Science You Never Knew Existed

3 Nov

Preface: “Jason” is not a person. Jason refers to a highly secretive independent scientific advisory group that provides consulting services to the U.S. government on matters of defense, science and technology (for instance, they are directly responsible for the electronic battlefield and the Star Wars missile defense program). It was VERY secret until Vietnam. Some of it’s past members include Freeman Dyson, Steven Weinberg, John Archibald Wheeler, etc. Of the roughly 100 Jasons over the years, 11 have won Nobel prizes and 43 have been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences.
“Jason” can refer to one member, the entire group, etc.


This is an excerpt from The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite by Ann Finkbeiner.


Nick Christofilos was born in American but raised in Greece, where he got an engineering degree, though not a Ph.D. He worked for an elevator maintenance business, which he later owned and which, when the Germans occupied Greece, became a truck repair business. The work wasn’t that interesting so he read papers in physics journals, particularly papers on the design of accelerators, machines like the cyclotron in which atoms were collided so hard they splattered, and their debris analyzed for subatomic particles. He came up with a design for one of these accelerators and sent it to the Berkely lab. Unknown to Christofilos, his accelerator had already been invented, so Berkeley set the letter aside and forgot about it. Two years later Christofilos wrote a second letter describing yet another, more complex accelerator; the Berkeley lab couldn’t figure out what he was saying and set this one aside, too. Two more years went by, and Ernst Courant at Brookhaven National Laboratory published a paper inventing the accelerator that Christofilos had described in his second letter; Courant called it the cosmotron, and Brookhaven later built it. Christofilos happened upon Courant’s paper and wrote a third letter that sid he’s already invented the cosmotron. The Berkeley scientists found his paper in their files, Courant wrote, but they “had examined it superficially and dismissed it as one of the many crackpot letters that laboratories get. They and we were most embarrassed, as we published a letter in the Physical Review acknowledging Christofilos’ priority.” Christofilos was paid for his trouble and was offered a job at Brookhaven that, in 1953, he took.

Almost immediately Herb York, then the head of Livermore, invited Christofilos to join him. “He was working on something of direct interest to us, and he was such an interesting person,” York said. Livermore, like Los Alamos and Princeton, was trying to control fusion. Christofilos designed a fusion machine, called Astron, that would shoot a beam of electrons into hot hydrogen, heating it futher until its atoms would fuse and release their energy. Astron’s electron beam could also be used to study the behavior problems of the beam weapons of Project Seesaw. Like Seesaw, Astron never quite worked, but Christofilos loved and defended it, and besides no one could prove it wouldn’t work someday.

Meanwhile Sputnik went up, and like Wheeler and Teller, Christofilos was worried sick about the Russians. “Nick came into my office basically frantic,” said York, “And he was desperate about how to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles.” Christofilos’ plan for intercepting missiles was a “huge cloud of energetic electrons held in place by the earth’s magnetic field,” said York, which would fry any missiles coming through it. To test his idea, Christofilos proposed exploding nuclear bombs in the atmosphere – this was before any test ban treaties – thereby creating the electrons, which would then be constrained by the magnetic field. Christofilos’ proposal in October 1957 roughly coincided with York’s move from Livermore to ARPA. “ARPA is the only place that could pick up something like Christofilos’ idea and support it,” said York. “So ARPA order number one or four – something like that, it’s a very low number – is to do the Argus experiment.”

The Argus experiment was actually three highly classified 1.2 kiloton explosions in the late summer of 1958 it worked and is still sounds crazy. The electrons were trapped in the earth’s magnetic field and traced its outline, creating auroras where the field dipped toward the earth. Whether the electron field would fry missiles seems unclear; it certainly fried satellites. Someone leaked it to The New York Times; the Times and the rest of the media called it the greatest or largest or grandest scientific experiment ever done. “The men of Project Argus spun a veil of electrons around the earth, boldly using the atmosphere and nearby space as their laboratory,” wrote Time magazine. “It almost seemed impudence.”

