Oral History Transcript — Dr. Gordon MacDonald
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Gordon MacDonald; April 16, 1986
ABSTRACT: Born in Mexico; interested in geology at a young age. Attended Harvard, majoring in geology; formal physics education limited to half a term; early contacts with Purcell, Schwinger, and Bloembergen; Thompson, Birch, and Kennedy most influential teachers; early interest in science policy. Professor at MIT and exposure to computers; transition to UCLA 1958; collaboration with Munk on geophysics text; affiliation with NASA and Goddard Space Institute; director of Atmospheric Research Laboratory 1960. Early JASON involvement after invitation from Gell-Mann; hiatus from JASON 1970-77; concurrent involvement with PSAC; relations with fellow JASON members regarding ABM testimony and acid rain; JASON's transition from IDA to SRI and then to MITRE; technical advice and policy implications.
Aaserud:In general I am doing physicists and science policy documentation search and interviews after the Second World War, and JASON as a particular study of this, not implying, however, that JASON is the most typical example, but that it's a particularly interesting one from my perspective. What about your own papers from this point of view? Are they at the MITRE Corporation?
MacDonald:We have a record. It's not complete. Part of it is at the Institute of Geophysics at UCLA, but most of the stuff we have here, so if there are things that you would like to see, you could. But in fact, I have no record of the classified publications. That's something that came up quite accidentally; somebody asked me how many papers I'd published in the classified literature and I had absolutely no idea. We started to look at it and there's just no way of keeping track. And the JASON records are incomplete, of course.
Aaserud:I hope and intend to do this without any clearance.
MacDonald:I think you can get a better sort of feel for things without getting into the nitty gritty of the classified stuff.
Aaserud:I'm not going into detail on the particular projects, just getting an overview of the work in general: how the collaboration worked, what the impact was, the relations with the larger physics community. So your papers have been taken good care of, I'm glad to hear that. Part of the interest of the American Institute of Physics is to see to it that that happens. We don't have the facilities to keep them, but we're trying to place them somewhere and make people aware of their historical importance. Maybe we could talk about your early life. You were born in Mexico?
MacDonald:My father came out of Scotland after World War I, and ended up in Mexico, in the banking business. My mother was with the American embassy. They got together. That's how I ended up in Mexico, and my early education and everything was in Mexico.
Aaserud:Did they move to the US?
Aaserud:So you had your early education in Mexico.
MacDonald:Yes. And originally I was a dual Mexican-British citizen, so it wasn't till after I finished college that I became an American citizen.
Aaserud:What was behind your decision to get your college education in this country?
MacDonald:It was clear that I would need a university education, either in Canada or the United States. My parents initially favored my going to McGill, and then by accident a family friend who happened to be an alumni of Harvard suggested I apply to Harvard, and I got in. I took my degrees there.
Aaserud:What was your original motivation for going to college? Did you think of science immediately?
MacDonald:Oh yes. Even in high school, or earlier than that, I had taken a great interest in minerals and looking at crystals. It was very easy in Mexico, because you're in the mining community, and I got a job, between my junior and senior years in high school, in the laboratory of the American Smelting and Refining Co. plant in San Luis Potosi. One of my assignments was to go out and look at mineral prospects, as well as doing work in the laboratory. I got fascinated with science in that way.
Aaserud:So that was the real inducement for getting into it.
MacDonald:Yes, it was exposure to people who were working on a sort of a daily basis looking at ore samples that would come in, what their quality was, whether they were worth buying. And then confidence built up in me when I was relatively young to go out and make some of these assessments.
Aaserud:How old were you then?
Aaserud:So even from that early age, it wasn't just science, it was geoscience.
MacDonald:Yes, very definitely.
Aaserud:You stuck to that even from the outset at Harvard.
MacDonald:At Harvard I initially planned to major in chemistry. I had a disastrous experience, both in the elementary chemistry course and the elementary physics course at Harvard. Both of them were courses that were designed to capitalize on memory as opposed to understanding, and I was turned off. As a matter of fact, during my whole career, I've had half a year in physics. That's all of my formal education in physics. It was so bad, I vowed never to return.
Aaserud:Do you blame Harvard for that to some extent?
MacDonald:Yes, I had miserable teachers. Later I found out that Strect and Furry were both very competent physicists, and to appreciate the work that they did. But they ran an undergraduate course that was just absolutely miserable, and after one half year I said, no more physics. So following that, I took principally geology and math courses, and then later in graduate work sat in on good physicists' lectures — Schwinger, Purcell, and Bloembergen — but I never took a course for credit again in physics.
Aaserud:You majored in — ?
Aaserud:Was there a relationship between physics and the geology department in any way?
MacDonald:None whatsoever. There was a very good professor in geology who taught geophysics. He was a student of Bridgman, and through him I got to know Bridgman quite well. His name was Francis Birch, and he gave two or three courses in geophysics. Again I didn't take them for credit but listened in on them, and hence got interested in geophysics. My PhD thesis was actually on thermodynamics, on thermochemical properties of minerals. It was one of the first attempts to bring together a lot of information on the thermochemical properties of minerals and how one could work out the phase equilibria and so forth and so on. But at the same time, I spent a lot of time doing what geology students of that era used to do — to go out and look at outcrops and bang on rocks. And I got to Norway — even at that time we were thinking of Norway and the northern part of the Shetlands and Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and the Green Mountains as all being part of the same Appalachian orogeny.
Aaserud:Was that a students' excursion kind of thing?
MacDonald:No, it was an excursion actually funded by the junior fellows at Harvard, and for part of the time I was with one of the junior professors at Harvard. Most of the time I was on my own.
Aaserud:How did your dissertation fit into the geology department at Harvard?
MacDonald:It was sort of off in left field. It wasn't the usual kind of thing. They would much rather I had prepared as a thesis a written documentation of the geologic mapping that I'd done in southern Vermont. I turned in the documentation on the mapping, but felt more comfortable with the dynamical studies as a thesis.
Aaserud:Other departments didn't have to enter into that?
MacDonald:No, it was completely geology.
Aaserud:Even if it incorporated chemical or physical aspects.
MacDonald:Yes. The thesis committee consisted solely of geologists, nobody from physics or chemistry.
Aaserud:So your involvement in physics after that one course was just your own interest?
MacDonald:It was that, and I was helped by the fact that in my second year of graduate studies I got elected to the Society of Fellows as a Junior Fellow. I don't know how much you know of that organization, but it's a group into which eight are elected in any one year. So it must consist of 24 people from around the world, and you're given complete freedom to do what you want to do for three years. I skipped my third year and went to MIT. But you can do what you want to, and that's where I sat in on lots of physics courses, lots of math courses, and did my own re search.
Aaserud:— and also your dissertation of course during that same period. Who were your main teachers then?
MacDonald:The principal influence was the professor of petrology and minerology, Jim Thompson. That was strictly from the geological side. And I worked with Francis Birch, whom I've mentioned, who came out of the Bridgman school at Harvard, on high pressure experimentation. I'd done a lot on that — one of my early papers was a collaboration with Birch and Gene Robertson on stability relations of jadeite at very high temperatures and pressures. And the third person was George Kennedy, who was a young professor at Harvard at the time, who also worked in experimental high pressure research. During my stay at the Society of Fellows, I had a very good interaction with Ed Purcell who, among the physicists, I got to know as well as anybody, and Bob Pound, and to a lesser extent Julian Schwinger who was not interested in the things I was working on, as opposed to Purcell and Pound who did take an interest.
Aaserud:Even in the dissertation work.
MacDonald:Yes. They were not formally on the committee but they knew what I was doing.
Aaserud:— and discussed it with you.
MacDonald:Yes. And Bloembergen was also involved. But Purcell was, among the physicists, the biggest influence.
Aaserud:And your fellow students?
MacDonald:None of the students really exercised a lot of influence on me.
Aaserud:How did your concern with science policy questions, very broadly understood, originate? Was that during that period?
MacDonald:Yes, it began to develop during the period when I was in the Society of Fellows. One of the rituals of the Society was Monday night dinners with sherry. It was a nice dinner with very fine wines poured afterwards, and guests were brought in. The Senior Fellows invited Junior Fellows. One of the evenings I met Fermi. We had a long discussion about the earth's rotation, which I was getting interested in, and geophysics in general, and it turned out that he had taught a course in geophysics at one time, and was interested in the subject. And with Adlai Stevenson, who was candidate for President, I talked about science policy, or what would now be interpreted as science policy. The term hadn't originated, hadn't even been thought about, but it was the relationship of society to science and the interactions that flow from that relationship. And I became aware that there was this much larger world, other than the world of rocks, minerals and thermodynamic relationships. I already had an interest, in accord with my own general interests in political things. Growing up in Mexico, your sole source of information about politics was the radio, and so you got some excitement out of listening to the radio, and heard about conventions, elections, and that sort of thing. So it sort of fitted together.
Aaserud:To the extent that you thought of entering it professionally?
