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Oral History Transcript — Kenneth Watson

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Interview with Kenneth Watson
By Finn Aaserud
In La Jolla, CA
February 10, 1986

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Kenneth Watson; February 10, 1986

ABSTRACT: Origins of and affiliation with JASON; introduction to practical applications of physics through contact with Marvin Goldberger, Keith Brueckner, and Murray Gell-Mann at Los Alamos; move to Berkeley in 1957. Consulting with Goldberger and Gell-Mann for Convair, and reasons for their desire to form a private consulting firm; approach to the three by John Wheeler, Marvin Stern, and Charles Townes in order to form national security advisory group through Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA). Original JASON members; early projects on detection of nuclear tests; JASON's involvement with other agencies. Also prominently mentioned are: Joel Bengston, Nick Christofilos, Sidney David Drell, Val L. Fitch, David Abraham Katcher, Harold Warren Lewis, Herbert Frank York, Fredrik Zachariasen; and United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Transcript

Aaserud:

What about your own papers? They're in your hands?

Watson:

Yes. Unfortunately I threw away a lot of material that might have been interesting, when I moved down here, because I didn't have any place to store it. I had quite a bit of material on the origins, the beginning, of JASON, and also from the nuclear test ban negotiations in Geneva, which I attended.

Aaserud:

That's very unfortunate. I got a list of material in the new JASON archives at the MITRE Corporation.

Watson:

Unfortunately a lot of the original material is missing. I didn't realize that at the time. I had some of the correspondence with John Wheeler when it was set up as Project Sunrise originally. On the other hand, one collects an awful lot of material. You can try Brueckner and Goldberger, Gell-Mann, Lewis, and see what they have.

Aaserud:

Are there other repositories?

Watson:

I don't think so. Bill Nierenberg tried to locate this material a couple of years ago when we had our 25th anniversary of JASON, and it just didn't seem to exist. He wanted to put together an archive, and there wasn't all that much. At least he was very disappointed at what was mis sing.

Aaserud:

So the material that is there essentially comes from JASON it self.

Watson:

The Institute for Defense Analyses did not seem to have kept much of the material, and then we went to Stanford Research Institute; that was after the first ten years.

Aaserud:

Yes, when they took over IDA's role. Nierenberg gave me the impression that he was particularly disappointed that IDA has so little. I don't know what they do with things.

Watson:

Again it's probably a matter of storage space, the cost of micro fiching or some such thing.

Aaserud:

I don't know how much time you have, but what about your own motivation for entering JASON or your own activity in forming JASON? I read a chapter of York's autobiography, that he's writing now, and he said that you and Brueckner, I think, had connection with —

Watson:

— Gell-Mann and Goldberger. Well, also John Wheeler. I guess the background was probably that Goldberger, Brueckner, Gell-Mann, and I were in the Midwest in the precursor time. I guess we'd all moved about the time JASON was formed. And we started going to Los Alamos in the summers, which gave us some military connections, although principally we were working on the magnetically confined plasma physics. But I think that was my first serious work, with magnetically confined plasmas, as distinct from being a particle or nuclear physicist. It gave a broadening, a sense of being practical, I guess. Then, I moved to Berkeley in 1957, and about that time Brueckner went to the University of Pennsylvania and Goldberger to Princeton. I don't recall exactly when Gell-Mann went to Caltech. At any rate, I guess all of us were doing some industrial consulting. Spe cifically, I think all of us were consulting at Convair in the late fif ties, and we began to think of forming a private company ourselves. At the same time John Wheeler was looking for a group like JASON — he and Charlie Townes and a guy named Marvin Stern who I've lost track of, who was actually at Convair at the time.

Aaserud:

Also a physicist?

Watson:

No, he was a mathematician, but he was more of a Washington man. He was a lobbyist in Washington for General Dynamics, actually, but he got around quite a bit and I guess he was reasonably friendly with Wheeler and Townes, because Charlie Townes and Marvin Stern came out to see us one summer at Los Alamos. That was probably 1959. I don't recall; there's some discussion whether it was 1958 or 1959. And we more or less agreed in principle and we began to talk with the people at IDA.

