The Jasons

Benjamin Kallman
March 19, 2013

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2013

Fig. 1: Laser guide for use in an adaptive optical telescope. This is one of many Jason projects. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Jasons are a secret organization of scientists whose purpose is to advise the government on difficult technological questions. Born out of the Manhattan project, the Jasons have dealt with topics ranging from nuclear missile design to climate change modeling. The Jasons are a secretive group, and therefore few corroborated facts are known about them, including the full spectrum of projects that they have worked on. The full extent to which the Jasons have shaped our country's technology and policies is unknown, but the secrecy surrounding the group, and the extraordinary intelligence of its members, make it a fascinating topic of inquiry. Of the nearly 100 Jasons that have existed, eleven have won Nobel Prizes, eight have won MacArthur awards, and one is a Fields Medal winner. [1]

Given the secrecy surrounding the Jasons, there are few non-volatile published sources explicitly covering Jason history. Myriad sources claim to have exclusive information as to the origins and inner-workings of the group, some making fantastical claims as to the group's ties with the Illuminati, and with extraterrestrial life, but these sources serve no other purpose than to highlight the mystique and public fascination surrounding the exclusive group. An online search will yield ample information of this sort. The majority of Jason history and insight is gleaned from a detailed study by a freelance science writer Ann Finkbeiner, outlined in her book The Jasons. Finkbeiner interviewed 36 current and former Jasons, making her book the definitive resource on Jason history and inner- workings. The following discussion builds primarily from this book, outlining the history of Jason, some of their (non-classified) projects, and some thoughts on the utility of the organization.

The History of Jason

Jason is a word that describes both the group of people, and an individual member of the group. The name Jason is sometimes thought to be an acronym for July-August-September-October-November, the months during which Jason's primarily academic members allegedly convene for discussion, but such speculation is ill founded. The term Jason (originally proposed by the wife of an original Jason) is borrowed from the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece, sometimes interpreted as the story of a hero's search for a magical tool to bring prosperity and kinship. [1,2] Jason history starts with the Manhattan Project. In an effort to "put the [nuclear] genie back in the bottle," many of the Manhattan Project physicists took roles as (often unwanted) technical advisors to the government following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The group was founded in earnest in the late 1950s amidst the escalation of the Cold War arms race. [1]

The arms race following Sputnik's 1957 launch, and the fear of a Soviet nuclear attack prompted the formation of a series of Jason's progenitors, the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), Project 137, the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), Theoretical Physics Incorporated, and a series of other "summer studies." Many of the original members of the group were key players in the birth of the fission and fusion bombs (Richard Garwin, the architect of Ivy Mike, Edward Teller, John Wheeler, and others. (See Fig. 2.) The founding of Jason was a direct consequence of the rise of the nuclear age. It came during the intense measure-countermeasure Cold War gamesmanship involving nuclear warhead testing. [1]

Richard Garwin Edward Teller John Wheeler Charles Townes Hans Bethe
Fig. 2: Some of the influential founding members of the Jasons. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When given the opportunity to advise the government on nuclear-related activities, the physicists who had been close to the making of the bombs, could not help but join the conversation. As one Jason (and Stanford professor), Sid Drell noted, "once you knew what an atom bomb was and then once the ten kilotons went up to megatons, any physicist thinking a little bit had a pretty good idea of what the devastating destructive potential was. I couldn't escape it. I couldn't isolate myself from the world." [1]

The Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) sponsored Jason, and their affiliation remained steadfast (through the transition of ARPA to DARPA) until about 2001, when member selection policies caused a rift between the groups. [3] They have since mended relations, but Jason now answers to more than just DARPA. The Jasons meet for approximately 6 weeks per year in La Jolla California, responding to inquiries from a handful of government sponsors (Homeland Security, Department of Energy, Department of Defense, Navy, CIA, NASA). [3]

Informative Jason Projects

Jason's first project was the Defender project, which was a missile sensing and defense program. Infrared detector-equipped spy satellites orbiting earth were designed to sense a hot (rocket-propelled) object launched into the atmosphere, thereby providing an early warning to allow for our own missile launches (to ensure mutual destruction). Jason was tasked with assessing the scenario in which the attacker might mask their inter-continental missile launch with a nuclear explosion. Jason concluded that such a tactic would require a prohibitively large initial masking explosion. Jason worked on other elements of the Defender project, including detecting decoy warheads and lasers for destroying incoming warheads. According to a former ARPA director, Jason's involvement in the missile defense project resulted in "major contributions." [1]

Jason played a pivotal role in the Vietnam War. During the 1965 and 1966 bombings of North Vietnam, Jason became wary of U.S. tactics and offered to lend a helping hand. They devised an electronic barrier designed to restrict communist troops from travelling to South Vietnam. The system consisted of air-dropped enemy-triggerable noisemakers combined with noise detectors, which would alert a central facility and order localized bombings. The system was partially constructed, and modestly operational, but was never used to its full potential (due mostly to policy decisions). This sensor network, sometimes referred to as the McNamara Line changed the course of modern warfare, and according to the ARPA director at the time, "led to a totally new technology that we call smart weapons." [1]

Other Jason projects include:

Fig. 3: The eventual, small-scale implementation of the ELF antenna in Clam Lake, Wisconsin. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

These are, of course a very small sample of Jason projects. Supposedly roughly three-quarters of all Jason projects are classified. [3]

Utility of Jason

We are aware of only a handful of the projects that Jason has worked on. Indeed, according to one of Finkbeiner's unnamed Jason interviewees, "most" studies remain classified. Without speculating about the utility of unknown Jason endeavors, it is fair to say that Jason has had a net positive influence on the U.S. defense strategies and policies. In 1996, Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, prohibiting any kind of nuclear warfare testing. According to one Jason, Sid Drell, Jason had a role to play in concluding that nuclear tests were not necessary to prove warhead capability. Their costs are comparatively low (currently approximated at $850 per person per day), and their presence has been impactful. [1]

Jason serves as a knowledge source for the government that is unbiased by political motives. When the government needs to make a decision about a technological question, they should not be swayed by the political and financial interests of corporations, and should seek the most definitive physical truths. Scientists, are the ultimate seekers of truth and should be at hand to advise policy-makers about our countries most difficult questions. Finkbeiner quotes one of her sources in the Department of Defense: "[the Jasons are] the best, most highly skilled, brightest scientific talent that the Defense Department has available." [1]

© Benjamin Kallman. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Finkbeiner, The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite (Penguin, 2007).

[2] R. Graves, The Golden Fleece (Hutchinson,1983)

[3] A. Finkbeiner, "JASON Past, Present, and Future: The World's Most Independent Defense Science Advisers," Nature 477, 397 (2011).