MacDonald:No, my ambition at the time was to become a university professor and do my research.
Aaserud:Which you did immediately thereafter, even before you had finished your fellowship.
Aaserud:What was the background of your receiving the MIT professorship?
MacDonald:Well, at that time universities were growing. There was a large demand for younger people in departments. I'd gotten a number of offers. Harvard wanted me to stay on, Johns Hopkins asked me to come down and interview, so did MIT. I didn't want to stay at Harvard because I'd been there all my undergraduate and graduate life. I decided to make a big move, which was all the way down the river to MIT, and it was a fun department.
Aaserud:Was it a big move?
MacDonald:It was intellectually a big move, because the emphasis at Harvard really was on geology viewed historically as geology. At MIT, it was that you make of the science what you would. And I came in at a very opportune moment, because computers were coming on. MIT had Whirlwind, the computer MITRE started with. It is a funny sort of history that I ended up with the organization that got me into computing. It was available to play with. There were various problems, and I started modeling various geophysical processes — the flow of heat out of the earth and things of that sort — and I began to see the power of that kind of modeling in helping to understand complex systems. And it was a very wonderful experience. I got my education by getting to know Wiener, sitting in on his lectures on time series statistical analysis. And the summers I spent in California at UCLA with George Kennedy, whom I'd been associated with at Harvard, and who had become a professor out at UCLA. He had been the second Junior Fellow out of geology. The first Junior Fellow, David Griggs, was also at UCLA. Both of them were in high pressure research. So I'd go out in the summers and do experimental work, then come back and work with students and do theory.
Aaserud:And the last three of the four years you were professor at MIT you were also a staff associate at the Carnegie Institution.
MacDonald:I spent a lot of time in Washington, because the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution had first class experimental facilities, and so I had established a relationship where I would think up experiments, work with people, and help with the interpretation of the results. And it was interesting and very very helpful. The research during that period strictly flowed out of the earlier work on the thermodynamics of minerals, which dealt with the phase relations at high pressures. I worked on three polymorphs of Al2S1O5, sillimanite, andalusite and kyanite. Each has its own field of stability. One of the great problems I worked on was, that if you saw a rock with andalusite in it, it must have formed within a certain range of temperature and pressure, which means a certain depth. That means that those rocks were once 10 kilometers down and at a temperature of 600 degrees. That was the excitement of trying to go out into the field and see a rock: to see what the mineral assemblage was, and then say, it used to be — there. It was, at the time, sort of the frontier work in that area.
Aaserud:To what extent did it involve computer work?
MacDonald:Much of it was becoming computer oriented — I'd gotten more and more involved in computers. I'd learned how to program in machine language with the Whirlwind, and then IBM helped MIT in setting up the computer center, and a 704 came in. I got to running programs on that. Fortran was just in its infancy, and was infinitely simpler than machine language, so I felt maybe there's a future.
Aaserud:But it must have involved a lot of work to be involved in computers at that early stage.
MacDonald:Yes. If you look back in time, I was probably involved in the first really computer-based models of geophysical processes.
Aaserud:How typical or untypical was that early involvement with computers both for geology and for physics?
MacDonald:At that time there was zero computer work in geology, almost nothing in geophysics, and just the beginnings in physics. One of the reasons I'd moved in that direction, was that I happened to share an office with somebody in geophysics who was heavily involved. That was Steve Simpson, who was heavily involved in developing ways of using digitized seismic records. I wasn't involved with that work; I was just a bystander, but looked on in amazement at Steve Simpson and Enders Robinson, who was the leader of the group, transforming the seismic industry and geophysical exploration from then to the present. That's why every oil company has a big computer.
Aaserud:Where did you share an office with Simpson?
MacDonald:At MIT. They really did make the big jump, of getting commercial seismology — finding oil — where the money is. They got it into the computer age, with a great deal of insight. Enders Robinson was taking Wiener's courses. He was a very very bright guy.
Aaserud:So your transition to UCLA was gradual then?
MacDonald:It was gradual. George Kennedy was a friend when I went out. Dave Griggs, whom I befriended later and who just about that time was heavily involved in the Oppenheimer case, was there, working on problems. And California had a lot of excitement, because, one, they had money, lots more than we had at MIT for experimental facilities, and secondly they was just intellectually more alive than MIT, which was in turn more alive than Harvard. Harvard, as I look back on it — and even then I recognized it — was a little bit in the backwater of how things were going. MIT was very exciting because of the research lab in electronics and the computers — statistical analysis and things of that sort. And then UCLA, with its Institute of Geophysics, brought a lot of these things together. So out of some personal contacts, I went out and made very good friends during the summer time with people there, and started working with them.
Aaserud:So that was a complete step out west?
Aaserud:You didn't retain your connection either with MIT or Harvard?
Aaserud:How would you describe, just briefly, the scientific change from the East to the West?
MacDonald:At MIT I did, I guess, in the four years I was there, supervise 17 or 18 PhD theses. I was deeply involved. Lots of graduate students. I had lots of ideas, they had lots of ideas, it was one thesis after another. When I went out, my interests began to broaden to other parts of geophysics. UCLA had a very strong department in meteorology. I became interested in atmospheric things. Got more involved with the physics department out there. I started to teach their graduate courses in statistical mechanics. It always amused me a little bit because having never had more than half a term of physics, now I taught both statistical mechanics and quantum mechanics. I did some experimental work, but more and more started to do strict geophysics, rather than the geologically oriented, looking at minerals and their stability relations. While I was at MIT, Walter Munk, who was the major figure in my scientific career, gave a talk in a seminar on the earth's rotation and some problems. I challenged him on a number of his assertions in public, and it got to be a very heated exchange. We went out and had drinks afterwards, and he said, "We really should get together and write a book." We did. And it was a very very wonderful experience. Part of it was written at his home in La Jolla. I'd commute down when I moved to UCLA. Most of it was written when he spent a summer at UCLA, and we got an office with no air conditioning. It was a very hot summer, and we'd sit there stripped down, taking our shirts off, sometimes our trousers, sitting in our shorts writing away, arguing. We held very different views on lots of subjects. The secretaries would come in and look shocked. But we got the thing done, and I think most people recognized that it's sort of a turning point in the history of geophysics. It was extremely influential. Though not recognized as such not until many years later. We sent the manuscript off — a very beautiful occasion. We wanted to get it into the mail before the end of 1960, because we'd promised it, and I think it was sort of December 30th. Walter's wife Judy arranged a big party that morning. Everybody was filled with champagne, and we marched to the post office and sent the manuscript off. That interaction got me into a whole set of solar system problems, and I never really returned to the questions that I dealt with in my thesis.
Aaserud:That book appeared already in 1960, right?
Aaserud:So it was actually written before you got the permanent position at UCLA.
MacDonald:It was written partly after that. 1960 was the publisher's date. It actually didn't appear until 1961.
Aaserud:You got the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Monograph Prize in Physical and Biological Sciences in 1959.
MacDonald:Well, we got Academy in 1959, for the book, but that again is based on the manuscript; it actually didn't appear until later.
Aaserud:But that book was taken up immediately into teaching.
MacDonald:Well, it was more of a research monograph, and the big impact it had was that it brought together very distinct parts of geophysics: meteorology, oceanography, the interior of the earth, and astronomical observations about the earth's rotation. And it pulled them all together in a way that never had been done. I'd always been very much in favor of trying to bring science together rather than compartmentalize. I still work at it. That was what I would say the major theme of the book was. Paleontology is not distinct from astronomy.
Aaserud:It had at least a second edition?
MacDonald:Yes, it's gone through many printings. We put out a second edition. Then, rather than we doing a major re-write, fortunately somebody in Australia did it for us.
Aaserud:Also during this period, you were a staff associate at NASA. Did that involve much work?
MacDonald:Yes, it did. When NASA was first set up, they were looking around for people, to help advise on the structure of the scientific program, and Bob Jastrow, who held a position at NASA, knew about me. He asked me to come and spend a year full time consulting with NASA on what the scientific program should be. And so I did that, working principally with Harold Urey, Lyman Spitzer, and two or three others — Urey was really the driving force — on what one would like to do if you could explore the solar system. So my job was to continue to write scientific papers, but also to chair various groups, drawing together the planning for the Ranger program, the Lunar Orbiter, and eventually Apollo. So I developed a very close working relationship with NASA. I worked at the Goddard Space Institute, which was then in Silver Spring and headed by Bob Jastrow.
Aaserud:Were you physically away from UCLA during that whole academic year, 1960-1961?
Aaserud:Was that your first year at UCLA?
MacDonald:No, I moved to UCLA in 1958. That is concordant with the dates on that book.
Aaserud:Yes, it says here, "professor of geophysics, University of California, LA, 1958-60." And then you became the director of the Atmospheric Research Laboratory in 1960.
Aaserud:That signifies a transition.
