Oral History Transcript — Dr. Francis Low
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Francis Low; April 26, 1986
ABSTRACT: Motivations for joining JASON (Kenneth Watson); previous consulting work; opinion about work in JASON; collaboration with Sam Treiman; reasons for quitting JASON. JASON's relationship with contractors; divisions within JASON; assignments of projects; generations of JASONs; Novel prizes to JASON members; Vietnam involvement; Sidney Drell as policy analyst; classification constraints; political views in JASON; levels of clearance; impact.
Aaserud:I received, of course, your list of publications. Do you have other kinds of publications in connection with JASON or other science policy activities — reports and things like that?
Low:No. I was on three of ERDA, or maybe early DOE, committees — special committees which looked into new accelerators. I forget what they were called. The first one was chaired by Viki Weisskopf here. The second one was chaired by me, and that one I think was 1975. That was the one that recommended Isabel, which then turned out to be a total failure. And finally, HEPAP. So there was that committee which I chaired, and there was the report of the committee. Then there was the Weisskopf Committee the year before, and then a couple of years later there was one chaired by Jack Sandweiss. I'm very bad at CV's and things. You know that most people have lists of the talks they've given everywhere in the world. I'm just bad at it.
Aaserud:Well, it varies a lot.
Low:I'm sure there are quite a few things that I've written which are not on the publication list — children off on their own that I don't even know I've made. So I guess the answer is yes, but about the only thing I can think of off hand is that one. The publication list is the only written record I have of my publications. I know there are even a few missing on it which I know about but I didn't take the trouble to fix; it doesn't matter.
Aaserud:What about your papers, records, letters more generally — what will happen to them?
Low:There is nothing. No, I really keep very little. I either publish it or throw it out.
Aaserud:Of course, the provost records exist.
Low:The provost records are there; they're in the Institute. And even there, both the previous Provost, Walter Rosenberg, and I tended to be quite oral in our administrative things. I have my own set of hand-written notes, which are just for my own recollection, but things usually were not written until they were firm, and then they would be written down, and there would be a letter to somebody in the Department; it's very, very sparse.
Aaserud:You see, another part of my study consists in finding documentation on physicists, specifically as it applies to their involvement in science policy.
Low:I think it must be the case that the telephone, and xerox, and all those things have made people keep individual records less. Everyone's saying, "This flood of xerox material — who's going to keep it." There's so much, you can't keep it all, and therefore you keep none of it, as opposed to a much sparser thing where you say, "Well, this is valuable and I'll keep it."
Aaserud:It's a big problem and that's a problem we try to deal with.
Low:Yes, that's a real problem for historians of the future.
Aaserud:But still, archives are maintained, and I'm sure that you have written some letters, and other documents.
Low:Yes. We have a good archivist here at MIT.
Aaserud:In particular, you wouldn't have any letters regarding JASON?
Aaserud:That report you were talking about, is that available?
Aaserud:The Weisskopf committee and the others you were on?
Low:They surely are available from the DOE. I may have one of them here, but I don't dare move any furniture. I don't think I do have them. When I was in the Provost's office, most of my things were thrown out. Don't you know Goldstone? He's a wonderful man and a great physicist, but I think he threw out all my books and everything because he was in my office. He said I told him he could do it. But the reports are available. I forget what they're called, but if you write to Dr. Wallenmeyer in the High Energy Physics office, DOE, I'm sure you can get a copy of them.
Aaserud:In particular, before we turn to JASON, let me tell you that I want to do some comparisons with the European scene. Who would you suggest that I should talk to there? Do you have any specific suggestions? I'm asking everybody this question.
Low:I knew the European groups much better six or seven years ago, but I haven't done any physics —
Aaserud:That's fine. This is history anyway.
Low:I guess, in Italy, Amaldi, of course, is a person who has been at the center of everything. He's quite old now, I suppose; he must be 75 or even older. But I would think he would be still in very good shape. He knew everything that went on there. In England, Paul Matthews, I would think. I think he's now Vice Rector — the Rector is always somebody from London — of some university in England. Peierls of course, would know everything and is quite vigorous. I would think Peierls would be good. Germany? My memory is getting very bad with names. Who is the present director of CERN, who came from Hamburg? Jentschke was another one; but this is his successor at DESY. I can't think of his name. But he would be a good person in Germany. France is funny. I've never understood the French establishment in science. I don't know if I could even give you any names.
Low:I don't know. Aigrain has, I guess, left science a lot, and went more into pure administration, and other industrial affairs, and so on. But, of course, he's a very knowledgeable guy. Maurice Levy, also.
Aaserud:And there's Italy.
Low:I suggested Amaldi, or Salvini, if you know him. He's younger, but also, I think, at the center of things.
Aaserud:Well, I wouldn't say I know him. You started out saying that you have been involved in other science policy questions.
Low:Much more while I was on the DOE Advisory Committee for quite a few years, which is called HEPAP, High Energy Physics Advisory Panel. Then there were these ad hoc accelerator panels, and I was a Trustee of AUI, Associated Universities. All that was much more directly active in actual science policy than JASON. JASON was peripheral in my life, and I was peripheral in it. But, in any case, science policy — unless you call being Provost at MIT a science policy thing which is quite in some ways what it is — was also peripheral in my life. My main interest was in education and in research.
Aaserud:If you're willing to have an interview done on those activities more generally, I would be happy to do it sometime.
Low:OK, fine, but let's see how this goes.
Aaserud:We are in Francis Low's office, Tuesday, the 29th of April, 1986. We will limit the discussion today to his involvement in JASON, and to JASON a little more generally. First of all, could you say something about your background and motivation for joining JASON in the first place — who you were approached by, when, etc.?
