knew nothing about reactors, you know. Any physicist knows that a reactor is a chain reaction, and very few physicists know much more beyond that. I certainly did not know anything. Anyway, they decided to run a project on reactor safety — the first time ever that something like this had been done — and they asked me to chair it. Knowing nothing about the subject, why did they ask me to chair it? Because the then president of the Physical Society was Pief Panofsky, and everybody knew me; they knew I knew how to chair things, and so they asked me to do it. I usually tell people they threw darts at a board; it's the only way they could possibly miss. I too was interested in doing something of social relevance. But the fact that I was chosen clearly had to do with the fact that everybody knew me through all these other government committees I'd been working on. I did that for the Physical Society, and we produced what I consider to be an excellent report. This was long before Three Mile Island, but by God, Three Mile Island is in that report, which we issued in 1975. Four years earlier, we said, "You should pay attention to these things which have more potential of making an accident than the kind of dumb things that you've been working on." But it was a direct result of the other thing. It affected my academic life to the extent that running a project for the American Physical Society is academic. Then I became interested in that subject, and I was asked to chair a new committee on reactor safety two years later, directly for the government, which I did. I think we produced a good report. Then Three Mile Island came along, and the Kemeny Commission recommended that there be a nuclear safety oversight committee, which the President — it was President Carter, if you remember back that far — appointed. He made me a member of that, so I was on the President's Nuclear Safety Oversight Committee; here's somebody who didn't know anything about reactors five years earlier. I was put on the NSOC — a really good committee. We had five members. It was chaired by Bruce Babbit, who was governor of Arizona, and really a first class guy — I hope he becomes President some day — Murph Goldberger, and Murph never came; Pat Haggerty, who was Chairman of the Board of Texas Instruments, and died while we were on it; and John Deutch, who was provost at MIT; and me; it was a good group. We ended up with three working members. Then one thing led to another. I'm now on another advisory committee, but the result is that the things I've published the last three or four years have been on technical problems that came up in connection with reactor safety. I've also become, I consider, the world's leading expert on statistics, because it has turned out that nobody understands statistics, including physicists. It's really a deep subject, so here's a way in which the government involvement led to a technical involvement which led to an academic involvement which led to publishing papers.
Aaserud:JASON as an interdisciplinary experience — you mentioned that it was broadening?
Lewis:Yes. We tried that. Early on, we tried to bring chemists in. It never really worked, in part because one of the great strengths of JASON was its coherence; the fact that we all spoke the same language and knew each other professionally meant that there was no getting acquainted period when we worked on something. We could quickly get together. Everyone knew what everyone else knew, and it was possible to start immediately. We had trouble bringing in any chemists who could speak our language and interact with us. We went through a few tries, and it didn't work very well. Then, especially during Vietnam — the beginning of that period — it was suggested that we bring in some — I won't say sociologists, because that was in fact never suggested — political scientists or historians. It was never really followed up. It just didn't work. It's bad enough to have, as it now is, a collection of people whose expertise is in many different branches of physics, and who in turn don't really speak to each other very well. In that sense, we were really much better off in 1960 when it first began, because that was early enough in the postwar history of physics so that we really did all know more than one subject. It was beginning to end, but still it was true that a physicist was a physicist. There were no Fermis and Bethes — you know, people who know everything — but still, there was some of that legacy left. That's just completely gone now.
Aaserud:To what extent is that making JASON an anachronism at this time?
Lewis:To some extent, JASON is an anachronism at this time. I don't want to be a critic of JASON because I love the organization and devoted a good share of my professional life to it. I do a lot of government work now, but directly for the government. I'm on lots of different specifically government advisory committees. In that sense, that began way back when I joined JASON. It began actually before that, but it was certainly nurtured during that period. I like the organization. But it has changed in many ways. It is certainly true that the government is better than it used to be. It doesn't need the kind of help that we were able to give it in the early days. It's also true that physics is a more broken up subject than it was then. Then we could be quite confident that if you picked a Steve Weinberg to join — you know him — it's going to be a winner because it just is; nowadays you can find somebody who is really the world's leading hot shot in some branch of solid state physics, and you don't really know whether he'll be particularly good — he may not be. In fact, we always had trouble bringing in solid state physicists; we never found any that were up to what we thought our quality standards were. In fact, that's because the people who went into solid state physics — with notable exceptions, of which Phil Anderson is an outstanding example — for the most part really weren't as good as the people who went into high energy physics. So it's now harder to select. It's hard to fire people; it really is. It's a congenial group. And in that sense, it is an anachronism. It's not as coherent as it used to be. It's much more tightly coupled to government than it used to be. In all honesty, it's no longer — with me as an exception — the couple of dozen really best physicists in the country. There are lots of really fine physicists who are not members of JASON, either because they've not been asked or because they don't have the time or whatever. Yet, on balance, I think it's good to continue the organization. But it doesn't have the uniqueness and unique value that it did early on — but then, what does?