MacDonald:Yes, I was becoming more interested in the atmosphere, working on climate problems. We were trying to build up a capability within the University of California system, both at San Diego and Los Angeles, in atmospheric physics. There was a very strong group in meteorology at UCLA, and we wanted to work with them, and build up and look towards satellite meteorology — everything that came out of that.
Aaserud:Even that early. That was at the very early stages of the satellite program, of course. You also had a European experience in 1962. You lectured both in Italy and France.
MacDonald:Oh yes. Les Houches and the Fermi School — both of them were just wonderful experiences that you want to remember all your life. At Lake Como we had a school on space physics. Bruno Rossi was head of it. And van Allen, Tom Gold, myself, a number of people. Joe Chamberlain was at Les Houches. I gave a set of lectures, and then fortunately I'd arranged it so it went on to Les Houches and I lectured on upper atmosphere physics, ionospheric stuff, and things of that sort. Both of them were just incredible experiences. At that time, through Bruno Rossi's intervention, I seriously thought about taking a year off and going down to Rome, and spending a year there. I decided not to, and to go back to UCLA. Again, at this stage, I'd gone from the lower atmosphere. Now I was working on ionospheric things, doing work on propagation of hydromagnetic waves in the ionosphere and things like that. A long way from first year physics!
Aaserud:How long were you there?
MacDonald:Just for the summer. In both places.
Aaserud:Both of those were the summer, yes. And then Woods Hole? You have to correct me if I'm doing this in the wrong order, or miss something.
MacDonald:I forget, Woods Hole?
Aaserud:It's listed here, "member, corporation of Woods Hole."
MacDonald:Oh, for many years I was a member of the corporation, which is a governing body of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. It was sort of looking over what they were doing. As a result of the work I'd been doing with Walter, I'd gotten into some oceanographic questions, so people thought of me as being in oceanography too. So the Oceanographic Institution asked me to join their board.
Aaserud:OK, maybe we should start on JASON. Of course, we were into the JASON period already in what we've been talking about.
Aaserud:So maybe you could say something about your own background for entering JASON. Who asked you, how did you come into it, and when?
MacDonald:Murray Gell-Mann, whom I'd gotten to know in a number of circumstances in the Los Angeles area, gave me a call one day, and asked me if I'd like to be a member of JASON. I think it was either 1963 or 1964; and I'm not absolutely certain. As you'll note, there's no mention of JASON in my vitae. I've kept all my JASON and intelligence activities out of the biography. He told me a little bit about it. I knew about JASON, even though it was newly formed, and I said, "Well, you know I'm very busy with all kinds of other things, but I really would like to be part of it. Let me talk to Walter Munk," who was a member. So that's why I think it was 1964 because Walter came in in 1961. But the JASON records are fuzzy on this. I talked to Walter. He told me what was involved. And since I was heavily involved with Washington, advising things, he said, "You really should. If you want to do it, you should make a commitment." I said, "OK, I'll think about it." I talked to a number of other people, Keith Brueckner, Murph Goldberger, Sid Drell, all of whom I'd met in other circumstances. I said, "It sounds very exciting. I certainly would learn a lot, broaden my experience," and I said, "Yes, I'll do it." I talked to Murray; I guess he was on the steering committee at the time. I think it was 1964.
Aaserud:Then you were 35 years old.
Aaserud:That was young even for a JASON member, wasn't it?
MacDonald:Yes. All of the JASON members of my era were older than I was. It was the same year I got elected to the Academy and to the American Philosophical Society, and I was the youngest member of both organizations.
Aaserud:This was your first experience with that kind of thing?
MacDonald:It was, but again, I'm a little fuzzy on the dates. I haven't looked at my bio. I had been involved, or did have a top secret clearance, for some work for PSAC and for the Air Force Scientific Office of Research, and I'm not quite sure of the dates, but I had done just a trifling amount of defense oriented work. It wasn't serious.
Aaserud:You were on the Committee on Atmospheric Sciences in the Division of Physical Sciences of the National Academy of Sciences.
MacDonald:Well, no, that came later.
Aaserud:It says 196l to 1970.
MacDonald:OK, then that was the time period.
Aaserud:That's the only thing listed, but there are other things too of course that are not here.
MacDonald:In a sense, it really was Murray Gell-Mann. He was very persuasive. He was very enthusiastic, and he played on what he knew was one of my interests or weaknesses, which was to broaden things that I was doing, and he pointed out that JASON was involved in lots of things that I knew very little about, and that I would learn a lot, and obviously, I respected Murray a great deal.
Aaserud:So he asked you, you said yes, and you were a member.
Aaserud:You've been a full time member ever since?
MacDonald:No. I went into government in 1970 as a member of the Council on Environmental Policy full time, and then you resigned all your private situations. After that, I came out, and Ken Watson I guess was chairman of JASON, and he asked whether I wanted to rejoin. I said, no, because my interests had changed. I'd become heavily involved in environmental things, and I didn't formally go back into JASON till 1977.
Aaserud:OK, and since then you've been a member.
Aaserud:So you were not involved in the very origins of JASON?
MacDonald:No. I came in, I'm almost certain, two years after. I mean, there was the Berkeley summer study and there was one other summer study, and then at the third one, I was there. So I wasn't involved with the earliest discussions.
Aaserud:And you didn't even have knowledge of it.
MacDonald:Other than the conversations with Charlie Townes, John Wheeler, the people who were there.
Aaserud:OK, and you weren't involved in any summer studies, that kind of activity, before JASON either?
MacDonald:Yes, I'd been involved in NASA and the National Academy of Sciences, Woods Hole activities, mostly oriented towards NASA but also the atmospheric sciences.
Aaserud:Were those similar activities?
MacDonald:Similar in the sense that one summer — maybe it was 1960 or 1961 — we spent six weeks in Woods Hole sort of planning the lunar program for NASA. But as far as defense, national security, JASON was first.
Aaserud:That was your first involvement. So you were not involved in the discussion about the establishment of JASON, whether that was the right kind of forum for this thing. Munk was in JASON already at the time?
Aaserud:And then you came in, but other than that, virtually all in the group were theoretical physicists at that time.
MacDonald:Yes, Munk was the only non-theoretical physicist.
Aaserud:Did that have any impact on your kind of work, or your kind of relationship with the rest of the group?
MacDonald:No. I think right from the start, we obviously didn't talk precisely the same language, but our vocabularies were sufficiently similar so that I don't remember any communication problems or disagreement about what were the important questions.
Aaserud:How large was the group then, about 40?
MacDonald:Oh no, at that time it was much smaller. I would guess at most 20. In the sixties, it grew. Murph wanted to expand the range both of interests and disciplines. He wanted to get more experimental people involved, as well as people such as Walter with different backgrounds, so through the sixties I would guess it ranged between 20 and 30, and then later grew to 40.
Aaserud:So it was that gradual. I thought the number had been established earlier.
Aaserud:JASON at that time was completely militarily oriented, right?
MacDonald:Yes. All the work was for DARPA or ARPA at the time, though ARPA's interests were sufficiently catholic so that it touched on Navy things that Walter was interested in, and Air Force things. And even though DARPA was the principal sponsor, it didn't restrict the range of problems. There was a heavy emphasis, in the early days, on the physics of missile re-entry, the issues related to a possible ballistic missile defense. And questions related to nuclear effects. My contribution was principally in the last area — what happens to the ionosphere when you set off nuclear explosions, things of that sort.
Aaserud:Was that a problem of your own choice, or were you given it?
MacDonald:Given the range of things that people were working on, and what you are interested in, there's never been, at least to my knowledge, any assignment of problems.
Aaserud:Your publications listed here in science policy matters broadly construed have been in non-military areas. Is that mostly because your JASON studies haven't been listed here?
MacDonald:Nothing that I've done for JASON, with a couple of exceptions in the last few years on CO2 and acid rain, is listed. I've kept private my work in defense and intelligence.
Aaserud:Is that work still classified?
Aaserud:But the titles aren't; only the work itself. How did your work in JASON relate to your other research work in the academic or any other context?
MacDonald:There really was very little connection. It was a separate set of problems, extremely interesting, but divorced from academic research. A year or so after I joined JASON, I became a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee, and there there was a much greater overlap. I found that a large fraction of my time was taken up either with the PSAC work or JASON, and in those areas there was a heavy overlap. But my academic research, which was now heavily into the stability of orbits and of planets and tidal friction and the origin of the solar system and things of that sort, was quite distinct from the JASON work.
Aaserud:I'm sure that there was a variation in to what extent JASON work was related to people's other work. Would you know of instances where the connection was close?
MacDonald:Oh, I think there are a number of cases where there's a very close connection. I think Walter is a good example. His work in oceanography, from the very earliest days, has been closely tied to his work for JASON. Thinking about various other people in that epoch, there was no distinction between what Nick Christophilos did professionally and in JASON.
Aaserud:Was he a regular member?
MacDonald:Oh yes. Fantastic person. With Keith Brueckner, at that time, there was also no distinction. But for people like Murph, Hal Lewis, Fred Zachariasen, Murray, and others, there was very little relationship between what they did and their academic work.
