Non-Fiction Reviews

True Genius
The Life and Work of Richard Garwin

(2017) Joel N. Shurkin, Prometheus, £18 / US$25, hrdbk, 340pp, ISBN 978-1-633-88224-9


Although True Genius has the sub-sub-title ‘The most influential scientist you’ve never heard of’, in my case that is definitely not true. I met Richard Garwin at the 1984 IBM Heathrow Conference, one of nine very high-powered invitation-only annual events held at the Excelsior Hotel with a final payoff in London. Their organiser Leslie Banks brought together galaxies of top scientists, UK and world figures, to review the cutting edges and the controversies in a wide range of scientific fields. Without looking at my files, names that come to mind include Sir Hermann Bondi, Prof. Jacob Bronowski, Prof. Richard Dawkins, Prof. Thomas Gold, Prof. Stephen Jay Gould, Prof. Richard Gregory, Sir Fred Hoyle, Dr. Garry Hunt, Dr. Sergei Kapitza of the USSR, Prof. Eric Laithwaite, Prof. Archie Roy, Prof. James Lovelock, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. I was the only amateur scientist to address a Heathrow Conference, on ‘The Fermi Paradox’ in 1987.

Richard Garwin spoke there on the Nuclear Winter theory, then newly published by Carl Sagan and others, relating it to the issues of nuclear disarmament and insisting on their urgency. As he said in closing, “Then again, even if Nuclear Winter theory is wrong, a nuclear summer isn't going to be much fun either”. The same year I spent four months in the USA and talked with many people about the issues, mostly in the context of the Strategic Defence Initiative (‘Star Wars’). It was striking how many people insisting on the need for the latter, nevertheless strongly denied the possibility of the former. Carl Sagan’s comments on the two issues in the Gifford Lectures at Glasgow University the following year gave me an idea for a new disarmament proposal, which I published by letter in Analog and copied to Dr. Garwin, receiving a courteous reply.

As it happens, Nuclear Winter isn’t mentioned in this book, although Sagan’s comments on SDI are quoted. Garwin spent a large part of his career advising against escalation in nuclear capability, on all levels, and it’s fascinating to compare this book with Freeman Dyson’s autobiography Disturbing the Universe (1979). Both men believed the arms race to be dangerous and unnecessary, and both found their advice ignored, if not actively rejected, because it wasn’t what the political-military-industrial complex wanted to hear. Both had complex and intriguing relationships with Edward Teller, ‘the father of the H-bomb’, always an advocate for expanding nuclear capability in every field. But the big difference lies in their attitude to their work and its applications. Dyson was horrified to learn that his Project Orion, intended to adapt thermonuclear devices for peaceful space exploration, had instead become the basic research for the neutron bomb. But Garwin, for all his misgivings, was the principal architect of the hydrogen bomb, responsible for most of the design work on the first such device. His attitude is summed up in the Afterword (immediately following the chapter ‘Decline of Influence’) where Shurkin writes, “The scientist who designed the most terrible of weapons does not really avoid thinking of the ethics and morality behind his act. It was an interesting scientific problem he solved, the man at the guillotine. But Garwin’s life afterwards has been devoted to seeing that his work does no harm... ‘As for the ethics of scientists creating weapons about which irresponsible judgments may be made by the broader society,’ he said, ‘I have taken the position that it is the responsibility of this broader society to decide, and mine to create such weapons but also explicitly to point out their problems, hazards, and the questions to be resolved’.”

There are so many other areas to which Garwin devoted himself, that there isn’t space here to list them all. The back cover cites air-traffic control, touch screens, colour monitors, laser printers, GPS satellite navigation “and many other facets of evryday contemporary life”, and indeed there are more examples on almost every page. Opening it at random, one finds supersonic transport, cosmic rays, pesticides, Vietnam, pandemics, the Kennedy assassination, and the origins of the LIGO project which has now successfully detected gravitational radiation – but above all the nuclear issues, at least two times in every three.

There is very little about space research, which apparently was not an area which attracted him, and nothing about science fiction, to which the same evidently applied – quite unusually in scientific biographies, in my experience. The only exception is where “the science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke” (not mentioning Clarke’s background in electronics) is credited with the concept of the communications satellite, only to point out that other people had thought of satellites before (yes, but not for that specific purpose). Where Garwin became involved was with the development of the first surveillance satellites, the Discoverer series also known as ‘Corona’, which inspired Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra and now lives on in the UFO movement as part of the spurious mythology of ‘Black Knight’ - so continuing the misidentifications of Skyhook balloons and SR-71 spyplanes, mentioned a few pages before. What Garwin thought about that is not recorded here – it would be interesting to know. But this book definitely belongs on the shelf along with Dyson’s autobiography, Richard Feynman's two volumes, and others of that ilk.

Duncan Lunan

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