Aaserud:Was that part of your decision to leave, that kind of reaction?
Lewis:I just became so deeply involved in other government things — things I was doing directly. Now I really spend half my time on nuclear safety. I just came back from the plant in Hanford — the one that's so close to the one at Chernobyl; it's very similar. After Chernobyl the Secretary of Energy asked six people to say what could be done about the plant at Hanford in the light of Chernobyl. Of course, it's also uncontained, and it's a graphite moderated, light water cooled reactor. I'm one of those six people, and I went up and spent a few days there. Then this coming week I'll have two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, on defense related things, but starting at noon on Wednesday through Saturday night, I'll be working on nuclear safety issues; I'm vice chairman of the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards. So I just have a lot of things to do. My cup runneth over, as the saying goes. And I've been in JASON for 25 years.
Aaserud:You've found more useful activity, perhaps.
Lewis:Well, it's more directly coupled. I have an enormous amount of direct influence on government through those roles; I really do.
Aaserud:To go back to JASON a little bit — technical tasks versus general policy tasks. We spoke about Vietnam, and the usefulness or lack of usefulness of the bombing study. That struck me as at least bordering on a policy study.
Lewis:Except it was done as a technical study; it was done by a least upper bound technique. That is to say, we sat down and we devised the best possible bombing strategy — which was not the one that was in use at the time — and asked whether that was a net gain. It turned out it wasn't a net gain. We thought that would be persuasive, but logic doesn't always prevail in these matters. But it was not policy. JASON has often been accused of interfering with policy, and I don't think that's fair. I think it's a bum rap. But technical facts influence policy, in the end. Nobody has ever, in my memory, come to JASON and said, "Should we start a war or shouldn't we start a war?" Or even, "What should the limits we negotiate in arms control be?" There have been studies in arms control about the implications of the various limits, about the many arms control studies that have to do with verification issues, and things like that. They certainly lead to policy decisions, sometimes inexorably, but it's not directly policy.
Aaserud:Have you participated in some discussion in JASON on whether JASON should be implicated in more policy related studies?
Lewis:I don't remember anything of that kind. There's always a tendency when young people come in. Young inexperienced people do want to change the world, and are more intereested in working on policy questions than on technical questions. Certainly, when I was chairman and for a while after, we used to have a flat rule that you have to earn your spurs; you have to earn an influence on policy before you get it. So we made people work on technical problems. But it's really a low key thing. I don't recall any times when policy has been an objective, or where people have asked policy questions. For God's sake, inventing the barrier had a major effect on US policy in the area, but that wasn't what it was done for.
Aaserud:When I spoke to Goldberger, he was frustrated about the use of the barrier — that it was used for a different purpose or in a different way than it was intended for.