Aaserud:In time some influence might have occurred perhaps.
MacDonald:Yes, I think in time, but even if you look at the membership today, you'll still find a big division between work that is JASON related, and other work. But obviously in the early years, the distinction was greater than in later years, because people's interests do get channeled. Roger Dashen would not have done some of the things he's done in perturbation theory if he hadn't faced the kinds of problems that he's working on in ocean acoustics — and so on down the line.
Aaserud:There's another side to that, and that is, if the two areas are very connected, there might be problems with getting things that are connected with JASON work into the open literature.
MacDonald:I think the record is pretty clean on that. There have always been cases in which you wondered whether the research that was going on at the university really was so closely tied to the JASON work that it wasn't part of the JASON work, but I think that's the exception rather than the rule. Norman Kroll's work on the free electron laser is completely independent of most of his other interests. Marshall Rosenbluth's work as well. You can go right down the list. It's different.
Aaserud:Norman Kroll told me that he had quit in part because he wanted to spend his time completely on his academic work.
MacDonald:Yes, and he did; he quit. He consults for JASON, but he's not a member of JASON.
Aaserud:To what extent was JASON a group of people who did not have any previous experience with the kind of work that that involved? To what extent was it a new generation of physicists in science policy?
MacDonald:Almost entirely. Some of the senior people, like Murph Goldberger, had been at Los Alamos. The founders, John Wheeler, Charlie Townes, and others, obviously had been involved. Some of the people who really pushed hard, like Hans Bethe, had had previous exposure to defense problems. But for the most part, the people who came into JASON had had no experience. I had had essentially no experience. Walter Munk had to the extent that he had been involved in wave forecasting for the Navy in World War II. But if you look at the first class of JASONs, Fred Zachariasen had not been involved. Freeman Dyson really not, although in some peripheral ways he had been in Britain, but most people were not, and it was an attempt — and of course this was the goal of the godfathers — to bring people in and maintain some sort of capability within the country in terms of scientific talent to work on national security problems.
Aaserud:But people joined enthusiastically?
MacDonald:Oh yes. Who wouldn't? Murray Gell-Mann hadn't had any experience whatsoever with defense. He was too young for World War II.
Aaserud:To what extent did you find that JASON changed over the years? I'm not sure in what way; I'm fishing now, obviously.
MacDonald:Well, the big change came with Vietnam. JASON, up until 1966, I would say, was a relatively homogeneous group; people with like interests, but obviously very different personalities and backgrounds. Ken Watson is not a Nick Christophilos, and there was a Murph, a Hal Lewis, a Norman Kroll, and so on — a spectrum of different people. JASON began to work seriously on Vietnam in 1965 and continued in 1966 and subsequent years. I was heavily involved in that, and it began to raise very serious questions within the membership, partly from internal misgivings about Vietnam, and partly from the fact that pressure was brought on the individuals from their colleagues. The Columbia group, Ruderman and Foley, were subjected to a lot of pressure. In 1968, when I went to Santa Barbara, I got very special attention. It was a difficult time. And the character of JASON began to shift. There was a group of people who were willing to work on problems of Vietnam, and a group of people — extremely valuable contributors — who would not. Freeman Dyson made a decision not to work on any of the problems. Others made similar decisions. Some left during this period. Some waited a few years and then left, and the character of the organization changed. It happened to coincide with a shift of chairmanship between Murph, who had one style, and Hal Lewis, who had a very different style, and that created changes.
Aaserud:That change occurred in what year?
MacDonald:I would guess it was 1967 or 1968. Murph was chairman the first seven years, I'd say. And Hal took over. He was much more concerned about "quality control" or how good JASONs are and so forth, and how much they are actually working and contributing. And that created other ripples in the organization. So I would say that during that period, 1967 through 1970, you saw people drop out, and support from DARPA dampened somewhat. In the early seventies the chairmanship changed from Lewis to Watson. The Goldberger-Lewis change was sort of internal; Murph felt that he'd done his bit and somebody else should take over, and Hal wanted to do it. In the case of Lewis to Watson, it was a dissatisfaction on the part of the administrative unit that provides the administrative support to JASON, which had shifted from IDA to SRI, and SRI was dissatisfied with Lewis, and unhappy with him, so Watson came on in another shift.
Aaserud:When did the SRI take over?
MacDonald:I would guess 1972 or 1973, about that period. Then in the same period between 1968 and 1972, another and I think a very important change was that JASON became no longer a creature of ARPA, but now began to develop relationships with the Navy, with the CIA, with other organizations in the national security arena. I was heavily involved in working out relationships with the CIA, as was Mal Ruderman and a few others. For the Navy, it was Walter Munk, Ed Frieman and some others. So that the customer was no longer a single entity but now a variety. That transition took place over the period from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, and JASON diversified. The Daddy Rabbit, the principal customer, continued to be ARPA, but there were other units of government — the Navy in particular, and the intelligence agencies, CIA and NSA — asking for JASON help. The Department of Energy came later in the seventies, and that changed the character of the work. The original idea was that principally, if not entirely, JASON would work on classified things. As a result of Vietnam and things that came out of it, the decision was made that JASON could take on unclassified work, and did that for DOE. The series of work on carbon dioxide, acid rain, and a variety of other tasks was in the middle seventies.
Aaserud:What was the reason for this broadening? Was it the lower funding of ARPA? Was it that JASON became better known?
MacDonald:It was partially that JASON became better known. JASONs wanted to work on things so that they could, and I'll put it a little too bluntly, go back and tell their colleagues that they were really working on peaceful rather than war related projects.
Aaserud:That was the result of Vietnam.
MacDonald:That was clearly the result of Vietnam. People felt more comfortable working on CO2 than they did working on nuclear effects, things of that sort.
Aaserud:To some extent the physicists approached other agencies; it was not only other agencies approaching JASON?
MacDonald:Yes, it was a two way street. The other agencies recognized us, so fine. So the support base broadened. The range of problems JASON was engaged in broadened. And it became a competition within JASON as to who would work on what projects.
Aaserud:That was new? That was entirely new?
MacDonald:It wasn't something that happened overnight, but it evolved between the late sixties and the middle seventies, and it had a disruptive effect on JASON.
Aaserud:A divisive effect to some extent too.
Aaserud:You got different groups working on entirely different —
MacDonald:— problems and —
Aaserud:— for their own reasons.
MacDonald:In the early stages, the notion was that everybody in JASON would be allowed to know what everybody else was doing; so there was a common knowledge base. With the acceptance of contracts, let's say from the intelligence agencies, they became compartmented, so some JASONs worked in that compartment, and they could not share the information with other JASONs.
Aaserud:They just were not allowed to?
MacDonald:They were not allowed to, from the classification security point of view. So that led to a fragmentation of interest within JASON. My own view was that this destroyed some of the internal cohesion that came out of the fact that everybody was working more or less on the same set of problems. Then you'd wander in, and wander out, and contribute to whatever someone was working on, or maybe not contribute, but at least you had access. Now some people worked on something they couldn't talk about to the other JASONs.
Aaserud:To what extent did this coincide with a change of membership; that you got a different type of member?
MacDonald:No. I don't think the change in the way JASON worked affected the kind of people you were looking for, nor did the people who came into JASON affect how the work was done. It was just a response to how government worked. The big break was going from a single contract, with ARPA, to more than one sponsor, and I think the first new one may have been the CIA, or it may have been the Navy, I forget. But it split things. Bringing new bright physicists into JASON and the national security arena, which of course was the whole reason for having a JASON, went by fits and starts. Some years, there was an effort to identify people and go out and try to recruit them. Other years it sort of went by the board. But on the whole, membership has grown. Except for the very few people who resigned for ideological or other reasons, the membership has remained more or less stable.
Aaserud:So the average age is a lot higher now than it was at the outset?
MacDonald:Three or four years ago somebody did a statistical analysis, and I was the perfect median JASON, having been there the average number of years, published the average number of papers. I'd say that the average age now is close to my age and I'm 56, so it's getting older.
Aaserud:That has changed JASON too, of course.
MacDonald:It has. What happens when an organization becomes old? There's a lot of nostalgia for the good old days. JASON, in its early years, was much more brash, much more contemptuous of the gold stars on the general's shoulders, much less polite; and even these comments may be saying: the good old days. It's much more of a contemporary organization. When created, it was absolutely unique. It was a brilliant, in my view absolutely incredible, idea. But like all organizations it ages, it changes. It continues to serve a very useful function, but if you look at the 20 some odd years that it's functioned and say, what are the things that JASON has done that made a difference, you'd find most of them came out of the first five to ten years.
Aaserud:OK, good. I'm planning to concentrate on the first 10 to 15 years, so that's a comment I appreciate. But during the seventies too then, the main body consisted of theoretical physicists?