Low:I think it must have been the summer of 1959. I was at Los Alamos, and I think we were working on what was called Kiwi. Kiwi is a bird that doesn't fly. This was a hydrogen-fueled rocket engine, and the problem was the hydrodynamics of this system. Ken Watson was there. There was a group of us that had gone to Los Alamos every few summers, starting in 1955: Ken Watson, Geoff Chew was there in 1955, Murph Goldberger, Keith Brueckner, myself. We were all quite close at that time. Then Charlie Townes came there in 1959. I don't know where he came from, but perhaps he was already involved with IDA.
Aaserud:Yes, he was. He was the Chief Scientist of IDA, wasn't he?
Low:Yes, at some time he was. Maybe he already was.
Aaserud:I think he was already then.
Low:He came to talk to Ken Watson, I think. I believe Ken, and maybe Keith and Murph, had thought of setting up a consulting firm. This is all vague memory in my head, very vague. But, instead, they decided to go with Charlie and start this JASON group.
Aaserud:So they had thought of establishing JASON in another form?
Low:I think they had. I don't know if all three of those were involved, but maybe they were.
Aaserud:Yes, Brueckner has indicated that to me.
Low:OK. The person who talked to me about joining JASON really was Ken Watson. Ken Watson said to me that he had been in a briefing where he had learned that the United States' defenses, compared to Soviet weapons and equipment and preparation, were dangerously low, that there were technical problems, which, if not solved, would put us in a terrible position of disadvantage, and that it was really important to get into this area and try and help. The work I'd been doing in Los Alamos had been secret, but not weapons work. The previous two times I'd been there had been in connection with what was called the Sherwood Project — the confinement of thermonuclear reactions for power. This was also not a weapon; it was classified, but it wasn't a weapon. Ken said, "You have to get into this other area because it's very important and there are all these terrible things happening, and if we don't do something, we'll be in serious trouble." So I said, OK. It was probably the case that I didn't object also to earning a high consulting fee — at the time. But there was a compelling issue. Then I remember a conversation with Charlie Townes and Ken — I don't know who else was there — in which they talked about forming this thing. They were going to form it in the fall, I think.
Aaserud:This was actually at the very formative stage of JASON that you were involved?
Low:That's right, it must have been the very beginning. I just happened to learn that my DOD clearance, which is still active, was in 1960. I haven't touched it for many years, but it's still active. So that must have been the following January. And I remember at the first meeting Charlie Townes commenting on what might happen after the election, and so on. So I guess that's what happened. It must have been the winter of January 1960 that this thing started going. So that was my beginning involvement with it.
Aaserud:You talked about consulting. What was your previous experience with such things?
Low:My experience is both previous and post. I was visiting Los Alamos in the summer; since then, I've been visiting Fermi Lab. I've spent a lot of time at Fermi Lab in the summer, although it's barely consulting; it's going to Fermi Lab and acting as a physicist there instead of here. I've done essentially zero industrial consulting, mainly because I wouldn't be useful to industrial people; I don't know enough to help them.
Aaserud:I'm asking this because I got the impression from Keith Brueckner and others that JASON, at least in part, arose from a frustration with doing consulting without any internal coherence and control over what they were doing. I was wondering how common this feeling was.
Low:Not mine, because I wasn't doing any.
Aaserud:So what is your tenure in JASON? How long were you there for?
Low:It was not very long. It was a pretty negative experience for me, for a variety of reasons. First, I discovered fairly quickly that I didn't agree with what Ken Watson had said to me. I didn't see any such overriding technical problems that were vital to defending ourselves against the Soviets. I didn't see anything of the sort. It seemed like a paranoid nightmare. So that original reason evaporated fairly quickly. But there I was and I had gotten somebody else here — Dave Caldwell I think it was — involved in it, which was also not fruitful — I mean, not fruitful for me; you'll have to ask him whether it was for him. It was probably more fruitful for him than it was for me. So there I was. That was the first thing. Second, I guess, once I discovered that it was not essential, I felt it was more of a waste of time than something I should be doing. In general, I was, I guess, slightly in the background, slightly bothered about military work. But that wasn't primary. More primary was the fact that I don't think I was particularly good at finding the important things to do, and not good at working with classified data. What kind of physics did you do?
Aaserud:As far as it went, I took theoretical physics in Oslo.
Low:In what kind of theory?
Aaserud:I did quantum electrodynamics, as far as it went.
Low:Well, if you haven't done any phenomenology, then you don't know the phenomenon. But it is true in any physics that I've ever done that if you have some theoretical thing which you want to explore experimentally, and want to find data, you can't. It is very, very hard unless you set out to do some theory about an experiment that has been done in a range the theory can predict. Frequently, that's not the way it works. You say, there's something I can say, and then the something I can say requires that you organize the data with some variable and some things fixed. And it always points here and there; it's not where you wanted it. It's a very common experience when you're looking at data. With classified data, it's a hundred times worse, because, in the first place, it's classified, so it's not in the open literature — you can't just wander down to a library and get it; you have to find out about it. And then, also because it's classified, there's not enough communication between people who are measuring things. Instead of looking at ABM re-entry problems, Lincoln Lab would have a measurement out here at one point at one altitude with one kind of a vehicle coming in. And somebody else would have another measurement. So you have a point here and a point there, and the parameter is totally different. It was ghastly. So I didn't enjoy it; didn't like the problems; I wasn't very good at it. I stuck it out for three summers. The summer of 1960, I was in La Jolla. Was JASON in La Jolla?
Aaserud:I'm not sure what place the first meeting was. I think that was on the East Coast.
Low:No, JASON wasn't in La Jolla. I was in La Jolla. I was at General Atomic that summer; that was consulting. I was not at JASON that summer; I was at General Atomic, and I was working on the Orion Project. Do you know what that was?
