BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Stuff I didn't know about ...

This is another dollar store acquisition … which gives me an opening to, perhaps, be a bit more negative about it than it deserves. The subject matter of Ann Finkbeiner's The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite is certainly interesting, and is, somehow, something that I hadn't encountered (or at least it hadn't “registered”) in my extensive Physics and Military History reading. The book, however, is pretty dry, and while it never really drags it also lacks some of the engagement that the topic could well have in other hands.

“The Jasons” were a loose grouping of top-notch scientists (initially primarily Physicists), which were assembled to help the Government with various projects, working on particular problems over a several-week session in the summer each year, starting in the thick of the Cold War. Initially named Project 137 (an in-joke for the denominator of the fine structure constant), the group first met in 1958, scant months after the Soviet launch of Sputnik. This was largely the “next generation” down from the Manhattan Project crowd, young, brilliant, and eager to tackle serious science problems. At first they were simply being briefed by the military regarding general challenges that were proving difficult to solve, from communicating with submarines, to improving the still-nascent US satellite program. The name “Jason” seems to have come from the wife of one of the initial group, although the specifics are blurred with time (the suggestion is that they were like Jason seeking the Golden Fleece).

I don't know where the fault lies in this book, the “science stories” involved could have had the vibrancy of a “procedural” thriller, but more focus seems to have gone to the moral status of the various teams over time. The author does not appear to be inclined to “flesh out” scenarios that she does not have primary or secondary source material for, so there is less narrative than one might prefer in this sort of a history, she is very much limited by what the various participants (and their associates) are willing (or, for security reasons, able) to discuss with her. And it appears that, to a certain extent, many of the older members (this book came out in 2006, nearly 50 years after the first group of “Jasons” met) were more willing to reflect on their feeling about their work with Jason rather than “juicy details” of the work itself.

It is also possible that Finkbeiner had “an axe to grind” here, as the subject of campus resistance to the U.S. Military in the 60's and 70's, keeps getting interjected, and one suspects that she might have a bit more than passing sympathy for the anti-war cause. She makes an effort in the early chapters (echoed on the dust jacket) to create a “philosophical” basis for the book:
The idea that curiosity leads to disaster has an ancient pedigree. Pandora opened the gods' box and let loose all the evils of the world; the descendants of Noah built the Tower of Babel to reach heaven, but God scattered them and confounded their language; Icarus flew so close to the sun that his homemade wings melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned; Eve at the apple of knowledge and was exiled from the Garden of Eden; Faust traded his soul for sorcery and spent eternity in Hell. Saint Augustine , along with most medieval Christian theologians, considered curiositas a vice. The idea survived into the twentieth century about halfway intact. We believe that curiosity is the beginning of knowledge and especially of science, but we know that the application of science has led to disaster.
This sets the book up to be a morality tale, but (aside from the reports of various interactions of the participating scientists) there's not enough “there” there to make that work either.

So, while this is an interesting reporting of a fascinating project, it neither “delivers the goods” as a science history, nor as a grand moral struggle. Throw in the heavy sprinkling of passing references to the politics and politicians inter-relating with the Jasons, and the whole becomes weaker than the details involved.

As I so often end up saying, the above doesn't mean that The Jasons is a bad book, only that it could have been so much more, whether as a scientific saga, a baby-boom bile fest, or even as a political tale. As it is, it's a bit of each, and is lessened in its lack of focus. Needless to say, I would have preferred a book that went more into the research and scientific discovery, but (as noted above) some of this stuff is still classified, so would have posed serious challenges to flesh this out as much as I would have liked in that direction!

Again, this book is only 3 years old and is already out of print, so I guess there weren't many who found this to their liking. As mentioned, I found it at the dollar store, so you might be able to find a copy similarly discounted, and the Amazon new/used guys have "good" copies for as low as a penny (plus S&H, natch), and "like new" for a couple of bucks. Once more, this is a flawed book (it had all the signs of an interesting project that only became untenable far too down the line to scrap it altogether), but not a bad book, and it's written well enough that it doesn't get noticeably bogged down at any point. If you're interested in physics, politics, and military history (all at once) this is likely a good book for you, with lessening degrees of likelihood depending on the mix of those interests.

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Tags: book review
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