MacDonald:Yes. Some broadening of interest took place. Oscar Rothaus, a mathematician, came in, largely because of Hal Lewis's interest in NSA problems. We always had electrical engineers, even way back to the earliest days. Allen Peterson is an electrical engineer, and there are two or three others. John Vesecki is a computer expert, and Al Despain, and there is Russ Davis, another oceanographer, so that there's been somewhat of a broadening. There are more experimental physicists. But the core of JASON and the heart of JASON is still nuclear or high energy theoretical physicists.
Aaserud:In some sense, that is the result of historical chance, of course.
MacDonald:You know, the bright guys who thought JASON up in the first place came out of that field. The brightest physicists at that time and probably today are high energy physicists.
Aaserud:Yes, and they picked among their peers.
MacDonald:Obviously they know good high energy physicists when they see them. It takes a lot of convincing that there is a geologist out there some place or a mathematician who can interact constructively. Now, the problems that we face today in the national security arena are problems that really involve or require talents in areas that high energy physicists are not conversant with. But they are very very bright and they may pick those talents up, and have so in many many cases.
Aaserud:You still think that the theoretical physicist is the right person for the job.
MacDonald:Oh, without any question. In my dream world, I'd have the corps of good theoretical physicists with subgroups in the computer sciences and some of the environmental or geophysical sciences and so forth. But a good theoretical physicist is still at the core.
Aaserud:It was none other than the theoretical physicist who could have made this particular contribution?
Aaserud:During the first ten to fifteen years, who were the most important members, both in stature and in position held within the group? There was the chairman of the steering committee, of course.
MacDonald:Yes, the chairman. Murph Goldberger was the heart and soul of JASON in its earliest years. He really made the organization go. Ken Watson, from the start, and until today, is an extraordinarily important member. Marshall Rosenbluth. Ed Frieman. Hal Lewis. Particularly in the early years Hal was very very important. Bill Nierenberg came along later.
Aaserud:Yes, but only a couple of years later, about the same time you came in or a little before.
MacDonald:Yes, and was important. Murray Gell-Mann was very important. Murray's interests essentially vanished in 1968.
Aaserud:OK, but he was responsible for getting you in.
MacDonald:He was responsible for a lot of the intellectual activity in JASON. He had ideas. He sparkled, resonated, did all the things —
Aaserud:Is he an advisory member now or is he a regular member?
MacDonald:He's a regular member but he seldom attends. Sam Treiman is another important early member. He's chairman of the Princeton Physics Department. If I could encourage you, probably the least conventional view among the Princeton people, and a very thoughtful view, will be given to you by Freeman Dyson. He'll give you, as I say, a very different perspective. I'm much more in the main line of thinking of JASONs than Freeman.
Aaserud:There is a broad range of JASON people.
MacDonald:Yes. Townes played an absolutely essential part in setting JASON up. As was noted, I wasn't involved. But he was the Vice President for Research of the Institute of Defense Analyses at the time JASON was set up, and sort of carried the argument for having a JASON. As to where the idea came from, a lot of people will give you different stories. I think it may have originated with John Wheeler or it may have originated with interactions between Wheeler and Goldberger and Townes.
Aaserud:I have several versions of that.
MacDonald:There are many versions. I couldn't sort it out.
Aaserud:Herb York has a chapter on it in his autobiography.
MacDonald:Yes, Herb was influential and from his position was able to provide money to get it started. You know, many people were involved. I don't think there's any one father of JASON. Charlie was extraordinarily influential in setting the style, in saying, we must have the very best physicists in this group. I succeeded him — there was a short period when Elliot Montroll was at IDA between Charlie and me, and then I went to IDA — and Charlie's influence was just there. He'd pushed it. And the wonderful thing about it is that today, 20 some odd years later, he comes in and works on specific problems JASON has in a very innovative and productive way. He's as good a JASON as some of the younger people we have. He only spends a few days a year at it, but he does it, and he's maintained this continuing interest, and it's provided a great deal of guidance and support to the various chairmen over the years, and I think he has had a greater role than anyone. He and Murph really set it it up, in the sense of making it operational.
Aaserud:And were important members. But both Townes and York were perhaps more crucial in the actual creation.
MacDonald:York was over on the government side. So from his position, first within DDR&E, and then ARPA, made sure that the monies were available. If there hadn't been someone as receptive to the idea, like any good idea, it could have been stomped under by the bureaucracy, but Herb saw the value of it, and immediately supported it. I don't think he really had the basic ideas. I think John Wheeler was very influential in thinking about it, and Oscar Morgenstern, who's forgotten in lots of the discussions. Eugene Wigner was involved. Teller was involved. The JASON revisionist history tries to play down Teller's role, but Teller was involved.
Aaserud:Would you encourage me to interview him?
MacDonald:Oh yes. And Wigner in particular. Wheeler and Murph had a very good relationship, and I doubt Murph would have taken the job on if it hadn't been for John Wheeler. You've talked with Murph?
Aaserud:Yes, I have. The microphone didn't malfunction then so I was able to retain that interview, yes.
MacDonald:Because, in the years that you're talking about, if JASON is judged as contributing, Murph is responsible.
Aaserud:You talked a little bit about your projects in JASON during that early period. Is there something you want to add to that, or about projects generally?
MacDonald:No. I guess the project that will rightly or wrongly go down in history as being JASON's major contribution was the Vietnam barrier study, as far as the 1960s are concerned. My own judgment is that there were other things that were done there at that time that contributed to national security in important ways. I participated in that in a number of ways, but mainly towards the end, in getting it implemented. I was at IDA and had access to McNamara and McNaughton and the various people. The leader was Nierenberg. He put it through. He had a great deal of help from guys like Henry Kendall, who later quit. Incidentally, you should by all means interview him, because he has a very different view, a highly critical view of JASON.
Aaserud:But he was a member from rather early on, right?
MacDonald:No, I don't think he was an original member but he was an early member.
Aaserud:He was there when you started.
MacDonald:Yes. And he was involved in a very positive and productive way. Murray Gell-Mann was involved. And then, sort of on the side, Hal Lewis and I were. And subsequent to that, there was a very small group of JASONs that did a study that's still very very highly classified, that did have an influence on President Johnson and what happened subsequently. As for the later years, I've worked on just about everything.
Aaserud:How were projects selected? Was there great freedom to do whatever one wanted to do?
MacDonald:Well, this is one of the differences, and I think it's a very important difference. In the early years at JASON, the ideas for projects came from JASON.
MacDonald:Almost exclusively. They learned about what was going on, and then they'd come up with, "Let's work on this." Now, it's sort of the agencies saying, "We want you to work on so and so." And JASON works on so and so, whether it's what happens when a nuclear weapon of such and such megatonnage goes off in the ionosphere, what happens to radio wave propagation — OK, that's a well set problem and you work on it. In the early years, it was Christophilos thinking about how to communicate with submarines — extremely low frequency propagation in the antennas, and the ionospheric stuff; ideas about how to modify the ionosphere, heating the ionosphere, to make it look different — just ideas that came out of the group. And again, you can see why this would be. You had a bunch of brash guys who had some, but not very great, connections with the security organizations, and they'd come up with their own ideas. And so they came out with them and said, "Let's work on them." They had the enthusiasm and the backing of guys like Herb York and later Johnny Foster, now at TRW, Cleveland, and others. Johnny has a good perspective, because he was both an enthusiast and a critic, and had, I think, a fairly balanced point of view. So there's been that change from JASON initiating ideas, to responding to specific needs.
Aaserud:Where does the dividing line go in time? It's diffuse, I'm sure.
MacDonald:It's diffuse. I would say, if you'd have to draw it, it's between the Murph and the Hal.
Aaserud:OK, so that would be a transition that took place during the first 15 years.
MacDonald:It took place in the first 15 years, and became much more pronounced in the last five or even ten years.
Aaserud:Evaluation work too has come to dominate — evaluation of others' proposals and others' work.
MacDonald:That's right. Oh gee whiz, yes, and some of us feel that's sort of degrading, but a lot of that is done.
Aaserud:You turn from researchers to referees?
Aaserud:OK, how is the work done in practice? It was done during summer studies and during smaller periods during the semester? Was it done in groups — one, two, three?
MacDonald:It depends. Almost all the good work was done in small groups. Some fabulous ideas came from individuals. Freeman Dyson worked up image compensation and the whole thing of active telescopes by himself, but most of the work came through the fact that you had small groups. One of the best experiences I've had was a group that consisted of Mal Ruderman, Henry Foley who was alive at the time, Freeman Dyson who took part in it — I guess that was it. We worked together on a particular problem over a summer, and each of us brought a very very different point of view, that was brought together. Mal chaired the group. He and I ended up writing the report. But we would not have had a product without the group interaction. None of the individuals could have done it. The Vietnam work was certainly that way; the Navy work, which I have not been personally involved in — only as a spectator — but which has been very important and influential, has been group activities, with groups that included Roger Dashen and Fred Zachariasen, Walter Munk, and Russ Davis — just a nucleus of very good people working together, talking and talking, writing equations at each other. So I would say almost all of it comes out of the summer studies plus a certain amount of interaction during the year, but the summer period is where the work gets done.