Aaserud:No. You can refresh my memory.
Low:That was an inter-planetary voyager, fueled with nuclear bombs. You know Ted Taylor? He's the person who's become very active in protection against the danger of stealing uranium and of terrorist bombs and so on — that whole question of security of nuclear weapons.
Aaserud:Freeman Dyson has a chapter on him in his book.
Low:In what, Disturbing the Universe?
Aaserud:Yes, in his autobiography.
Low:Yes, I think that could well be. He's a remarkable man. I think he never got a PhD; he never went to college. He was one of the early bomb designers, and apparently a genius at it, and then switched from that to worrying about side effects. He was running this Orion Project for General Atomic, and that summer, my family and I were there, and it was not JASON.
Aaserud:So you didn't go to JASON at all that summer?
Low:No, I don't think so. I don't remember any JASON that summer. I was very disappointed there, in fact, because when I got there, I found that the solid state physicists had a bridge game at lunch. So they went to lunch at 12:00 and they came back at 1:00 and they played bridge until 3:00. All this at a very high salary. And I participated in that. But then at some point the word came down: "Low, you're not supposed to be here; you go over to work for Taylor." Then I had to work. But I discovered a nice theorem, actually. Marshall Rosenbluth asked me a question, and when he came back, I had the answer, which was nice. It's always good to talk to Marshall Rosenbluth. So that's that summer. Then, during the winter, it was very sporadic. There were meetings, but I just didn't have time to do much. The next summer — 1961 — was in Maine, I think. That was in Bowdoin. What's the name of the town where Bowdoin is?
Aaserud:Bar Harbor? [Brunswick]
Low:No, it's not as far up as Bar Harbor. Well, you find out the town where the college is. That's where this meeting was; and we had offices on the Bowdoin campus, and we rented farmhouses around. There I had a useful summer. It was the only useful experience I had in JASON. Sam Treiman and I worked on a problem having to do with identifying incoming missiles — a discrimination problem. And we did something useful, I think. There was an effect — I don't know if the word is still classified, or I could say it — which people thought might be interesting, and millions of dollars would have been invested in it. We pointed out that it was not interesting and that they shouldn't invest any money in it.
Aaserud:So it was a negative conclusion?
Low:Negative conclusion. You say, don't do this; it's always a good thing, right? Remember what Dean Acheson said? He said, "Don't do something; just stand there." So that was a sensible summer. Then my family and I went to Europe. We spent the year 1961-62 in Rome. The following summer I was at CERN in Geneva, coming back from Rome. And then I came back here, and hadn't really reentered JASON. But I spent one more summer with the JASON group, in Falmouth. They were using one of the National Academy of Sciences buildings in Woods Hole. I forget what we were working on; I think it was a Hanbury-Brown-Twiss type interferometry. At that point it became clear it was not something I could do usefully, and that summer was my last involvement. So the real involvement was the summer of 1961 in Brunswick — it's Brunswick.
Aaserud:That's the town, yes.
Low:That was really my major involvement — just that summer. Then I tried again the summer of 1963, but it didn't work and I stopped.
Aaserud:Yes. And then you just decided to quit and that was it.
Low:I just quit. And we were very poor that year. It did have an effect.
Aaserud:Did other people have the same experience?
Low:I don't know. The only other person I know who had a similar experience, I think, was Ray Sawyer. I don't know if you've talked to him.
Low:I think he's a Provost somewhere, actually. A fair number of these people have become administrators. He was a particle theorist, and he is Provost, I think, at either Santa Barbara or San Diego. You know, JASON was divided into what I called white collar JASON and blue collar JASON. Blue collar JASON was sort of the ants, like me, that work on problems. The white collar people talked big policy, and I thought that was much more interesting, but I was never invited to do that. Who was doing that? Nierenberg, Gell-Mann, I guess Murph, because Murph was the chairman. In other words, there were some interesting things that were being discussed, like ABM policy and arms control policy and so on, which I guess I would have been more interested in, but I never got involved.
Aaserud:Were you involved incidentally in Project 137, which was the forerunner of JASON?
Low:No. I never even heard of it.
Aaserud:It was a summer study in 1958, I believe, which was supposed to be a test of Wheeler's idea of creating a new initiation laboratory, as he called it, for war research. It should go deeper than Los Alamos, and just initiate the problems, and then when the problems had reached a certain stage, they would be brought elsewhere.
Low:All military research?
Aaserud:All military. They would reach a certain stage of possible applications; then it should be taken to other institutions.
Aaserud:So this was a laboratory for just the very initiation stage of weapons problems. Now, this never came into being. One reason was that they couldn't find a director. Wheeler didn't want to be the director of this. This was one of the forerunners of JASON.
Low:I never heard of it.
Aaserud:OK. It's another interesting forerunner of JASON. You came in at a later stage then. Let's go on a little bit with that distinction between the blue and the white collar. I'm interested in order to relate the impact of JASON to technical blue collar work, or to more general white collar science policy work.
Low:I can't tell you; you'll have to ask other people.
Aaserud:But can you say something about that division while you were there? What kind of problems were taken up?
Low:I think the main problem that the white collar people were talking about when I was there was the ABM question. My recollection is that they had come down on the idea that it was foolish to do — no spectacular revelations — that we shouldn't do it even if the Russians did do it, but that probably it was politically unavoidable. But that's all I can remember.
Aaserud:Was that also assigned JASON work, or was that more of a discussion that just came up?
Low:I don't think JASON work was assigned.
Aaserud:But did it produce reports, then?
Low:I think there probably was one, but I don't know. But there was no assigned JASON work. JASON work was much more like sort of an institute for advanced study of military problems. That was one of the problems for me. I didn't know what to do; I didn't know what was important. It's always hard enough to find things to do, but in that area, where everything is so obscure, and nothing seems very important, it's particularly hard to figure out what to do. If somebody had said to me, do something, it would have been much easier.