Lewis:We were all angry about that. Of course we were. One of the frustrations was, people said, "You give those bastards a weapon and you can't control what they do with it," and that's absolutely true. You're not in charge of the country. In fact, it was used badly in many ways. It was not given the magnitude of the technical achievement, which was substantial; it was not put to good use for the purpose we had in mind, which was to isolate the battlefield. There are many reasons for that. That's a whole other subject, a very long subject. But technically, these things radiated up to a relay aircraft, and then to the listening post, which was then very very secret, but now everybody knows about it. This was Task Force Alpha, which was at Nakong Pnomh which was a base right across the Mekong from Vietnam. People tended to not be believers in this thing, but we'd send them over to visit Nakong Pnomh. They'd sit in the task force headquarters and put on earphones. They could listen to North Vietnamese truck drivers after they had parked for the night, talking about what their experience had been during the day and how they had been bombed — "We lost four trucks." They'd listen to that and they'd become believers. You were able to listen to the bad guys — if you thought they were bad guys — and people came away from that very well impressed. In terms of the way the technology was promised, it worked out very well. But it's absolutely true, it wasn't used with the objective of ending the war in the clean way that we wanted to end it, and it was not even used well by the military people, except this specific case in Khe Sanh. You can now go to the Mexican border. I've done it. I went down — not recently, seven or eight years ago, maybe ten — and patrolled the Mexican border with the border patrol and saw what use they were making of these gadgets. They're wonderful. They can detect anybody coming across the border. But there are so many coming that they don't have any way of collecting them.
Aaserud:So you can count, but you can't collect.
Lewis:It's a different problem.
Aaserud:So indirectly science policy concerns might be a consideration in the choice of technical problems.
Lewis:Oh yes. That's right. Well, let me back off a bit. It is true in the sense that people who are interested in studying technical problems may be influenced by the role that they play in policy debates within Washington. There's no question that we did studies on small missiles, and that was clearly a center of political debate in Washington. As I say, we did studies on verification. We've done several studies on missile basing technologies, but you know perfectly well in your heart that missile basing technology is not just a technological subject. And so of course you have in mind the influence it will have.
Aaserud:Has there ever been, or is there, a discussion on those terms within JASON?
Lewis:Some of these people are more sophisticated than others. Of course. You put people together, and they will talk about the broader implications. There are many policy debates, either over a drink or over lunch or even sitting at work, you know.
Aaserud:Any particular instance that you could point to?
Lewis:During this whole period on how to base missiles — the whole business of the missile race, which we began studying in JASON in the early days with the so-called missile gap — there's been constant discussion of these things. Some people are more deeply involved than others. Sid Drell is very deeply involved. Sid is a dear friend; we often differ about things, but he's a dear friend. When Sid was all agitated about the race- track basing scheme, he got mad et me because I wouldn't join him at the barricades to block it. I said, "Sid, I have confidence in my country. I know we will never turn a spade full of dirt to start building that system. It will die somewhere for some reason. We don't do dumb things like that." Of course, it turned out to be the case. He wasted all his time fighting it. But things like that don't happen; we're a crazy country, but we're not that crazy!
Aaserud:He might say that he played a role in the discontinuation of it.
Lewis:Well, he would certainly say that. He will say that; I don't believe it for a minute. I just know we would never have done it. If it ever got any farther than it did get, more powerful forces than we would have gone in to block it.
Aaserud:What is the purpose of JASON, then?
Lewis:Well, it helps. Every little bit helps.
Aaserud:There's the question of secrecy and clearance, which is something that physicists and academics of course are usually not concerned with. Is that a cause of conflict?
Lewis:No. Everyone in JASON has to be cleared Top Secret. It's just a rule. We can't function otherwise. I don't know of any case in which we proposed somebody for Top Secret clearance, in which he did not get it. Some people take longer than others, but nobody has not got it. It's not the McCarthy era any more. In those days it was uncertain, but that's not true any more. So I don't think it's been an issue within JASON, through the Top Secret level. I don't want to be mean, but there's always an element of jealousy when you form a group to which others can't have access. This applies to clubs; people on the outside of clubs want to be in the club, and they usually invent a rationale for their position. In a sense, there's a lot of jealousy involved, and that's inevitable; it's unfortunate, but it's there. But in terms of the functioning of the group and in terms of people being able to get their clearances, it just hasn't been a problem since the beginning. People are different. Some people are proud of being cleared. Others don't give a damn. But nowadays in this country, it's really true that anybody can get cleared. It's really very good. Before the clearance procedures were instituted — which I'm told was somewhere between World War I and World War II, that's before even my time — it was assumed that if you were an American citizen, you were loyal. Then they began to develop this enormous structure of clearances, but it's gone back to the point where, although you have this enormous structure, it's still true that more or less anybody can get cleared. In fact, there are too many people who are cleared nowadays. Everyone knows that.
