Intelligence Gathering

Baltimore author Ann Finkbeiner explores an elite, secret organization of the country's brightest thinkers dedicated to the nation's defense

April 16, 2006|By JONATHAN PITTS | JONATHAN PITTS,SUN REPORTER

ONE NIGHT IN 1990, Ann Finkbeiner, a Baltimore science writer, attended a dinner at Johns Hopkins University in honor of an eccentric physicist. The others in attendance, her husband included, regarded Freeman Dyson as a genius, much the way a star athlete might look upon an actual Hall of Famer.

What struck Finkbeiner, though, were Dyson's stories. In one, the elderly, birdlike man described himself wandering the Mexican border late one night, helping police officers look for drugs. Why, Finkbeiner wondered, would a physicist -- a man normally interested in the properties of matter, space and time -- be looking for narcotics along a border?

Dyson's mumbled reply -- something about doing a study for a society called "the Jasons" -- started Finkbeiner, a freelancer who teaches writing at Hopkins, on a quest that has culminated this month in the publication of her newest book, The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite. The book reads like a mystery while staking out colorful new territory on the landscape of science history.

Finkbeiner tracked down 36 Jasons and managed, in varying degrees, to overcome their controlling personalities and passion for secrecy. She crafted the first true history of their sometimes off-the-wall, sometimes brilliant contributions to the nation's defense and intelligence agencies. She exposes a link connecting World War II to the Cold War, the Cold War to the Vietnam War, Vietnam to the war on terror.

Jasons, a tiny, ultra-elite group you've probably never heard of, affected them all. To tell their story, the self-effacing Finkbeiner, too, wandered off into unmarked terrain.

The Jasons' start

It's a bright afternoon in Finkbeiner's office, a cheery corner space in a building that once housed a sailcloth factory. The place has the feel of history. It's an apt vibe for today. The Jasons got their start, she says, during World War II, the first conflict that belonged to physicists.

As the Nazis drew close to getting the atomic bomb, American physicists warned their government. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked a consortium of physicists to get together and solve the problem first. The Manhattan Project -- "the first time theoretical physicists really worked with government types," says Finkbeiner -- was born.

In the panic after the Soviets sent the Sputnik satellite over North America in 1957, it seemed natural when a few Manhattan Project alumni -- Princeton's John Wheeler and Columbia's Charlie Townes among them -- proposed a group that could "inject new ideas into national defense," Finkbeiner writes. By 1960, a tiny steering committee had hand-picked "a tremendously bright squad of some 30 people." All were physicists, "young and patriotic and full of beans," she writes.

They named themselves the Jasons after the mythical explorer who sought the Golden Fleece. They met in the summer, heard out the government's concerns, and did the sort of high-level, free-form brainstorming they rarely experienced during their full-time careers. They made just a nominal sum.

For the next four decades and more, up to the present, the 30 -- and the select few they have chosen to add with the passing of years -- have met secretly every June and July in the same building in La Jolla, Calif. They've numbered fewer than 100 altogether. Their findings have shaped modern warfare.

Finkbeiner, who set out not to write "a hagiography," didn't skimp on the quirks. Most Jasons "were unusually interventionist interviewees," critiquing and sometimes controlling her tape-recording setup, she says. Many asked how much the others were talking. "Compared to the others, am I singing like a canary?" asked one. Added another: "We're all comparing notes on you."

It's all a part of what really intrigues the author, she says -- the way the Jasons do what they do in freedom, largely for the pure pleasure of it. They've held sway in government while retaining the right to tell government to buzz off.

Finkbeiner seems tired today, but she perks up at the thought. "They're selling something that can't be bought anywhere else," she says almost defiantly. "They don't care if they get fired. They have full-time jobs, you know."

'A light went on'

Finkbeiner does, too, though she came to hers in a roundabout way. Three decades ago, she was teaching junior high, "wondering what I was going to do when I grew up." Then her father died. "[Life] isn't a game," she remembers thinking, "or a hand you can play over if you screw up. Whatever you're going to do, do it this minute."

She'd recently developed an interest in nature, especially the rock formations near her Pennsylvania home. She decided to pursue the subject for its own sake and signed up for nighttime science classes.

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