Aaserud:But there must have been some kind of relationship or discussion with the Defense Department or military people at some level.
Low:There were briefings, constant briefings.
Aaserud:But that didn't lead to specific problem analysis?
Low:No, it didn't. The briefings were much more background — broader. Do you know what a military briefing is like?
Aaserud:I've never been to one.
Low:You know, where the colonel is operating the slide machine and the general is talking, and you get a beautifully orchestrated presentation, but the density of content is not always very large. Lots of pictures.
Aaserud:That brings us to the communication problem between the physicists — JASON or such — and the people who needed these studies. How were they implemented, how were they received?
I can give you a very anecdotal impression of laboratories. It's unfair to generalize, but we all do it, and I do it in my own head. I'll tell you my impression of laboratories that specialized very much in one or another area. It doesn't have to be secret or military; it can be anything, but these are laboratories which are essentially off the beaten track, out of the community because they're so special. I think Los Alamos is an example of that, where people have very mixed feelings about being helped. They want help; they want consultants; but at the same time, in a certain way, they don't want to need them and they don't want to use them. And I certainly have had that feeling at Los Alamos, with absolutely both things happening: they want you there, but when you're there, they don't really want you.
It's funny, and in my area it's immodest, of course, because I went to Los Alamos later. In the sixties I went back to Los Alamos, but then I went to the nuclear physics group and it was like visiting Fermi Lab. It was after they started building Louis Rosen's machine — what's it called, the meson factory — and I would go there and do physics. But even there, you felt this slight inhibition of the physicists against the outside, wanting the outside people to stimulate them and to tell them what was going on, but not wanting to have their shop too much invaded by them. I think that was also true with JASON, and therefore, communication with the scientists who were working in the military laboratories was probably bad. But I, for example, had none. Maybe some others had some. To a certain extent I think probably JASON was formed because of dissatisfaction with those labs, and that doesn't make those people very happy about JASON.
Aaserud:If we can go back to the origins of JASON again, to what extent do you think that the Sputnik phenomenon was a background in establishing it, or can't it be reduced to one phenomenon like that?
Low:I would never thought to have stressed Sputnik as background for JASON.
Aaserud:It was, I think, the background of the creation of ARPA; at least, that has been claimed. What I'm asking is whether that phenomenon played a role in your motivation for joining such things?
Aaserud:Ken Watson's argument was more general?
Low:Yes. It might be that I believed Ken a little bit more because of the Sputnik success, but, no.
Aaserud:At that time, of course, JASON was only concerned with military work, and I think ARPA was the only agency that you contracted for.
Low:I don't know. You'll have to ask someone. I have no idea; I have no idea who paid.
Aaserud:But it was only military work anyway?
Low:It's a relative call. If you call ABM military work.
Aaserud:Yes, that's security work.
Low:That would be called arms control studies.
Aaserud:But it was militarily related. It wasn't in the civil sector.
Aaserud:To what extent did you find that the members of JASON were new to defense concerns. Or had they been concerned with that in previous activities.
Low:Some were; some weren't. I think more were not than were, but I don't know. But you're interviewing them; you'll find out.
Aaserud:But this was essentially one generation of physicists, wasn't it?
Low:It started with a generation which was really our generation; we were very contemporary — Murph, Ken, Keith. But then younger people — Steve Weinberg and Ray Sawyer were younger — came in and some went out. Roger Dashen was considerably younger. So since my time they have all changed; the people have changed a lot. Hal Lewis was our generation, and very active.
Aaserud:The old guard of JASON were people who had been relatively young. I wouldn't say that they were unestablished, but their careers hadn't been completely formed during the Los Alamos era.
Low:That's right. None of them were the War generation. There were some elder statesmen, so-called. Wheeler and Wigner used to come to meetings, God knows. Of course, almost everybody in JASON would then argue with them, because I think that group was not in the Wheeler-Wigner policy area. I mean, they didn't agree with them. But somehow they were the two senior people who were around every once in a while. They weren't seriously around — they weren't there a lot — but they would come to meetings.
Aaserud:They were Senior Advisors, I think, formally.
Low:Whatever they were called. Bethe never came to a meeting that I was at. Luis Alvarez never came to a meeting I was at, although I see their names on your list. But Wigner and Wheeler came. But they were the only ones of the Los Alamos generation who had anything to do with it. A lot of Los Alamos people at that point got out quick, and said, "No, no more; I'm going to work for peace and not do that anymore" — like Viki.
Aaserud:So, to some extent, this is the expression of a new generation's concern with national security?
Low:I suppose so.
Aaserud:This is a general question again, but to what extent do you think one can generalize about the generations that were affected differently by the War? I mean, first, the Los Alamos generation who had strong positions during the War; second, people who were educated during the War; and third, people who got their main education in physics after the War? Do you think these three generations were affected differently?
Low:Very few people were educated during the War — during your war, but not during our war. People either were in the Army, or they were off in Los Alamos, or somewhere like that, learning — Murph and Geoff were in Los Alamos; I was in the Army. Freeman Dyson was working for the RAF, and so forth.
Aaserud:I include that in my understanding of education; I include those who had their education broken off then, and got their PhD after the War.
Low:Yes. So what's the question?
Aaserud:The question is: to what extent did these different generations develop different attitudes towards science policy, particularly as relating to national security questions?
Low:I don't know. I think there's a division of opinion in both generations.
Aaserud:It's not a generational phenomenon simply?
Low:I don't think so. Do you?
Aaserud:No. I'm just trying this out.
Low:I understand. I was asking you that.
Aaserud:It's just something I have been thinking about, especially because JASON, from the outset anyway, was defined by more or less one generation of physicists.