Aaserud:But ideas for work are sometimes sought for. At least from the outset I understood you had people come to lecture on specific topics?
MacDonald:Well, we always have. Twice a year there are meetings. We have people come in to talk about their problems, and occasionally someone will come up with a problem that somebody at JASON thinks he has a solution for. And in the early days, just knowing what the problems were, led people to think of solutions without having to be briefed on them, and I think that happens much less often now than it did then. You asked one question before, and I was incomplete in my answer. You said what were the things that changed the character of JASON, and we talked about Vietnam and the diversification of interests. I guess the third of that, and one that is continuing, is the controversy over SDI. You will find that there are JASONs on both sides of that issue — the majority against it — and it's not as divisive as Vietnam, but it's approaching that. I've not mentioned Dick Garwin previously, but he's been a key figure throughout — right from day one — and obviously he's deeply involved in the SDI controversy. It's pitted him and Sid Drell, who is another very influential guy right from the start, against Nierenberg — well, publicly against Jastrow, but within JASON against some of the people who favor SDI. And that's been destructive.
Aaserud:Did you have a similar debate over the ABM?
MacDonald:No, ABM was handled I think in a much more constructive way, in the sense that it was so different, you know. ABM in the sixties grew as a program. It had various elements, and proposals for deployment and so forth, and JASON was heavily involved in looking at the physics — at what happens when targets come in and how you recognize them, how you deal with decoys, all those technical things — and JASON did a lot of work on that. So it was a very well informed group. It was still a fairly cohesive group. This is the sixties. So when the administration made a decision to go ahead with ABM, there were people opposed, but they were opposed in the sense of being very well informed and knowing the arguments. I wouldn't say that there was any group within JASON that really wanted ABM. So I think it was fairly evenly divided. I got a lot of flak. I testified on ABM, and in a fairly evenhanded way, saying that the deployment of a limited ABM in defense of missile fields might make sense, but the area of population defense made no sense at that time. I was criticized within JASON, but not heavily. It didn't divide the group. SDI has divided. I mean, there are people — Dick Garwin of course being most public in his feelings about SDI — publicly against it.
Aaserud:So even if there were similarities, there's a big difference.
MacDonald:There is a big difference. There really is a big difference, because SDI came upon us as the result of a speech. Many of us have worked on aspects of SDI and we knew how difficult the problem was, and it seemed so ludicrous — how could anyone be talking in these terms? JASON gets some fraction of its funds from the SDI office.
Aaserud:And there are JASONs in favor of it.
MacDonald:There are. Not too many, but there are.
Aaserud:That brings me, just by chance, to the next question — the difference between technical tasks and policy advice. I would guess that JASON has provided more of the former than of the latter, but for large questions like ABM and SDI, it's hard to do one without thinking of the other. Would you make a distinction there?
MacDonald:It's a very hard distinction. I'll tell you what the rules of the game are, and you may or may not believe that that's the way it works, but in principle JASON conducts technical studies and we produce reports that have technical results, and no policy statements are made. In the unclassified area we have a massive report on acid rain, that says all sorts of things are happening, but it doesn't say, "You'd better cut back on sulfur emissions." Individuals within JASON are obviously free to take personal positions on policy issues, and Dick Garwin and Sid Drell and several others have of course done this, publicly or privately as members of advisory groups within government. It's always been very difficult to separate what is JASON, or what isn't JASON, to what extent the information on which they make their public statements was derived from JASON work, or derived from other work — who knows? I mean, no one is able to make that sort of judgment, but it is a controversial subject. When Dick Garwin testifies, to some extent that knowledge is drawn from information he's acquired as a result of his interaction with JASON. But the views that he expresses, and he always makes it quite clear that they are his personal views, are just that. So this leads the sponsors to a dilemma: "We're educating these people, we're providing them money and information — much more importantly information — and they can become critics of us. Do we really want to do this?" So far, they say the benefits are greater than the losses. I'm not sure that will always hold. And it's sort of a problem we worry about all the time. You don't want to restrict people in their personal activities, but what responsibility do they carry with them as a result of being informed about issues, as a result of the JASON involvement? And it's a tough one.
Aaserud:The level of outspokenness has been pretty low, hasn't it, except for the exceptions we've been talking about, like Garwin; that's maybe the most prominent example?
MacDonald:Well, Garwin... In general, JASON as an institution has tried very strongly to get people not to talk on public issues. I've been criticized within JASON because of the positions I've taken on nonclassified – CO2 and acid rain — kinds of issues in testimony. And indeed, a good deal of the information that I used resulted from the fact that I worked on those problems while a member of JASON. It's tough. It really is tough. At another level, Charlie Townes was chairman of the committee that looked at one particular basing mode for the MX. He had JASON to draw on as resources. He chaired that group and came out with a recommendation. Yet part of his education came out of JASON. And so forth and so on. I think it's a very healthy process, because it does get technical people involved who are knowledgeable in these areas. But it has this other feature to it. People can say, "We're paying money and providing information and you're going to use it against us."
Aaserud:We distinguish now between the low-keyness of JASON as an institution, and the outspokenness of individual members.
MacDonald:Yes, and for a long time we tried to restrict access to who were JASON members. For many years, we would withhold membership lists from the public press, primarily because during the Vietnam era people who were associated with JASON were harassed. You know, in Santa Barbara I got my garage burned down, things painted all over me — things like that. And similar things happened to other JASONs. In the last five to ten years, particularly since Bill Nierenberg has been involved, they've said, "Let's give as much information as possible, within the restriction of classification, so people know who the members of JASON are."
Aaserud:I would think it would be counterproductive to try to hide it.
MacDonald:It was. It was. But as I say, people — the Columbia group in particular, Ruderman and Foley — suffered.
Aaserud:I haven't seen a membership list coming out of JASON myself.
MacDonald:Obviously we can provide one with no trouble at all. It's not a secret.
Aaserud:I would appreciate that, because before I started, my most substantial source to that was the highly critical SESPA publication, The War Physicists.
Aaserud:The distinction, or the impossibility of a distinction, between technical advice and policy advice is a very large question with a lot of implications.
MacDonald:Reiterating, within the JASON framework, we're not supposed to provide policy advice. Our role is technical.
Aaserud:Is there some kind of policy, is there some kind of formalized rules about what JASON is supposed to do and not supposed to do?
MacDonald:No, purposefully, rather than bureaucratize the group, we have not tried to write down specific rules. But the understanding is that what you do in JASON is privileged, the information that you obtain as a JASON is privileged, and even though it may not be classified, you don't want to get up and talk about it.
Aaserud:And even internal things are not formalized. We spoke before about the different circumstances of how Lewis, then Watson, became chairmen. There's no formal selection procedure?
MacDonald:No, it's informal, you know. Bill Nierenberg is stepping down, Will Happer is taking over as chairman, and it's agreed upon within the steering committee that it seems like a good idea. There's a consensus. People talk to other people.
Aaserud:The steering committee runs the show pretty much?
MacDonald:And the steering committee changes every year.
Aaserud:It changes every year?
MacDonald:Yes, members go on and go off. I think the membership is three years.
Aaserud:So there's a formalized rotation.
MacDonald:A formalized rotation so that just about everybody in JASON who's been in JASON more than five or six years will end up on the steering committee.
Aaserud:Another point that we did hint upon before is the possible conflict between secrecy and the ideal of openness within the science community — whether that has led to problems.
MacDonald:Yes, the agreement is that members of JASON will abide by the rules laid down by security. And as far as I know, no leaks have ever been attributed to JASON. People will argue that, for example, Dick Garwin in his testimony will have made use of much information that's in the unclassified literature, but knowing the classified literature, he was able to selectively put it together in a way that makes it classified. I think that's a very weak argument. But if you work in the classified arena, you accept the rules. If you don't want to work there, fine.
Aaserud:But the line is not always that clearcut, of course.
MacDonald:No, but I think in terms of formal classification, it is clearcut. What isn't clearcut are issues such as, from the information that you've gained, partly through your access as a JASON, whether you should state publicly that Abrahamson's claims that we've made major breakthroughs in SDI are completely fallacious. There you have to make a judgment, and some people will say Abrahamson's lying before the Congress when he says that. Other people say, well, I'll try to work within the system and show that Abrahamson is wrong — that's a personal judgment. JASON as an institution has taken a very liberal point of view in saying, go ahead. In no case that I know of has any JASON ever even been admonished about public statements, because they've been very responsible. I think Dick Garwin is very responsible in keeping information.
Aaserud:There's never been a question of revoking JASON membership or clearance.
Aaserud:How has the relationship with the broader science community been, especially during periods of strain like the Vietnam period?
MacDonald:Oh, it varies both in time and with institutions. We have guys like Charlie Schwartz, who's had a crusade against JASON. He actually spent a summer with us.