Let's see, Val Fitch incidentally was another person at Princeton, another original with whom you should talk if you haven't. And so, we began with the summer study at Berkeley, and that was probably the summer of 1960. It may have been 1959. I'm not sure which year. That was at the Lawrence Lab in Berkeley, and Herb York was the director of our program, going on DARPA, which was the financial sponsor. And Hal Lewis became a member, certainly Val Fitch.

John Wheeler was in and out. Charlie Townes actually spent a number of summers with JASON. I'm not sure, but I think John Wheeler was in and out, but he didn't spend full summers. We alternated between the East and West Coasts for a number of years, and principally we worked for DARPA on just a variety of things. Being in Berkeley, I was close to the Livermore Lab, and I don't know whether it was for JASON or what that I became involved with the test ban negotiations, and that put me on the President's Science Advisory Committee panel for them.

Eventually I spent a summer in Geneva at the High Altitude negotiations. I think JASON evolved slowly, but it's been principally a group that does technical work, and the members, as JASON began to get more credi bility or become noticed, began to find themselves on non-JASON panels with the government. I was on the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, the Defense Science Board, and a number of PSAC committees. I had some in volvement through those with the early days of the space program. PSAC was discontinued, but I was on with Fred Zachariasen at Caltech on the Scien tific Advisory Group for the National Security Council for a number of years.

Aaserud:

Was Zachariasen with JASON from the beginning?

Watson:

I think so. He was certainly there during the first ten years. Whether he was there the first year or not, I just don't recall. But he was a member in the early times.

Aaserud:

So essentially it was a group of physicists who came together to define this. The initiative came from the physicists.

Watson:

Yes, that's correct, and from the government's side I guess it was Herb York and John Wheeler and Charlie Townes. And then a group of physi cists who had been doing industrial consulting had already formed, or were planning to form, a private company. We therefore had a nucleus of people to talk to, and Charlie Townes and Marvin Stern were the ones who actually finalized the details. I think Charlie was on leave as Vice President for Research at IDA at the time, which is why he was involved with the details of the negotiations.

Aaserud:

From where came this perceived need to form a private company?

Watson:

Well, obviously part of it was financial and part of it was that it was fun doing applied work. In the early post-Sputnik days there was a lot of interest in applied science and exploring space, and it was just an exciting time, when there seemed to be no limit to what you could do. As a matter of fact, Gell-Mann and I spent one day at a meeting talking about having an anti-gravity program at Convair! There were excesses. As academic physicists we found it really exciting to be rubbing shoulders and working with people who were doing applied science, and it was both fun and profitable.

Aaserud:

Did you have any bad experience with the consulting arrangements prior to that? Did you find that it wasn't sufficient, and that you needed something more active for yourselves?

Watson:

I think something actively from ourselves gave us the ability better to be our own bosses, rather than to undertake work that was given to us. I think it was largely just to be in charge of it ourselves.

Aaserud:

And the selection of people, that came from you? It was a group that formed naturally?

Watson:

Yes, we chose among our colleagues whom we thought would work out and do well, and it certainly has had a long long life.

Aaserud:

And the membership has been rather constant, hasn't it?

Watson:

Yes, there's a surprising number who were members in the first few years who are still members; that's certainly true. There has been obviously some turnover and some new membership, as it should be in any organization.

Aaserud:

At the time, to what extent was this a generational thing? The original JASON group consisted of people younger than the Los Alamos gen eration, at least younger than the statesmen during the Los Alamos generation.

Watson:

Yes, that's correct. We had some advisors who were of the older generation, but in fact we were all about the same age. And so, we es sentially were a group of peers. We saw that the government was getting into science, both applied and pure science, in a major way, and the chance to form our own company had attractions. The reason we did it through IDA was that we would have much better connections with the government, and I guess a better entree or inside relation with the government. That was what decided us not to form a private company, and to do it as we did.

Aaserud:

But did your approach represent something new in relation to physicists of earlier generations or what they tried to do?

Watson:

I don't think it did. The opportunities weren't really there before World War II. Then after World War II, the large increase in the expenditures and involvement of government in science gave the opportunity for the first time; JASON provided an opportunity to do it in a coordinated way as a group, rather than people as individual advisors. I think it was really John Wheeler working with Herb York who were looking for this kind of mechanism, and they just happened to encounter us, who were in the process of forming a private group of the people that they decided they would like to have.