Low:I suppose it is a fact that almost nobody in the Second World War said no to war work in this country, whatever political position, from extreme Right to extreme Left. Not true, of course, after the War, and not true of JASON. There were people who were seriously on the Left, but by the time they got to JASON, they moved over towards the Center. But the people who stayed on the Left wouldn't come in. I mean, I couldn't see Charlie Schwarz — I noticed his name on your list — ever having anything to do with a thing like JASON.
Aaserud:No. I think he participated in one summer study.
Low:Did he. But, of course, he's much younger. How old are you?
Low:So you're very young. But this generation of JASON people grew up having come through the Second World War, in which the military played a remarkable and important and saving role for the country and for the world. So we all had a very positive feeling about the military, not negative at all. By the time I stopped in 1963, I did not have a negative feeling about the military as such. I didn't have that. 1965 was the Vietnam summer. That's when the escalation happened, after Johnson's second inauguration, just like that. And, I guess, even before that, I already began to have a negative feeling about U.S. military involvement. But Vietnam was deeply important, I think, for a lot of people. I'm sure Charlie Schwartz, for example, grew to maturity in that period.
Aaserud:But your leaving JASON was not connected with that?
Low:Mine was not. It was not in any way an anti-militarist departure, although, as I said, I felt somewhat uneasy about working on military problems when there were other problems that were more interesting and more fun. The military weren't that important, and I wasn't sure it was the right thing to do. But it wasn't a strong consideration, whereas, three years later, I would never have gone into JASON. By that time, it was clear that the military was out of control.
Aaserud:Then you were happy you had quit.
Low:Very delighted that I had quit. But I never claimed to have done it for ideological reasons. Aaserud. It was a combination, if anything.
Low:I'll tell you another thing. I always, through the entire period, viewed it as very important that there be some people who were reasonable who were working on these things — the Garwins and the Bethes, who are technicians, but who then informed the people about what's really going on. So that somebody can talk responsibly and will talk responsibly within the limits of clearance and knows what's happening. And that, also, somebody who is responsible and sensible will pass the apprenticeship, which then moves them up into a position of being serious science advisors. So I always thought it very important to do that, and I always defended my friends and colleagues, say in 1967 or 1968, when they were picketing Henry Foley and then Leon Lederman at Columbia, and so on. I absolutely defended them, and criticized the attacks on them, even though, ideologically, I was on the other side.
Aaserud:That's the insider-outsider problem.
Low:That's right. I think there have to be insiders, and if there are no good insiders, there are only bad insiders. At some point, the inside gets so bad that you say you can't do it any more, but that's a matter of individual choice in how you feel about it. I didn't want to do it, but I was very glad that some people did want to do it. I have the same feeling about the Soviet Union, by the way. My friends say, boycott the Soviet Union; don't go to the Soviet Union because they're so bad, and so on. Viki and Herman Feshbach and I have on several occasions written letters and argued that one shouldn't have a boycott, that it is good to have a pluralistic policy which will create itself. Some people won't go because things are so bad, and it's like really going into the Evil Empire, but others will because it's important to talk to our friends there and to keep contact with them. It's good that both things are happening.
Aaserud:It's a question of openers, of course.
Low:In general, I think policies are bad. "Just stand there."
Aaserud:But I'm sure that some JASONs have felt that they are also limited by their membership because they can't speak out on things that are part of their JASON work.
Low:Some have. Yes, I think some have felt constrained; I've seen some feel constrained. But you'll have to find that out from them.
Aaserud:Some speak out, obviously, and some feel constrained, I'm sure. Probably, during your period, that wasn't as much of a problem as it became later?
Low:No. That was still the end of the 1950s. We grew out of the war thinking that things were going well and that things would go OK.
Aaserud:I could ask you positively, of course, were there any such problems at all when you were there? Were there people who spoke out on things that, say, the defense establishment saw as classified material?
Low:Not that I know of. The only case I know of is Oppenheimer, and that was quite a while before. And that was not speaking out on classified material; that was just people out to get Oppenheimer.
Aaserud:What about the organizational structure of JASON while you were there? There was a chairman, steering committee, and then there were regular members I suppose?
Low:All I knew was the chairman.
Aaserud:So you weren't involved in the hierarchy in that sense?
Low:Not at all.
Aaserud:Who were the most important people in JASON while you were there? I guess Goldberger was the chairman.
Low:Goldberger was the chairman, and Goldberger was a marvelous chairman, a wonderful runner of small groups — absolutely brilliant at it. Also, he is one of these people who can do administrative things easily. I know he was here one year, the winter of 1962-63 — both Murray Gell-Mann and Murph Goldberger were here. We were working together in the office, a JASON phone call would come in, and Murph would take it on and sort of toss it off. It was actually with one hand tied behind his back, and with a little bit of a finger, he would run that thing.
Aaserud:And it worked.
Low:It worked. He was very good and very able, and I'm sure he's a good president of Caltech. I wasn't very conscious of status in JASON. All the people there were of such a level of skill; they were all so capable that one hardly wondered about it. I once thought of buying Nobel Prizes there — you know, pay everyone a hundred dollars for their Nobel Prize. But I realized it was a losing investment because if anyone won it, I couldn't possibly take it. But, in fact, since then, Glaser, Val Fitch, Murray Gell-Mann — not Freeman Dyson, though he should have — Luis Alvarez, Steve Weinberg have all received Nobel Prizes. All received the prize after that. So, in fact, if I'd been able to collect, I would have many, but I realized it was silly. So they're all really distinguished people and very, very capable. So I wasn't aware of a hierarchy. Except of people who successively became the chairpeople, who were clearly very active and so on — Murph, and I guess Keith Brueckner, and Hal Lewis. But there wasn't much of a hierarchy.