Aaserud:Of course, you have had some instances of JASONs being, I wouldn't say too outspoken, but outspoken about issues relating to their work in JASON. I guess Dick Garwin is a case in point.
Lewis:Sure. Dick is certainly outspoken. He's a very angry man these days. And I don't believe that Dick has ever violated any security constraints. Nobody has accused him of that. But he's certainly very outspoken. He speaks his piece. I think that in Dick's case — in recent years in particular, in connection with SDI or Star Wars as you prefer — he's let his concern about what the system represents in terms of the international structure come to dominate his technical handling of the specific issues that he's dealt with. I think that's very unfortunate because he's one of the best of all possible people, but he certainly is very very angry about that.
Aaserud:But to what extent does that affect JASON and JASON work? Of course he's criticized by contractors, by people he's working for.
Aaserud:On the other hand, I would guess JASONs would be loyal to him as long as there was no indication of a security leak.
Lewis:Oh, I think so. It just hasn't come to a crunch, but I think they would. I certainly would. As long as he honors his security commitments, I think he's a free man. We all are. We all say lots of things publicly that people back at the store don't like. But he certainly is an extreme case in that regard. I think that if, for example, the Secretary of Defense were to send down a directive to JASON saying, "Fire Garwin or go out of business," people would rally around him. Again, if I were still a member of the group, I would. He's an honorable man.
Aaserud:I'm sure you had discussions within JASON about this.
Lewis:Oh, sure. Of course. Of course. Well, you know, every member affects the reputation of the group.
Aaserud:But generally the inclination of the JASONs has been to stay out of the public eye.
Lewis:I think most JASONs have preferred to stay out of the public eye. You cannot quarrel with somebody who feels strongly about something, if he wants to do something about it. During the days of the great ABM debate, there were a number of JASONs who participated very actively in the open debate on ABM — and testified. We all testified from time to time, and there's no problem.
Aaserud:The testifying business too is a case in point, of course. You talked about jealousy before; are there specific instances of conflicts between JASONs and the larger physics community in that sense?
Lewis:Not the larger physics community, no. There may be, but I don" know of them.
Aaserud:Of course, there could be individual instances of some people seeking entry or something like that.
Lewis:Sure. That's right. There's for example Charlie Schwartz of Berkeley who's a pain in everybody's neck. Charlie hates JASON, he hates all of us, and that's something we accept as a part of life. But Charlie does not represent the physics community.
Aaserud:At some point there was SESPA of course, but that's all gone.
Lewis:SESPA's gone. And it was never a large organization.
Aaserud:I thought Schwartz was more positively inclined at the beginning, and that this was a result of later developments like Vietnam.
Lewis:I don't know. I don't remember when it began. I was going to say something nasty, but I'll not do that.
Aaserud:I thought he participated in an early summer study, but maybe was not JASON. I'll leave that. We talked about the uniqueness of JASON, and you said that it had become less unique in time.
Lewis:I think that's right.
Aaserud:As the government has become more sophisticated.
Lewis:It's also a bigger group.
Aaserud:Oh, has it been increased?
Lewis:There must be 40 members now, and there used to be 20 when it began, so it's gradually grown.
Aaserud:But I understood that it grew pretty quickly to about 40.
Lewis:I don't remember the growth curve.
Aaserud:It was smaller when you were chairman?
Lewis:It's bigger now than it was when I was chairman, but I don't remember the exact numbers.
Aaserud:A very large number of JASONs and the founding fathers were theoretical physicists.
Lewis:Yes, that's right. They all were. There are one or two exceptions. We had a token engineer.
Aaserud:Is that because theoretical physicists are especially suited for the task, or is it more by chance?
Lewis:It's a combination. The group that started it were theoretical physicists. They knew theoretical physicists. Theoretical physicists, again with notable exceptions of which I am one, tended to be very smart people, able to work on a variety of new problems. The emphasis was always not on what you knew when you came in, but on whether you could work on a new problem. We didn't try to go get — I keep using rheology, but you know what I mean — experts in rheology because we had a shortfall in rheology. There was none of that. We tried to get smart people, and theorists tend to be more versatile — and the problems we were dealing with were theoretical. JASON has done one experiment, I think, in its history, maybe two; I remember two.
Aaserud:Which were done not on JASON premises, of course; they were probably done at some laboratory somewhere.
