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Physicist Richard Garwin: A Life In Labs And The Halls Of Power
Physicist Richard Garwin, one of the architects of the hydrogen bomb, never saw a nuclear explosion in person during his time as a weapons developer and hopes never to see one. But he offers a chilling prediction.
Garwin fears there is a 50 per cent chance terrorists will explode a nuclear bomb in an American city within the next four or five years. “We ought to be doing what we can to prevent it,” he said, “and taking steps to insure that the impact of such an event is localized.
“I don’t like it, but that’s my view,” Garwin added during a wide-ranging conversation at AAAS in Washington, D.C., on 10 January. The event was sponsored by AAAS’s Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
Garwin has advised the federal government on national security matters since the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. Still, he remains the skeptical outsider, quick to point out programs he considers unsound or misguided.
He is unapologetic about his role in nuclear weapons development, but has spent much of his career promoting arms control and warning about the need to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
“We have to do a lot more in preventing terrorists” from acquiring the materials needed to make a nuclear weapon, Garwin said before the packed AAAS auditorium. There remain concerns about the security of large quantities of weapons-usable material in Russia, he said, and Pakistan has a worrisome potential for leakage of nuclear materials to undesirables.
The Bush administration should be talking to Pakistan, Garwin said, about the need to effectively control its nuclear weapons so they do not fall into the wrong hands in the event of a coup or other upheaval. Garwin also said Iran’s determination to proceed with what many suspect is a nuclear weapons program could eventually require military action.
“They have every right to civilian [nuclear] technology,” Garwin said. But he said the possibility of military nuclear program in Iran is “a very serious problem.”
The conversation with Garwin was moderated by David Kestenbaum, a science correspondent for National Public Radio who has a Ph.D in physics.
Garwin has had a storied career, and today ranks as one of the most influential U.S. science and science policy experts of the past half-century.
“Dick Garwin’s research, creativity and fearsome intellectual capacity have helped shape much of the technological history of America's national security community over the past 50 years,” said Norman Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center on Science, Technology and Security Policy. “He has also become one of our nation's scientific statesman, applying those same formidable skills to control proliferation, counter terrorism and reduce the threat from weapons of mass destruction on a global basis.”
During the conversation at AAAS, Kestenbaum walked Garwin through his early career, when he worked summers at the Los Alamos Scientific National Laboratory (now Los Alamos National Laboratory). In 1951, Edward Teller told Garwin about the then-secret invention of “radiation implosion” by Teller and Stanislaw Ulam.
Teller asked the young Garwin, then 23, to devise an experiment to demonstrate the principle. Garwin came back with a detailed sketch of what turned to be “Mike,” an 80-ton device that was detonated on 1 November 1952 as the world’s first hydrogen bomb.
“I wasn’t the inventor,” Garwin said. “I was sort of the architect.” The device had almost 1,000 times the explosive energy of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.
Garwin joined the IBM Corporation in 1952 with the proviso that he could spend one-third of his time working with the U.S. government on matters of national security. The company honored that commitment throughout his service until he retired in 1993. While Garwin is now IBM Fellow Emeritus at the company’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., he continues to keep a demanding schedule. He spoke at AAAS after attending a two-day meeting of the JASON group of consultants who advise the government on military technology and other matters.
Over the years, Garwin has advised administrations — both Republican and Democratic — on such diverse topics as antisubmarine warfare, military and civil aircraft, sensor systems, ballistic missile threats, satellite reconnaissance and new technologies in health care. He was one of the founders of the nation’s spy satellite program. He helped convince President Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s national security adviser, of the value of deploying electro-optical imaging satellites that could transmit digital photos promptly to ground stations. Earlier satellites dropped canisters of film back through the atmosphere for retrieval by airplanes as they parachuted to Earth.
Asked by Kestenbaum how well he felt his advice was being followed today, Garwin responded that advice is rarely well-received. Were there cases in which he felt his advice had made a difference? Garwin cited his service as head of an advisory panel during the Nixon administration that studied the feasibility of a commercial supersonic airplane. His panel concluded that the U.S. program, as then constituted, could not develop a supersonic transport that was at the same time environmentally acceptable, profitable and safe. And he recounted that other advice he has given has been implemented immediately.
“That isn’t what President Nixon wanted to hear,” Garwin said. But the report helped kill the program.
Colleagues describe Garwin as the consummate problem-solver with a dogged devotion to the truth. Garwin said he likes tackling problems for people, but added that he also “will give my views on the program to which their problem is attached.” Too often, he said, government officials and others “don’t want their problems solved. They want their approach to solving a problem endorsed.”
Physicist Freeman Dyson has called Garwin the conscience of physics in the second half of the 20th century. “Whenever the government had any respect for truth and competence, Dick Garwin was there advising them,” Dyson said last year at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society.
Garwin’s problem-solving abilities are not limited to arcane matters of physics and engineering. He was granted U.S. patent 4324020 — one of 45 he has been given — for a mussel-washing machine that he and chemist Harold Friedman devised to get rid of the sand on the mussels they gathered in a Long Island bay near Friedman’s home. They only built a half-dozen of the devices. “Very few people are in this business of gathering mussels,” Garwin said.
But the device did the trick, he said. When the Garwins and Friedmans sat down to a meal of mussels, “no sand.”
17 January 2006