Christofilos was invited to Project 137, the Jason precursor. In Jason, Christofilos seems to have worked mostly alone. His solo projects had names like “Preliminary Thoughts on a Space Fleet” and were classified secret. “One of Jason’s big jobs,” one Jason said, “was trying to show that various crazy ideas of Nick Christofilos wouldn’t work.” Christofilos’ most famous Jason project was a scheme to communicate with submarines. Like the Argus shots, the scheme was at the same time highly classified and, eventually, highly public; and as a result , much was written about it, and much of what was written was vague or contradictory or partisan and in any case generally untrustworthy.. The Jason précis of the scheme tends to fun along the line of Jack Ruina’s: “I forgot what it was called, his super-low frequency – he was going to set aside the whole state of Wisconsin and Minnesota and maybe half of Canada to be an antenna.”

Some facts are ascertainable. The first name for the scheme was Bassoon. Christofilos first proposed it in 1958 during Project 137, just before the first Argus shots. The submarines were most likely the ones carrying nuclear missiles; communicating with them was difficult because the radio frequencies normally used to communicate over distances fade out, or attenuate, under water, and these particular submarines prefer the deep ocean. The problem would be solved if the submarines regularly came to the surface, but then they’ be obvious targets. Christofilos’ idea was to use radio frequencies so low they weren’t even VLF, very low frequencies, but ELF, extremely low frequencies. The lower the frequency, the less water attenuates it.

Christofilos’ exact proposal is hard to come by: the Project 137 report was declassified after twelve years, but its eighteen pages describing Bassoon are still unavailable. Two years after Project 137, however, Christofilos wrote another report, declassified in 1972; by now Bassoon was called Sanguine. The report proposed a frequency of 25 hertz: extremely low frequencies mean extremely long wavelengths, and 25 hertz corresponds to a wavelength of 7.400 miles. The longer the wavelength, the longer the antenna needed to transmit it; at a cell phone’s frequency of a billion hertz or wavelength of ten inches, its antenna need only be a few inches long; at Sanguine’s 7,400 mile wavelength, its antenna would be 8,500 miles long. The antenna was to be a loop, each end of which would be buried in the earth: a current traveling along the antenna to one end would run deep into the earth, then back up through the other end. The loop in turn would broadcast that signal with its thousands-of-miles-long wavelength. The ELF signal would bounce between and be guided by the conducting rock in the depths of the earth and the conducting part of the atmosphere called the ionosphere – the idea originally of another immoderate inventor, Nicola Tesla. The ELF signal goes right around the earth and hundreds of feet into the ocean. Besides nonattenuation, ELD signals have two other relevant characteristics: they have the virtue of being unlikely to be disrupted by Argus-like nuclear explosions in the atmosphere; and they carry little information. Christofilos said this sytem would transmit six words per minute. He figured it would cost $138 million. Such an uninformative one-way signal is essentially a beeper; Jasons called it a “bell ringer.” “The signals would be only of emergency-type signals, like ‘Go to hell.’” said Ruina. Or, said a Jason, “’My God, we’ve an atomic attack. Go and mutually assure destruction.’”

Christofilos wrote around eight reports on Bassoon/Sanguine. They were all classified confidential or secret. He seems to have worked alone on them; the reports list no other authors. The Jasons nevertheless all know about this project – it’s one of the few they mention without being asked – though they are vague on the details, either because they don’t know them or because they don’t remember which are classified. Murph said that Bassoon/Sanguine was “one of the most important things that comes out of Project 137” and the only thing with any “real application.” So it was definitely built, right? “There were certainly wires laid,” Murph said, “but I don’t want to talk more about it.” But it was built? “It was built,” he said. Was it used? “I can’t answer that,” he said.



One Response to “Science You Never Knew Existed”


  1. Earth’s copper ring; or, a science experiment that didn’t catch on | pons asinorum - August 19, 2013

    […] Aug This pairs well with another post of mine from a while ago:  Science You Never Knew Existed     […]

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