MacDonald:Yes, as a consultant or apprentice JASON; I'm not quite sure what the title was.
Aaserud:Do you remember what year that was?
MacDonald:1962 or 1963; it was early on. And he's become a very vocal critic. Most of the critics have been at the extremes. I put Charlie on the left-hand side of the spectrum, but there are also people on the right-hand side, claiming that JASON is composed largely of liberal Democrat scientists — academicians who don't know what the real world is about. I think the interactions with the scientific community on the whole have been very good, and that there have not been major frictions. Members of JASON have been presidents of the Physical Society.
Aaserud:What about the uniqueness of JASON, in terms of the kind of work they do and the way they combine real work in physics, or other fields for that matter, and advisory work? I started out, I think, before the tape started running, to say that that question was part of my motivation for doing this.
MacDonald:There's no other organization in the world that is like JASON. I'd say it was absolutely unique in 1965. There are organizations based on the JASON model that have sprung up since then. But, for example, many years ago and continuing up until quite recently, I've been trying to get the British to establish a British counterpart of JASON. It's impossible in Britain under current conditions. There's such a gulf between academia and government that you have a few people — Herman Bondi, for example, when he was advisor to the Ministry of Defense — who's very much interested in trying to get an organization comparable to JASON going. We talked at great length about how one could set it up and so forth. Nothing's happened. You have an enormous talent in the physical sciences within Great Britain that is not being applied to these kinds of problems. And then you could extend it on, and I'd say the same applies to NATO countries in general, or NATO itself. Could you do it in Norway?
Aaserud:I think it would be hard.
MacDonald:It would be hard, very hard.
Aaserud:It's the same problem as in Britain, I'd say, to a great extent.
MacDonald:There is a gulf between the defense establishment and the science community.
MacDonald:I know a lot of people in Norway that I'd love to see working on some of these things.
Aaserud:Maybe the US is unique in this, I'm not sure. The Soviet Union of course is an entirely different matter.
MacDonald:We don't know. But I doubt it very seriously. I can be completely wrong, but from everything that I know, there's nothing comparable. So if you say, is JASON a unique institution — yes.
Aaserud:OK. What was the main motivation on the part of the scientists for joining JASON? I guess most people who were asked did say yes.
MacDonald:In the early days, for some members, including myself, it was a chance to be associated with people that you had very high respect for, a chance to broaden your intellectual horizons, and a chance to contribute to the national good — national security. And if you ask me, those are the three reasons. I won't say necessarily one, two, three, but those are the reasons that motivated me. I think most people think that way. Not for me, since I work for an organization that's involved in defense. Not for people like Dick Garwin. It's a nice consulting arrangement, pays well, but as far as I know, that hasn't been a principal consideration of anybody in the JASON group. It really is a chance to work; clearly JASON carries an aura of glamour or prestige or something within the physics community and within the government community and people want to be associated with it.
Aaserud:It's not a means toward obtaining larger influence or anything of the sort?
MacDonald:No. A number of us were involved in policy sort of things, either at the same time or coincident with JASON, so that I doubt it. You know, it's impossible to judge the motives of individuals, but just talking to JASONs, my view is, they like the people who are in the group, they like the kind of work and the way the work is done, and they feel that they're contributing to the nation's welfare.
Aaserud:Regardless of personal motivation, at least in the early years, it was more often that JASON was a springboard for other science policy activities than vice versa. Wouldn't you say that?
MacDonald:No. I don't think so. JASON as originally conceived had very little to do with policy. It was a technical group. It turned out that obviously the people who were well versed in the technicalities became highly valued members of policy groups. Murph and Sid Drell and myself and Lew Branscomb were all members of PSAC, but at the same time we were members of JASON. In the middle sixties, Dick Garwin and we worked together. Certainly I didn't sense in any way that this was a way of getting into science policy. It was rather a way of looking at problems, facing problems that had a high technical content that were challenging, and deciding whether you could do something with them in the company of very good people.
Aaserud:But the JASON membership and the work there didn't hamper the possibility of getting into those other kinds of involvements?
MacDonald:If you look back historically, very few of the JASONs went from JASON into a policy capacity.
MacDonald:Well, PSAC grew with JASON, and it's difficult to draw the line. I went into PSAC in 1964, but basically I'd been told in 1962 — I think even prior to JASON — that I was destined to go there in a couple of years because I'd been doing work for them beforehand. And I think Murph was in the same position; Sid Drell, Lew Branscomb, all were on PSAC at the same time as in JASON. Those are the principal people in question.
Aaserud:So you would say it was more a parallel development.
MacDonald:It was a parallel development. And you know, it was the flowering of PSAC, and then the subsequent decay; now, if you look at the JASON members, there are very few who are involved in policy positions, with major policy responsibilities or advisory positions.
Aaserud:What about your involvement in the change of backing institutions for JASON, first the transition from IDA to SRI, then from SRI to MITRE? Could you say something about those transitions, the motivations for them, and your possible involvement?
MacDonald:Well, the transition from IDA to SRI came about because the Defense Department, as a result of Congressional action, put a limit as to the number of people that could be employed by the organizations known as Federal Contract Research Centers, FCRC's. So Congress said, IDA, which was an FCRC, could have 120 technical people; MITRE, which is an FCRC, could have 2000; Aerospace could have 2,000; Center for Naval Analysis could have 200. There was a ceiling. And the issue came up — since IDA was under the ceiling and since at least the staff director would count against IDA, and there was an argument as to whether the consultants would count — whether this was good for IDA; and then there was some unhappiness in the Defense Department with IDA as a manager of JASON. This was after I left IDA. And so it was decided to go out on contract, and SRI was not a Federal Contract Research Center so they had none of these limitations, and JASON transferred.
Aaserud:You have to remind me when this was.
MacDonald:Oh, 1971 or 1972 — somewhere within a year of that. The judgment was that there would be more freedom within an organization that was not under the limits that a Federal Contract Research Center was under. SRI provided a good home for JASON. The problems were, one, that the headquarters of SRI were out in Menlo Park, California. They had a small office here in Washington. So JASON got relatively little attention by management. When JASON was part of IDA, the JASON chairman would brief the board of trustees on a yearly basis on what JASON was doing and so forth. And then ARPA became increasingly concerned because administration costs went up on the contract, and ARPA raised the question whether the costs were now sufficiently high that perhaps some other arrangement would be worthwhile. So the decision was made. And furthermore, SRI was not totally happy with JASON because they made no money out of the JASON contract. There's a fee on these contracts, but the fee goes to paying family travel, and the JASONs move their families out for the summer. That can't be reimbursed by the Defense Department; it has to come out of the fee to the company. They throw these receptions twice a year to entertain government people. That comes out of the fee. So you don't make any money out of it. That part of SRI is not profit making. So they weren't enthusiastic. ARPA put it up for competitive bids. Several companies ran, IDA, SRI, MITRE, and I think Batelle expressed interest, but in the end SRI and MITRE actually put in proposals for what it would cost to house JASON. Since I was associated with MITRE — I'd been a trustee of MITRE since 1966 — I divorced myself from the proceedings. My personal view was that staying with SRI probably was preferable because if it came to MITRE, then I'd be in a position of conflict, being an officer of the corporation and a member of the organization. And the steering committee — I was a member of the steering committee at the time, but did not take part in the decision — came to the decision that the cost proposal that MITRE made was significantly more favorable to the government than the SRI proposal, and the decision was to come here. That's the way it ended up, at least for the moment.
Aaserud:Has that had any practical implications on the work of JASON?
MacDonald:Absolutely nothing. One of the difficulties I see now, talking as a MITRE person, is that JASON is so divorced from MITRE that all we do is provide the space, the salary for the executive director, and the monies for the additional costs that JASON incurs.
Aaserud:Executive director or secretary?
MacDonald:Secretary, same thing.
Aaserud:You said that ARPA complained about the costs. There were other people contracting as well at that time, right?
MacDonald:Yes, but ARPA had not formalized a relationship between the contractors. Later — it may have been about the same time — the director of ARPA set up a committee composed of the principal customers of JASON, representing the Navy, the Defense Nuclear Agency, the Army, the Air Force, CIA, NSA, etc., so that they all talked together, since they were funding the same group, and they all complained about the costs. And so it wasn't just ARPA. It was a combination of the agencies that thought the SRI costs were high.
Aaserud:The first change was the result of a federal policy.
MacDonald:It was basically the result of saying we should move out of the kind of organization that is limited by Congress — the FCRC kind of organization. Now, of course, they're back in an FCRC, and we do have to use one of our so called green stamps or Brownie points. But, you know, MITRE is a very large organization — over 3,000 technical people.
Aaserud:When were these limitations decided on?
MacDonald:Oh, they go back to the late sixties.
Aaserud:Yes, but a little before the transition.
MacDonald:Yes, the transition came as a result of those limitations.
Aaserud:OK, then, the big question: the impact of JASON. How important has it been in the implementation of policy, in real decisions. How much impact has it had on national security decisions?