Aaserud:But there must have been some kind of coordination when it comes to projects.
Low:I never was conscious of it. No.
Aaserud:Wasn't there even some reporting after you had suggested, or come upon, a project?
Low:No. The only thing I ever wrote for JASON was the report with Sam Treiman on the thing we studied that summer. That's the only report I ever wrote at JASON.
Aaserud:But you decided on the problem, completed it, and then presented it?
Aaserud:There was no prior group discussion or anything?
Low:No. It would have been better if there had been more. I think it would have been better for people in the group who were peripheral, and not very familiar, and having a hard time.
Aaserud:That was one of your frustrations — one of your reasons for quitting. Also, it must affect the impact of JASON, because it's not guaranteed that all these questions are exactly what is needed or wanted on the other side, of course.
Low:I think probably in the long run it's better to give people their freedom to work on the things that they choose to, provided they choose to. But it would have been good to guide people somewhat more if there were people able to do it; perhaps there were. But I think that actually to respond in too much detail to specific military requests would not have been a wise thing for a group like that because it would have spoiled the spontaneity and the inventiveness.
Aaserud:That is not the easiest group of people to guide, of course.
Aaserud:Were you involved in the selection of members?
Aaserud:How were people picked out? You were approached by Ken Watson.
Low:Ken and Charlie, yes. I don't know. I was very peripheral in this group, and vice versa, so I really don't have much to tell you.
Aaserud:But I would guess, generally, that it was from top down, and not from bottom up. I mean, people were sought out. There were no applications.
Low:No, I don't think there were applications from people; everybody was sought out. There may have been an exception.
Aaserud:To what extent were the people you worked with in JASON the same as the ones you would work with anyway in the physics community?
Low:Certainly Murray Gell-Mann and I worked together a lot in physics; we didn't work together at all in JASON. The same is true of Murph. We've worked together a lot in physics; we didn't work together in JASON. So these people were my natural collaborators, but we didn't work together in JASON, although we worked together at other times, before and after.
Aaserud:But it was the same group, essentially?
Low:Same group. Absolutely the same group. Yes, a group of people who talked to each other, and worked together, and visited together.
Aaserud:And the same way of collaboration — not in choosing problems, of course — to some extent too. From what you've said, you had great freedom to define your own projects. During your period, how constant was the membership?
Low:Pretty constant. It didn't change much. I think a few people were brought in. Steve Weinberg was brought in. Ray Sawyer was brought in. But I think it was pretty constant. Nobody dropped out, I think, until I did. Ray Sawyer dropped out, I think, before I did, and then I dropped out. Nobody else, as far as I can remember, dropped out. But Katcher and some people must have records, right? There must be a record of the membership somewhere.
Aaserud:Yes, I'm getting slowly to it. It's a slow process because I haven't got access to the archives of JASON yet.
Low:Have you asked for them?
Aaserud:Yes, and I've got the promise that I will eventually see them, but it has to go through the appropriate channels first. I know where they are; they are at the MITRE Corporation in Virginia. That were actually collected. Bill Nierenberg has been very interested in doing some history of JASON and in collecting the material and things like that. Unfortunately for me, who is interested in the first 15 years, there's one box on the first ten years, and then there's about one box for every year after that. But that's the case with most institutional history — there's little documentation for the important gestation period, and there's a lot of documentation and trivia when the institution has been firmly established. We talked about the selection of projects, already, so we don't have to deal with that. And we also talked about your main projects that you did.
Low:The main project was that thing in Maine. That's the only project I look back on and remember as something which took some time and came up with a result.
Aaserud:What about projects more generally? What were the most important projects in JASON as a whole during the period?
Low:I don't know.
Aaserud:But you did have meetings about all the problems, didn't you? Or did you work entirely alone?
Low:People worked quite independently, and they did not generally discuss their work at public meetings. My recollection is that they didn't.
Aaserud:Not even among yourselves, more informally?
Low:Of course people talked to each other informally, and I guess there were some seminars, but I've forgotten. I suppose there must have been seminars — people talking about things. But I don't remember them.
Aaserud:What kind of relationship was there between projects in JASON and work in academic physics?
Low:None that I could see.
Aaserud:Such a relationship is hard to establish for a particle physicist, of course.
Low:Well, particle physicists think of themselves as being the closest to generalists that you can get, because you never know what's going to come next. And it may even be true that particle physicists tend — like this group of people — to go into and do work in other branches of physics, whereas few people have come from solid state physics and done something in particle physics. Lots of particle physicists have gone and done something in solid state physics, plasma physics, nuclear, atomic. So I think there's some truth to it. But these were largely particle physicists.
Aaserud:So you don't think it's entirely by chance that that was what they were?
Low:Except that there's also a group of friends; those are the few who knew each other.
Aaserud:But, rephrased, could a group of physicists, or even other kinds of scientists, from other fields have done the same kind of work?
Aaserud:So it's more important that they were a group of friends than they were theoretical physicists, in that sense?
Low:They weren't all theoretical. Most of them were theoretical; they weren't all theoretical.
Aaserud:No, there were exceptions, like Munk and —
Low:— Val Fitch, Donald Glaser.
Aaserud:So there's a number. I also spoke to Gordon MacDonald, who was not in physics at all. Of course, I have to limit my study to the first 15 years. JASON was working on a lot of things. From your experience, even if it's limited, does something come to mind that would be worthwhile to study as a case study of what the JASONs were doing during that period, from a historical point of view?
Low:The first 15 years — that ends in 1974?
Aaserud:1974 or 1975; I'm flexible.
Low:I don't know much about it, but certainly I would think that most of those people would point to the Vietnam electronic fence, and that's all I know. I know they suggested it; I know it was tried; I'm sure they will say it was not tried properly, and that it failed. But I'm sure that's an interesting subject to look at. And I know you know it.