Lewis:The one I remember most vividly takes a little bit of saying. Do you remember the great fuss about the Hanbury-Brown-Twiss methods for measuring sizes of stars and things like that? There were many physicists who had trouble understanding it. It was really invented by radio astronomers, and was couched in non-quantum mechanical language. There was a series of wonderful papers published in which people said that this thing can't work because it violates the first principles of quantum mechanics. Ed Purcell published an absolutely beautiful little note, saying that it was a beautiful illustration of the first principles of quantum mechanics — and that was a minor flurry. Anyway, we all got to know about Hanbury- Brown-Twiss. In fact, I gave a lecture about that in South Africa one summer, so it does all hang together. But we decided that one could use these techniques with radar to measure the size of a reentry vehicle, which is one of the most important things if you're going to do ballistic missile defense. Goldberger, Watson, and I collaborated on that subject. We wrote a series of papers — reports really — showing how it could be used for this purpose, and nobody believed us. The government simply didn't believe us. So we thought we had to do an experiment. By God, we got an old radar set from SRI, and we sent some poor physicist out on a hillside nearby with two corner reflectors in his arms. He'd hold them close together, and we'd measure how far apart they were. He was a reentry vehicle for the purposes of this experiment. It's the kind of very simple experiment physicists will do that makes the principle clear. That was an experiment I remember.
Aaserud:Like Feynman recently.
Lewis:The 0 rings, the famous 0 rings.
Aaserud:JASON as a springboard for other activities — it has affected different people differently, of course.
Aaserud:Drell might be a particularly good case of a person going through JASON into serious policy involvement.
Lewis:Absolutely. Absolutely. He was not a charter member. We brought him in later. He's a good guy. He branched out into other things. There are many people who did.
Aaserud:Most people certainly have maintained a stronger connection with academic work, and are members of JASON precisely because it allows that kind of combination, I think.
Lewis:Yes, that's right.
Aaserud:You might be a case in between there somewhere.
Lewis:I think I'm a rather extreme case, actually — not in between. I don't know whether springboard is the word to use, because I was involved in these things before JASON was formed. But I've gradually simply become very very deeply involved in government work; a bigger fraction of my time than of nearly anybody else's time goes into government connections.
Aaserud:But you wouldn't consider JASON the source of that. It's not that simple.
Lewis:No. In some cases, yes, and in some, no. Some committees I'm on, yes, and some, no. Probably when I was first appointed to the Defense Science Board it was because they knew me through JASON. On the other hand, my involvement with the nuclear safety stuff really has very little to do with JASON.
Aaserud:What have your other activities been in this respect, in advising science policy?
Lewis:As I told you, I've gotten very much involved in the nuclear safety game.
Aaserud:That was the APS study.
Lewis:Well, that's what started it. Now it's directly government. This last thing — the Chernobyl thing — is a straightforward example, and I've done a number of things I can't tell the tape about. But I've been on the Defense Science Board for many years, and that's sort of open. I was on the Ballistic Missile Defense Advisory Committee. I was on the CTR Standing Committee, which was the advisory committee that was running the peaceful fusion project.
Aaserud:The Defense Science Board — when did that start?
Lewis:Probably a dozen years ago or something like that. And gosh, I've been on an ACDA advisory committee. I've chaired several things for OTA, the Office of Technology Assessment. I'm just sort of rambling around in my memory. Well, I'm probably forgetting things, but there have just been a batch of things happening.
Aaserud:All of these are post-JASON to a significant extent.
Lewis:Well, they're extra-JASON, they're not post-JASON. They're post the start of JASON.
Aaserud:That's what I mean. To what extent was JASON an inroad to these things?
Lewis:Well, to the extent that it was an important part of my professional development. How can one say?
Aaserud:I was thinking in terms of establishing connections, for example, with government people.
Lewis:Oh yes, unquestionably. You know, you get to know everybody. Also as you get older your students become important. They remember you. The guy who's now Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering is a former student of mine. I didn't remember him, but he remembered me.
Aaserud:The last and crucial question — or at least one crucial question — is the impact of JASON.
Lewis:You mean around the world?