MacDonald:The way I'd like to put the question is, has JASON made a difference? Would things have gone otherwise other than for JASON? And I'd say that there are several areas in which JASON has made a very significant difference. The Vietnam barrier work led to sort of the army of the future: sensors, relaying information which is automated; that information then delivers weapons, so you're working towards the automated battlefield, and it really grew out of the JASON work.
Aaserud:That created more than the barrier itself.
MacDonald:It's more than the barrier in Vietnam which may or may not have worked, may not have had any impact whatsoever: Nick Christophilos' work on communication of submarines; the whole area in the Navy of ways of detecting submarines other than through the use of acoustics. JASON has made a very big difference. The physics of re-entry, things coming through the atmosphere. Watson, Keith Brueckner in the early days; a number of other people made a big difference. More recently, the utility of lasers as weapons, or the nonutility of lasers as weapons. JASON has contributed.
Aaserud:Is the latter evaluation work?
MacDonald:No, it's inventions.
Aaserud:You were saying, the lack of utility.
MacDonald:You know, providing counter examples. But if you really wanted to make an honest list of things where JASON has made a difference, I'd say it would be limited to a dozen at most. On the other hand, JASON has had an overall impact. The best way I can describe it is by raising the technical standards of the work that's under way in the various services and agencies. This comes into the evaluation. I think that kind of work can be done by other kinds of groups than JASON, but JASON has been able to say that the work that ARPA sponsored on neutrino communication is absolutely lousy and should be killed, even though wonderful universities are doing it and so forth and so on. So the effects are not easily measured. And again I'd say the impact was greatest in the time period you're most interested in because the re-entry; communication with satellites; much of the Navy work, the fundamental Navy work; the Vietnam work, automated battlefield, was all done in the first 15 years.
Aaserud:My general concern, my general project, is the involvement and importance of physicists generally in science policy. First, how would you see JASON as a good example of that? To what extent does JASON reflect the developing importance of physicists in these questions during the period from the Second World War until the present?
MacDonald:This is where I guess we may have a difference. JASON's work has not been on policy. It really hasn't. It's been oriented towards looking at technical problems and providing technical answers that then influence policy.
Aaserud:Yes, I think it's a matter of definition rather than a matter of disagreement.
MacDonald:But it's important, because I would distinguish between JASON in the sixties and PSAC in the sixties. PSAC had an enormous influence on policy, because they looked at the technical facts and then talked to the policy makers, mainly the President, and influenced everything from reconnaissance satellites to just how we organize ourselves for dealing with various arms control measures — the whole issue of detection of underground nuclear explosions. The technical advice was translated very rapidly and within the context of PSAC into policy. JASON reports are devoid of policy recommendations. They say, "If you want to disguise an airplane so that radar has a tough time picking it up, these are the following things you should do." And you specify those, and that may end up in having policy implications — that we shift our emphasis from buying B-1s to buying Stealth — but it's one of the elements in that overall decision, so that there's a big difference. Another good example: JASON and Christophilos invented a way of communicating with submarines at depth. That meant that our nuclear retaliatory force could depend on submarines and could be controlled, in a communications and command sense, and that had enormous impact on the fact that the ballistic nuclear submarines play such an important role in our strategic forces. But it was a technical input. JASON didn't sit down and say, "Submarines should be ordered back." Now, individuals, whether they be Jerry Wiesner, who was associated with it, or Kistiakowsky or Garwin or Drell or others, drew on that information and framed them, in a sense, and PSAC drew upon JASON in the sixties, before PSAC was destroyed, framed them in a way that made policy recommendations and policy options available to the decision makers. So I think there's really a very very large difference. In the unclassified world, JASON has come up with the acid rain report that says, technically sulfur dioxides are important, but oxidants are probably much more important, and if you just cut down on sulfur dioxide emissions, technically, you may increase the damage because sulfur dioxides are a sink for oxidants, and the oxidants may cause the problem. But it doesn't say, the best strategy is to deal with the automobiles and not with the utilities stacks. So there's that kind of distinction, and I would say JASON's contribution has been to clarify the technical issues, or to provide inputs and sometimes in a few cases innovations in the technical area. So the policy that flowed out of those recommendations really flowed out of different institutions or different groups.
Aaserud:Yes, but to what extent did such reports make a difference or were allowed to make a difference in policy decisions?
MacDonald:They made a very great difference.
Aaserud:In that indirect sense there were policy implications.
MacDonald:Right, you know, as I say, it flows on and on and on, and you'll see the results of the study that Nierenberg led 50 years hence, as the battlefield becomes more and more automated. But the recommendations were not that you should stop bombing in North Vietnam and that you should pursue some different kind of strategy. It was, if you wish to interdict the trails from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, these are the things you can do. And there is a difference.
Aaserud:But the dividing line isn't all that clear.
MacDonald:It isn't clear, and that's why I admire you for plunging into the world of science policy. I find science policy very mushy. I don't know what it is. People always tell me, well, it's the way government allocates monies, and I say policy is not just made by government, it's made by many other institutions, especially in this country, as opposed to, for example, France in the last few years. But I think it is important to recognize that JASON may have influenced policy in important ways. But to say that JASON made policy would be misrepresenting the situation.
Aaserud:Yes, I have to be careful about that. I may have said that, but what I mean is that their work had policy implications.
MacDonald:The technical results of the JASON work had. And individuals educated by the JASON process may have come out with policy statements, sometimes as a result of now being in government, being part of the policy making apparatus. I was in government. Ed Frieman went into government. Various other JASONs have been in government. And then you can try to translate JASON technical results into actual policy decisions.
Aaserud:But maybe there's a difference, even at the point where projects are chosen. You indicated before that there was at times a battle over who should take what problem.
Aaserud:And the choice of topic is a reflection of your views.
MacDonald:It is. SDI is a good example. JASON would work on SDI, because there are people interested, and it will come out with technical results. But you will not see a recommendation coming out of JASON that, say, SDI is a multibillion or trillion dollar disaster that should be cancelled. What you'll see is incremental results, maybe some of them favorable, some of them not so favorable. But at the same time, you'll have a body of 40 or so people who are knowledgeable, and in their other lives can partake in the policy making decisions, by testifying. Now, there's where the line is very difficult to draw. But I think it's extremely important, I really do, that JASON as an institution is not in the policy business. It really isn't.
Aaserud:I think the good thing about that SESPA study is that it provoked some really interesting letters from JASONites, who sought to, if not defend themselves, explain themselves. Salpeter has a very good letter in there, where he makes the distinction between the insider and the outsider approach — when it's good to be an outsider and when it's good to be an insider. And I guess that's the kind of conflict that may arise.
MacDonald:I think a very good case study is Dick Garwin's role in the SST, in which he tried to play both the insider and the outsider, and in some people's minds, led to the dissolution of PSAC.
Aaserud:Are there some similar, maybe not as strong, but similar, instances, in my early period, that could be taken as that kind of a case study?
Aaserud:Garwin is unique.
MacDonald:Garwin is always unique. Incidentally, I was a member of the Garwin Committee on the SST for PSAC, so I happen to completely support his views, but it can be expressed in a more careful way. And there, you see, is a good illustration of how in principle JASON could have been asked to look at the SST question. They could have come up with a technical study that said, it makes no sense, just on terms of fuel economy or whatever it is, and turned that in. But it would not have come out advising that the SST is a disaster, environmentally, economically, in every which way, and you should not build it.
Aaserud:No, not in those words.
MacDonald:Or even it could say, economically it is not cost effective when judged against alternative modes that we have examined, and environmentally it may have these effects, but we have many major scientific uncertainties, and that's it; it's up to whomever wants to make use of it. And you're quite right, the words themselves that he used in the study may influence the judgment or the position that the policy guy is going to take.
Aaserud:Yes, even intentionally so on the part of the author.
MacDonald:I feel so strongly about this last point, that I don't want, at least from my personal point of view — maybe other JASONs take a different point of view — to lose sight of the fact that JASON's real job and assignment and the way it was created — the way it's acted — is to give the very best technical answer to questions that have a heavy technical content.
Aaserud:Yes. But that must be a particularly traumatic experience, sometimes, when what you would give as policy advice on the question goes against what are the implications of the technical study.
MacDonald:Yes. In my own personal case, one analysis we did was looking at the effectiveness of bombing against North Vietnam. My personal inclination and very strong feeling was to get out of Vietnam as soon as we possibly could, and to do anything else — to prolong the misery — was counter to the nation's best interest. And yet, the study that we produced showed what sort of strategies one might employ, what sort of equipment one might use, to increase the effectiveness of the bombing. Maybe it goes back to Churchill's dictum, scientists should be on call.
Aaserud:Yes. But you know, what we're discussing now, for me at least at any rate, only makes me more convinced that JASON is such a good example of the complexities involved in the relationship between science, technology, and policy.
Oh, it is a wonderful example of the complexities. Because it is unique, and furthermore it's not been analyzed or studied or looked at.