Aaserud:But there are problems with that because, you know, what has been written about JASON has mainly been in connection with that — and critically in connection with that. And a lot of JASON people that I have spoken with do see that as a very untypical side of their work.
Low:I see. But, nevertheless, it had an important impact on policy.
Aaserud:Yes, certainly it had. But, also, it probably got relatively more coverage in the media than other projects.
Low:I guess the other important impact you'd have to associate with Sid Drell, as an individual. He was a blue collar JASON, who worked on atmospheric problems, I think. You haven't talked to him yet?
Aaserud:No, I haven't yet. I will.
Low:He'll tell you when he worked on it. But, in any case, his work in JASON, I believe, projected him into this position of being a strong arms control and weapons policy analyst and proponent and so on. And I think he's been very effective and very good — I admire him a lot — and I think probably his moving into this was a consequence of his time on JASON. So, I think that's one of the more important things — positive things — that happened. I guess the electronic barrier was a negative thing. And then there are probably lots of others, which you'll learn about. I have nothing to say beyond that.
Aaserud:You indicated earlier that the range of political views within JASON was rather large.
Low:No, I said, within the generation it was large. I said, I didn't think there was a generational difference. You asked whether the Los Alamos generation had a different political spectrum than the succeeding generation. I said I didn't think so.
Aaserud:But what was the range within JASON?
Low:Within JASON, it was not as large — it was more compact, I think. Everybody in JASON — almost everybody — would have considered themselves politically liberal except for people who just wouldn't want to use the word. I suspect Freeman Dyson would not want to call himself a liberal. You know, he'd say, I'm a reactionary; he'd have some original, controversial thing to say about it. And probably Keith Brueckner would also. But I think the political spectrum was probably very narrow with that group of people. They're all sort of McGovern democrats. That is, if you ask about their gut politics, not what they think, because it's just a question of guts.
Aaserud:Was that a function of their being academic physcists?
Aaserud:I mean, they were representative?
Low:Yes. I mean, you can come and have lunch with this particle group here, and the nuclear group here. There's almost no disagreement on anything. It's a little disturbing; everyone agrees. You walk in, and you know everyone's going to say that it was wrong to bomb Libya. It was wrong for this and this and this and this and every possible reason. You know that, right? Seventy-seven percent of the American people think it's right; you walk in here, and you know a hundred percent of the people in that dining room are going to think it's wrong. And so on. I think that's what you see. I think physicists, especially particle physicists, tend to be in that direction. And we think that we look at things more objectively.
Aaserud:Of course. The Vietnam War changed that somewhat, I guess. That's after your period, anyway. But it doesn't seem that too many people left JASON for ideological reasons, even after that.
Low:No, that's right. You know, Murph is another person who has become very involved in general weapons policy, and speaks out very appropriately and openly, it seems to me. But he stayed in JASON. Again, there's always the question, do you stay inside and work to change things or do you not?
Aaserud:I guess there are exceptions. Nierenberg would be an exception to the liberal tendency.
Low:Yes, Nierenberg would be an exception for lots of things.
Aaserud:And he's the chairman, after all.
Low:Is he now? I see.
Aaserud:Has been for a while.
Low:God, it's hard to stop him from talking even when he isn't chairman. It must be awful if he's chairman. Did you talk to him?
Aaserud:Yes, I have. I have a speed control on that machine, and he's the only person who I have to turn down the speed for, to get him more clear. With most other people, I can turn it up and still hear them, but he I can't even hear with normal speed. Actually, the difference is significant; in transcribed pages, he provides about ten percent more efficiency than anybody else. I thought he would at least have pauses somewhere that would make up for the speed, but he doesn't. It's interesting. Did the work in JASON in some way or other put formal restrictions on your publications, or the way in which you could publish?
Aaserud:They were totally separate enterprises.
Aaserud:But JASON work required clearance.
Low:That's when I got my DOD clearance.
Aaserud:Did you all get the same clearance?
Low:I don't know. No, I suppose some got intelligence clearance.
Aaserud:So, even within JASON you couldn't talk completely openly about your projects?
Low:I don't know. I think my clearance was Top Secret, although the continued clearance was Secret, as I learned. It's funny; when I became Provost, I learned — although I haven't done anything about DOD clearance since 1963 — that I still have clearance, because one of the things I did was to go to Lincoln Lab with the corporation executive committee for briefings that they had, and at that point I discovered that my clearance was still active. The DOE clearance lapses if you don't renew it, so that clearance, which I had at Los Alamos — the Q clearance — is gone. But apparently the DOD clearance just stays on indefinitely. They just leave it alone. I still have it.
Aaserud:That's what you got with JASON?
Low:Yes. In 1960; that must be the JASON clearance.
Aaserud:I have heard stated that the fact that all in JASON are cleared provides some kind of protection. If somebody speaks out, then the rest of the JASONs would back him if there's a question of taking away the clearance. First, would you agree with that?
Low:I have no idea. I think it would depend on what the person said.
Aaserud:Yes, of course. Anything doesn't go, but that JASON provides some assurance.
Low:It certainly provides some protective cover, no question. It's an organization that has status. I believe it had some power, and, perhaps, some effectiveness. Certainly people in it are more protected from harrassment of one kind or another than people out of it. But how much, I don't know.
Aaserud:What about the relationship of JASON with the physics community? During your period, there was certainly no question about it.
Low:No, during my period, there was no question about it. I think now, perhaps, people would have more questions about it. Not everybody agrees with me that we need both people. It is a personal choice. The example always is, what about Nazi Germany, what would you do then? That's an extreme case, and shows that there are limits. But where the limit is is an individual's question. Different people come down differently. I don't think we're there.
