A photographer lurking outside the gates of the General Atomics campus on the Torrey Pines Mesa is not something the armed guard in the yellow vest can let go uninvestigated for even a minute. He dashes over and asks what the camera is for. When told, he unfurrows his brow only slightly and relays the information to whomever is on the other end of his walkie-talkie.
Behind these gates, in a building at the north end of the campus, a secret think-tank of about 60 elite scientists called JASON (interchangeably, the Jasons) has convened every summer since 1986. Meeting in a windowless, locked, guarded and electromagnetically shielded room — in six-to-eight week stretches often lasting into the wee hours — these university professors and Nobel-prize winners mull over scientific questions posed to them by the president and Congress, producing about a dozen reports a session.
In 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty prohibiting all nuclear testing, he based his decision in part on a JASON report concluding that nuclear tests were not necessary to prove warhead capability.
And the Jasons — chaired since 2014 by physicist Russell Hemley — have weighed in on important non-military questions as well, producing the first studies on global warming, acid rain and renewable energy.
The end of an era?
All this appeared to end in March, when the U.S. Department of Defense decided to terminate its JASON contract, which was run through the Mitre Corporation and provided its budget of several million dollars per year.
On April 16, Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), tweeted that “the abrupt, unilateral decision to not renew the long-standing JASON contract damages our national security by depriving not only the Pentagon, but also other national security agencies of sober and sound advice in confronting some of the nation's most complex threats.”
Nine days later, the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration announced its intention to fund the entire JASON contract — at least until January 2020.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Mary Coakley-Munk, whose husband, famed Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Walter Munk, was a Jason from 1960 until his death on Feb. 8. “It was very disappointing and kind of shocking that it was even a consideration to defund the Jasons.”
Outsiders don’t know for sure why JASON was defunded, though many speculate that the group was just too blunt and didn’t cheerlead U.S. military plans to the government’s satisfaction.
“A lot of other science advisory groups are in business with the Pentagon or the White House,” said Ann Finkbeiner, author of the 2006 book, “The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite.” “So, because they have to stay in business, they can’t be too explicit when they think their clients are doing something stupid.
“Jasons are really unusual in being able to say, ‘That’s a dumb idea,’” Finkbeiner said. “And they do.”
Once, Finkbeiner said, the Jasons answered what they considered a silly question about detecting neutrinos from enemy nuclear subs with a basic primer explaining that zillions of the subatomic particles are zinging everywhere at once and hardly interact at all with regular matter.
“So how would you know if a neutrino came from a submarine and not from the sun?” Finkbeiner explained, noting that the primer was written “a little like a Dr. Seuss book.”
JASON was co-founded in 1959 by physicists Keith Brueckner (who also founded the UC San Diego physics department), UCSD physics professor Ken Watson, Princeton University physics professor Marvin “Murph” Goldberger, and Charles Townes, who went on to win the 1964 Nobel Prize for his role in developing the laser.
“People were scared to death after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite,” Watson told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2014. “Keith, Murph and I decided to start a defense consulting company. There was a lot of money available then. We weren’t very altruistic.” (Eventually, the scientists settled on a consultancy that answered questions posed by the federal government, or important questions they thought of themselves.)
Goldberger, who worked on the Manhattan Project, was named the first chairman. And his wife, Finkbeiner said, named the group. (“Project Sunrise,” the moniker conferred by the Department of Defense, bored Mildred Goldberger, so she suggested changing it to honor Jason, leader of the Argonauts from Greek mythology, and his heroic quest.)
The first JASON summer session was held in 1960 in Berkeley, California. (Maine and Massachusetts also hosted sessions before the Torrey Pines Mesa was settled upon in 1964, and there are always brief fall and spring meetings in Washington.) Other early recruits included John Wheeler (who coined the terms “black hole” and “wormhole”), 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics winner Murray Gell-Mann, “Dyson sphere” namesake Freeman Dyson, and Munk.
“Walter thoroughly enjoyed the comradery and companionship,” Coakley-Munk said, noting that every summer for the last 30 years, the couple held a Fourth of July party at their La Jolla house for the Jasons and their families.
“Walter would always select someone to read the Declaration of Independence — the whole entire thing,” she said.
What JASON found
The half of the Jasons’ work that isn’t stamped “classified” also included reports on whether the U.S. would have won the Vietnam War by using nuclear bombs (the Cliff Notes: no), extremely long-wave radio communication and, more recently, better ways to distribute people’s private health data.
One question frequently posed to the Jasons was whether America’s nuclear stockpile was aging out and needed replacing.
“There are always pushes in every administration for the Department of Energy to start building new bombs,” Finkbeiner said. “And every single time, the Jasons say, ‘Don’t worry about it, they’re not getting old, they’re good for another 100 years.’”
Nobody on the outside had the slightest idea any of this was happening until 1971, when the New York Times published “The Pentagon Papers,” a classified history of the country’s Vietnam activity that blew the Jasons’ coveted secrecy. But being outed only steeled their resolve never to talk about their work. (The Light left messages seeking comment from several current and previous JASON members, none of which were returned.)
“I never knew what Walter was working on, nor did I ever ask,” Coakley-Munk said. “I just knew that if they came to some good conclusions or made some discoveries, he would be in a really good mood.”
Finkbeiner said the first thing she was told by the group when she approached them about her book was: “We’re not going to be talking to you and we wish you all the luck in your future career.”
“So I had a breakdown,” she said.
Getting 36 of them to talk about their unclassified work — with the help of her physicist husband’s friends — was a process that took nearly five years and, Finkbeiner said, “made me deeply appreciate writing about astronomy — because astronomers always want to talk to you about their work!”