Aaserud:Well, both on the country — on national security decisions — and on the physics community, but I was thinking more about the former. We could discuss that perhaps in relation to your other involvements as well, for comparative purposes — the impact of JASON as compared with others.
Lewis:OK. You'd better lead me because I'm not quite sure what you're aiming at. You'd better ask questions.
Aaserud:To what extent has JASON made a difference in national security matters?
Lewis:I think it has in all three ways that I described in the beginning. That is to say, there have been some specific cases in which problems have been solved within JASON that were not being solved outside. Projects were initiated — the barrier is again the classic example, but there are others. It has certainly served to bring into contact with national security issues a whole cadre of people who would not otherwise have been there. To the extent that these people proliferate through the system, and are used in an advisory capacity by other people, and also to the extent they meet people in government and therefore are free to call them up when they want to, and the other way around, that has a substantial influence. So bringing people in, solving problems — those have all worked. Then the third kind of impact, of course, is part of what I said at first, namely, that it is a group of people who have been used in other advisory capacities throughout government. These are people who would not have been in the business if it weren't for JASON. You have to remember that one of the reasons JASON was formed was that in 1960 — and really a little bit before 1960 — the war had been over for more than ten years, and we noticed that all the people who were involved in government advising were people who had served in one way or other during the war. There were no new people added. That is, the community was an aging community. Age is inevitable, so an important point was to find a self-replicating mechanism. In that sense I think it's been very successful. So I think JASON has had a substantial impact. Now, one can ask whether it's been worth what the overall budget is. You know, now you can't buy a small airplane for what the budget over all these years has been. So I think it's been worth it.
Aaserud:The impact has probably varied over the years.
Lewis:Oh yes, it certainly has. There have been more influential years and less, and of course I wouldn't be treating my generation right if I didn't say that my perception is that the influence was greater in the earlier years, and that it's become dissipated. But again — just being repetitious — that's a natural process because the government itself has become more mature in these days. It really is true that nowadays, if you want to find the best expert on high power lasers, you don't go to JASON; you go to one of the companies that builds high power lasers. They have good people there. That just wasn't true in the early days. If you want to find the best academic expert — that's another matter — then you come to JASON. Now Norman Kroll has left JASON so that may not be true either.
Aaserud:That wasn't too long ago anyway, but of course he's not a member of JASON any more. What has been the reasons for changing the impact? Has it been changing administrations, lower level organizations, individual DDR&Es?
Lewis:DDR&Es come and go. As I say, the current one is a person I know very well. But I think, again being repetitious, it is a combination of things. The government has gotten better. Problems are more complicated too. It's a lousier world than it was even in those days. Some of the people in JASON are less worldly than they were; that is, they're not as proliferated through government. Government has changed by becoming a little less perceptive. When there was a PSAC and during the Kennedy Administration, scientists were welcome in government. That sort of stopped during the Nixon Administration, and it really hasn't been true since. In fact, the present effort to reconstitute PSAC — the White House Science Council — is not a very academic group. Some of them are fine people, but it's not a very academic group. The receptivity has gone down. I think it's fair to say that the reception of intellectuals who are not physicists is worse than it used to be. 1m not picking on Reagan; it's just a trend that has developed. The impact has changed both in terms of the predilections and capability of the people in JASON, its size, the variety of things that it does, the lack of the direct involvement with counterparts in government — there is no Charlie Townes as Vice President of IDA, for example, as a person who's a direct link. Government is less receptive and more capable. So it's inevitable, I think, that the impact has decreased.
Aaserud:Is there any point in time that you could set for the government becoming more sophisticated in this, or is it entirely a gradual thing?
Lewis:It's been evolutionary. I think it's been evolutionary. I don't think there's any particular period in time. The country has been changing.
Aaserud:A lot of people have pointed to the demise of PSAC as a crucial thing.