Aaserud:No, hopefully not. How unique is JASON? Are there other groups you could compare it to?
Low:I don't know. Regarding military questions?
Low:I don't know. I never hear of any of them. I don't know of any others.
Aaserud:JASON, as I have understood it, has developed from more of a creator of own proposals to an organization evaluating the proposals of others.
Low:Is that right?
Aaserud:Yes. Of course, that was, in part, what you did, I guess, during your successful project.
Low:I guess that's right. People had come in with this effect, and they said, this is something we should look at. That's correct. But we didn't do it that way. We said, hey, that effect is interesting, let's see if we can understand it.
Aaserud:So you weren't asked to do it; it was more your own choice?
Low:There was this talk — it must have been one of the seminars. Somebody gave a talk; it was not a JASON person. Some ARPA person came from the DOD and gave a talk about this effect, which they wanted us to look at. Then we said, that's interesting; let's see if we can understand it. And I believe we did.
Aaserud:To what extent has JASON been a springboard for other science policy activities for physicists?
Low:I think it has. For Sidney Drell, I think. And for Murph. It did not bring him into government positions, but into his own position as a spokesman for his views. Sid was both in government and active as an individual. And perhaps others that I don't know of. Murph and Sid are among the people I know best in JASON.
Aaserud:But that has been the case. There are JASONs who have told me that, if it hadn't been for JASON — with the implied possibility of doing that kind of work while maintaining their full relationship with academic work in physics — then they wouldn't have done national security work. So maybe there's another distinction, then, between the blue collar and the white collar, namely, the distinction of people who wanted to maintain their academic work in physics completely, and those who used JASON as a springboard for more active involvement also in other areas of national security. The final, basic question: What is the impact of JASON? How important has it been for the shaping of national policy?
Low:You'll have to ask other people.
Aaserud:Did you feel that you had an impact during your period?
Low:No. And I don't feel an impact of JASON, but I really don't know anything about it.
Aaserud:Was that part of your frustration, though?
Low:No. It's possible to do work which is interesting and important without having a national impact. No, that was not it. But I certainly didn't feel that I had any, and I didn't feel, really, that JASON had much. They have had this electronic fence, and perhaps there are a few other things that are like that that I don't know about. You'll have to ask the people who have been with it constantly, and who know what's going on.
Aaserud:And maybe find some records in which the JASON decisions are evaluated on the government side. That would be very useful, because it's a very hard thing to determine.
Low:Yes. There was some feeling just before McNamara resigned — when he had been turned with respect to Vietnam but hadn't yet resigned — that the JASON people really were directly talking to McNamara and helping him with technical backup. But that's absolutely anecdotal; I don't know that for a fact. Murph will have to tell you this. But that was one of the words that I heard — that JASON had become the people McNamara trusted in giving him technical advice, and that they were helping him in his opposition to escalation in Vietnam.
Aaserud:I'm glad you say that. That's certainly important for further interviews. Of course, there is also the question of how the impact, however big it is, has fluctuated during the whole period, and whether it has fluctuated due to personal relationships within the government or due to the political inclination of the administration.
Low:Sure. The technical military people generally, I think, have been more constant and more sensible in the government than the policy people. I think they have been somewhat less dependent on the political fluctuations. That certainly has been the case in the Defense Department for the last four or five years, where the policy people have tended to be quite right wing and quite unreasonable, and the technical people have not; they've been much more sensible. This is something which I dealt with very much as Provost because there is a question of openness of research, and there's always the threat hanging over us of contractual requirements on research contracts, which, astoundingly, the Academy's Corson report was willing to go along with. I was astounded at that report. We at MIT never have gone along with that; we had our own committee, and didn't go along with it. Furthermore, in the end, DeLauer didn't go along with it in the Defense Department. They said, we're not going to do it; they said, no grey area. Thank God. Of course, the threat could come back. But I think the technical people in the Defense — the people who are interested in development — are much more sensible, also about these more political issues, how you deal with secrecy, how you deal with academic openness. Do you know the Corson Report?
Low:You don't know it? I thought you knew it. The Corson Committee was a committee set up by Frank Press of the National Academy of Sciences to make recommendations about quasi-secrecy, sensitive — what's it called — critical technologies: what do you do about computer programs; what do you do about cryptography, which is really a branch of number theory; what do you do about publications; what do you do about a cryptographic chip; and so on. All of those issues. The Corson Panel invented this concept called "grey area." A grey area is not classified, not secret, but restricted in some way. So then they were talking about how you restrict things in this grey area. For example, you don't allow foreign people from some countries to work on some project. You submit some projects for pre-publication review. And the grey area concept, since it's grey and undefined like classification, has always had the potential of including huge quantities of things. It's very dangerous. It seems to have been ruled out for the moment. JASON, however, had nothing to do with the grey area; that's classified. The grey area is not classified, but things that any university, like MIT, works in. Half of the engineering school works in things which could be called a grey area: all computer science, all robotics, all laser and so on. You can go on.
Aaserud:But, still, JASON is very close to basic science in what they're doing.
Low:I don't think so. I think the people are close to basic science.
Aaserud:You wouldn't say that that's the case in what they do in JASON?
Low:I don't think so, but maybe they do. I don't know what they've done for the last period — I've been out of there for 23 years. I don't really know, but I doubt it.
Aaserud:I see what you mean.
Low:I mean, you can always use Newton's Second Law, and Maxwell's Equations.
Aaserud:And that will never be classified, obviously.
Low:Furthermore, anything you do is going to involve those laws, if not the Schroedinger Equation. So, if you call anything that does that basic science, then all of engineering becomes basic science, too.
Aaserud:I guess we have gone over the time.
That's OK. But I do have to get back to work.