Aaserud:

You were encountered by York or Wheeler?

Watson:

I wasn't. I think Goldberger and I were invited to a meeting one summer of John Wheeler, in which he was essentially in the process of planning something of this sort, and as I recall that was his Project 137. That must have been in the sumer of 1958. So that would have made it the summer of 1959 that we talked to Townes and Stern at Los Alamos. At any rate, it grew. The seeds that started it were John Wheeler's meeting that summer. He was actually looking for something like JASON. It wasn't so well defined as a blueprint, but at any rate it all firmed out over the next year or year and a half; it worked itself out. It took some time to formulate and work out agreements — probably a year and a half — so two years from that summer, we had our first summer study.

Aaserud:

I got the impression from York that Wheeler originally sought for something somewhat different. He was seeking something more in terms of a general laboratory, or defense research laboratory, with a more general approach than either Los Alamos or Lawrence-Livermore. That was his original conception.

Watson:

OK, I wasn't involved at the beginning, but I think Murph Goldberger, and Tom Ipsilantis who is no longer in it, and Val Fitch and Nick Christophilos, they were the ones who went to that meeting that Wheeler had that summer, which was the time we began to talk. At that time at least we were obviously not interested in leaving our universities, and so we were not talking in terms of a regular laboratory, but something like JASON. I don't know what he had in mind prior to that. Of course he and Herb York, since Herb was director of DARPA at the time, obviously had thoughts before we came in the picture.

Aaserud:

Yes, there were probably a lot of strands that came together. Sol Penner, was he a member?

Watson:

I'm not sure. He was on the staff of IDA. He'd been at Caltech. Keith Brueckner followed Charlie Townes as Vice President for Research at IDA. I don't know if there was somebody in between or not. I think Keith enticed Sol Penner to go out to IDA and he was on the staff of IDA. I don't think he was a member of JASON, because he was a staff member at IDA. When Keith came back here to the university, he brought Sol with him here.

Aaserud:

There was just somebody who mentioned his name to me.

Watson:

He was quite involved with this because he was at IDA and had many overlapping interests, and we certainly saw him a lot because he's remained a friend of the family since then.

Aaserud:

He might be somebody that it might be worthwhile to talk to.

Watson:

I think so. I think he would see it from a somewhat different picture. On the other hand, during the first ten years he was certainly closely involved, but I think not as a member.

Aaserud:

Also there were administrators, right? I don't remember the specific name or title but there was an administrative head of JASON throughout the period?

Watson:

Oh yes, let's see. David Katcher was the first, and he'd been editor of Physics Today, I think, before that. I think he had that job for the first ten years.

Aaserud:

What was the task of the administrator specifically?

Watson:

It varied. It was essentially, since there were no JASON members who were full time, to have somebody who had some responsibility. There was an administrative staff to handle the money matters and so forth, and the administrator handled, made appointments, and got around to see spon sors. He was sort of a general coordinator — to some extent on a tech nical level but more on the level of interfacing with our sponsors. I don't think Dave Katcher had ever done research as a physicist, but he had a background in physics. Jack Martin had this job for a short time, and he became Assistant Secretary to the Air Force. It wasn't very long that he had the job. And Joel Bengston, who is here in town, had the job for a long time but not during the first ten years. He's a good physicist of the industrial type. But you asked about the first ten years and I think that was largely David Katcher. He still is in Washington, I believe. I run into him socially, at JASON social occasions.

Aaserud:

So that was a full time job.

Watson:

That was a full time job.

Aaserud:

Was it done formally under ARPA or something like that?

Watson:

Yes. David Katcher would be an excellent person to interview because he has probably more of an insight into the mechanics than the JASON members themselves. The members were never much involved with the nitty gritties of administration of the organization, other than on a technical level.

Aaserud:

Somehow or other, the projects had to be selected in a way that they would be of interest to the agencies.

Watson:

That was largely done by JASON members negotiating with DARPA. And again that was the specific program managers at DARPA ordinarily. But that would not have been done by David Katcher. Once the decision was made, he would interact with the program managers, essentially as communi cation.

Aaserud:

He stepped in, then, but was not involved in choosing projects.

Watson:

No.