Lewis:I think that was a symptom rather than a cause. That was a watershed, in the sense that it denied scientists direct entree into the White House, except that it really didn't. PSAC may have gone away, but there was then again a Science Advisor and one could talk to a Science Advisor. I've known all the Science Advisors, you know, in linkage from the beginning to the end. There happens not to be one right now, but we've always — at least I've always felt I had — had an entree in there. I didn't know Jay Keyworth when he came on the job. I'd never met him before. I was introduced to him immediately, and I went over and talked to him about lots of things — policy things if you like — and had that entree. So the loss of a PSAC was an event that was an event, but it wasn't a cataclysm. But it did reflect the President's fury with PSAC, and everyone blames Dick for having done this, and Dick played a very important role in bringing this fury down on him. It's a very funny thing. An advisory committee is an advisory committee, and people don't have to take your advice, but you do get very angry if you give good advice and they don't take it. You're naturally outraged, and the people on PSAC, and I think most of us feel we give good advice, and then somehow it's the duty of people to take that advice. I've had an episode with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the last six months that's made me furious. In fact, I testified on the Hill about it four weeks ago in Washington. I went public with it because I was so angry, and I'm sure somebody's very mad at me back there. In January of this year we're running an international conference on nuclear safety in Wisconsin. In January of this year, since we had invited the French, the Germans, the Japanese — the normal people we speak to on this — it occurred to me it would be a great idea to invite the Russians. After all, they have a big nuclear program, and we never see them on these things. I approached the Soviet embassy in Washington and spoke to the Science Attache, and they said, yes, they'd be interested. I talked to the State Department, and they said, "Oh, that's a great idea." Everything was arranged, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said, "No, we don't want the Russians at that conference." I yelled at them furiously, I thought it was a good idea, and they were absolutely firm, adamant. They did have in the end to issue the invitation, so I couldn't do anything. I was livid with rage, and as I say I did go public with it. Then came Chernobyl, and Chernobyl did two things. One is, it proved I was right in the first place, which was gratifying, though it's a high price to pay for being proved right; the other is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission then began grudgingly to think maybe there might be some sense in interacting with the Russians. So after five months, the invitation finally went out about two weeks ago to the Soviet Academy, for God's sake. The Russians had been eager. My Russian contact at the embassy phoned me the day after Chernobyl, saying, "I want to tell you, we're still interested in coming." Everything was fine except for the NRC. You do get angry when people don't take your advice.
Aaserud:But in this case, you won out in the end.
Lewis:In the end, but at the price of a very expensive accident.
Aaserud:So you think that was the cause of the change of position.
Lewis:Oh yes. I would have lost, had it not been for that. "How many divisions does the Pope have?" we used to say. I have no divisions; I was just right, and that isn't enough.
Aaserud:In measuring the impact of JASON on national security decisions, I obviously have to go outside JASON.
Aaserud:Where should I go — especially during your period of chairmanship of course? Which are the people you interacted with that would give me an idea?
Lewis:Talk to Charlie Townes, certainly. Charlie has a good sense; he's a softspoken guy, but he knows what happened. I guess I would talk to Johnny Foster. I think he would be a natural person to talk to because he was DDR&E during that period. To get another side of the story, talk to Eb Rechtin who was the guy who succeeded Johnny at the Pentagon. He's president of Aerospace nowadays. I would talk to Eb, and I would talk to every DDR&E — all of them, a whole string of them; get the list and talk to them.
Aaserud:There's not that many after all.
Lewis:No, it's not that many; if you can get to them, it's worth doing. As far as Secretaries of Defense themselves —
Lewis:Of course Harold Brown knew about the existence of JASON, and Jim Schlesinger did. I've done some things for Jim when he was Secretary of Defense, and also in his other jobs. But he won't know much about it. The one who would know of course is Harold who is again a physicist. I doubt that Cap Weinberger knows that JASON exists.
Aaserud:McNamara of course.
Lewis:Sure, you can talk to McNamara, because he will remember the barrier. But I think mostly the DDR&Es are the ones to measure the impact.
Aaserud:They're the closest continuous contact.
Lewis:The others are, again, the succession of Science Advisors to the President. You can't talk to Kistie now unless you have connections I don't know about. But again, most of them — Frank Press, for example — knows perfectly well about JASON. Frank and I — long before he became Science Advisor — worked on any number of things that had to do with detection of underground testing. Now, there's a policy related thing which is still a technical issue which we worked on in the past. I would generally go to the big shots in government who interacted with JASON, and not get it from us.
Aaserud:I'll get your point of view too, of course, but I should have it from both sides, at any rate.
Sure, that's right.