Aaserud:

Was there a pool of projects that came out of the agencies that you picked, or were you more active in terms of choosing what you wanted to do? Is there a general statement that can be made on that?

Watson:

I don't think there's a very general statement. We had a great deal of freedom within the restrictions that it had to be something which was justified within our or ARPA's charter, but over the years it certainly included a wide variety of topics. DARPA does many things which are very peripheral to direct military applications. It had the institute at Boulder for a long time, doing atomic physics, and sponsored work in lasers, computers and so forth. I think that's one of the things that has held JASON together. There was such a wide variety of technical topics that you could always find things that were interesting to do.

We were never told to do specific things, but it was always a matter of negotiation. There was considerable mutual respect between the program managers and the JASON people, so that I never had the impression that we had things handed to us to do that we weren't interested in doing. I think that part of it has generally worked out quite well — that we had things that we could find professionally interesting and at the same time that worked out with our ARPA sponsors.

Aaserud:

To what extent — you can only speak for yourself in detail, of course, but maybe on behalf of others to some extent — was there a relationship between the physics you actually did in your work and the physics that was involved in the JASON projects?

Watson:

Oh, it varied. I don't know what fraction. A great deal of it, of course, we published. For a long time I worked on various aspects of laser physics and chemical reactions stimulated by laser. Norman Kroll and I for a number of years worked in this area and I think we published every thing we did in that area. We did a lot of work in air chemistry. It's just been very varied, but that's been part of the fun of it. It's been interesting science, and to a great extent a choice of what one might find he wants to do.

Aaserud:

That's what I find interesting with it. You were able to do both things without diverting completely from one to the other.

Watson:

Yes. But in large part, it was because the work was predominantly technical in JASON, and also, unless it were things that we found very interesting, we might as well have gone to industry doing private consulting. So it's been a combination of technical work and work that we find professionally interesting.

Aaserud:

How much of this technical work did require clearance?

Watson:

I don't know the statistics. Obviously there were both kinds of work. I was going to say a half. I don't even know; probably less than a half required clearance. A number of us worked on seismology in connection with nuclear detection, and I spent a number of years in connection with the high altitude test ban negotiations, and also with the rest on atmospheric nuclear effects. I probably worked three or four, maybe five, years on areas of that sort. That involved a lot of atomic molecular physics, hydrodynamics, and plasma physics. And I had gotten interested in plasma physics at Los Alamos, so a great deal of it was things of that sort.

Aaserud:

But it didn't affect much what you were able to publish in the open literature?

Watson:

No.

Aaserud:

There has been some uproar about JASON, at the time of the Vietnam War, and what has been written on JASON has been very much skewed towards that, although I suppose it is a very very tiny iceberg of what JASON really was.

Watson:

Yes. The best publicized work JASON did was in connection with the Vietnam War. That was a kind of a discontinuity for JASON, as well as for the rest of the country, I think. There were several years, 1965 through — I don't remember — 1968 or 1969, when that was a predominant JASON activity. It was pretty much confined to that period of about three or four years. That of course did involve classified work, although a lot of it has been declassified. That was really an anomaly in that it was really very specific, very directed work.

Aaserud:

It was an anomaly not only in terms of the operation but also in terms of the kind of work.

Watson:

The kind of work, yes. It was non-typical work for most of the JASON people, I think.

Aaserud:

So that's a very very little percentage.

Watson:

Certainly a very little percentage.

Aaserud:

I suppose during the period you were mostly involved in that.

Watson:

Yes, that was a major JASON effort. Not everybody in JASON; the involvement was pursued to varying degrees. On the other hand, that was the largest effort in JASON for just this period of about two or three years.

Aaserud:

That's about the only work of JASON that has got some public reporting.

Watson:

Yes.

Aaserud:

Have you felt that the openness-secrecy dichotomy has led to any problem in communicating with other physicists?

Watson:

I don't think so. If you look at the publication records of JASON members, I don't think you can draw such a conclusion. Oh, Sid Drell is another guy you should talk to at Stanford; Piet Panofsky, Sid Drell, Allen Peterson. Sid was there from the beginning.

Aaserud:

He had some problems. Maybe you all had; I don't know. But I remember specifically he had some problems lecturing when he was on lec turing tours in Europe, and I think Gell-Mann had it too during that period.

Watson:

Yes, I think so too.

Aaserud:

They had problems with students leaving the room and not wanting to discuss — all kinds of things. But that didn't create any tension within JASON? Did people leave or get distracted?

Watson:

I don't know. It was obviously something to which we paid some attention, and were aware of. On the other hand, there is always a little turnover, and that may have contributed to people's leaving, but it didn't contribute any great exodus.

Aaserud:

Or revolution within JASON as a result of that?

Watson:

No. For one thing, it didn't last that long. It could have been only about three years at the most, and I think one year it was a very minor effort, and then two years as I recall it was concentrated. And then it was over.

Aaserud:

One striking aspect of JASON, I think, is the diversity in poli tical opinion within the group, regardless of the work.

Watson:

That's apt to be, with a group of university professors.

Aaserud:

Yes, but in spite of that you were able to continue working together.

Watson:

After all, physics departments work together.

Aaserud:

Yes, but I'm sure that political questions must have come up more in that kind of work than in academic physics work.

Watson:

I was in the Berkeley physics department most of my career, and I would say that there was more politics, at least during the Vietnam War, there than in JASON.

Aaserud:

And there were no bad feelings of other physicists about your involvement in JASON during that period?

Watson:

I don't think so.

Aaserud:

The SESPA group, for example?

Watson:

Yes, but that involved very few people. I think the only person in Berkeley with whom relations were strained was Charles Schwartz. But I don't think anybody else.

Aaserud:

Did he start out in JASON?

Watson:

No, Keith Brueckner had a summer meeting when he was Vice President for Research at IDA, and Charles Schwartz was one of the attendees of that, but that was just one summer. That was for younger people in JASON at that time to have an introduction to science in the government.

Aaserud:

During the very early time of JASON — we're not going to go into projects in detail, of course — what was, in a general sense, the kind of problem that was treated?

Watson:

Well, one of the biggest issues was the ongoing negotiations regarding the test ban, and detection — underground detection, atmospheric detection, space detection. Another issue was the rapid development in rocketry and space, both miltiary and non-military, and much of the tech nical things didn't really make a distinction between military or non- military matters.

I spent a lot of my first years in connection with the test ban, and that was probably because the AEC is big at the University of California — now DOE of course. That was one of the major things I really spent my own time personally on. But that involved more than JASON, because I went to Geneva, and there was a lot of preparation for that. And then I was in volved with the President's Science Advisory Committee for years.

I was also in an advisory group on the development of space vehicles, both mili tary and non-military. As I said, the technical aspects of that really don't distinguish in many cases military from non-military aspects. That's largely I guess the way I spent my first years, up to about 1964, when JASON began to get involved in the Vietnam War. It was before the actual war, but the problem was beginning to be very real to the United States, by the summer of 1964.

Aaserud:

So JASON involved itself quickly in that.

Watson:

Yes, although in 1964 it was a marginal thing. Bernard, a French writer or newspaperman, came and spent a good part of the summer with JASON. Those were just lectures. There were a whole bunch of lectures on the culture of Vietnam and the history of the French involvement, and that was all background. That first summer it was all background.

Aaserud:

He was invited by JASON?

Watson:

Yes. That was arranged. I don't remember how it was arranged. I think that may have been Nierenberg who arranged it; I don't recall.

Aaserud:

When you were talking about working out these test ban treaties and things like that, within JASON that was technical?

Watson:

That was all technical. The policy was not something that we had anything to do with.

Aaserud:

You were involved in that at other levels.

Watson:

Yes, but mostly the technical aspects. Physicists have no particular insight.

Aaserud:

Well, the dividing line isn't all that clear.

Watson:

It isn't all that clearcut.

Aaserud:

Were there other agencies that you collaborated with or competed with in terms of these projects that you were working on?

Watson:

We worked quite a bit with the group at RAND at that time. These things developed partly from personal relationships, which in turn devel oped from a similarity of interests. I'm trying to recall. We certainly had an involvement with Los Alamos and Livermore, and Nick Christophilos, who was a Livermore Lab employee, was a member of JASON. I guess there were a number of industrial companies that came and went, with people who would come for a summer or part of a summer. That was usually on a one time basis. I don't know who else. The physics group at RAND was probably the principal connection, aside from Livermore and Los Alamos.