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APS Study Reports

Malcom W. P. Strandberg,

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

82 Larchwood Drive
Cambridge Massachusetts 02138 USA

First Version completed November 2004
Date of this print, July 4, 2006

Prescient Study Report? Collegial Unanimity? Herd Mentality Consensus?

Preamble: The Given, Rational or Logical

Physicists live in a rational world and practice their art in a logical world. Their system of logic exhibits closure; every valid question has one answer. The rational world generates several different answers to every question. There's the rub. My colleagues tend to consider their opinions on the real world to be logically complete, and ignore the real rational world dissenting opinion as if it were too trivial to be considered. This point should not be difficult to make for we now live in a country in which even the Beltway politicians are talking about and sponsoring a system of Competitive Analysis. The Intelligence Bureaucracy will be strengthened, it is said, by sponsoring adversarial studies of situations of concern to our security.

The laws of the physical world are constant, we believe. Our understanding of the laws, and the metrics and calculus we use to express the laws, do change, of course, as we gain knowledge of the physical world. But the laws themselves are invariant in time. And the answers, correct ones, are invariant in time.

In the rational world the reservoir of technology and canniness or ingenuity of humans is constantly changing with antiquated technologies draining out and the new technologies filling in. The boundaries of the possible are constantly widening; the inconceivable of yesterday can become the cliche of tomorrow. So the answers change with time.

It is not prudent to let technology determine the structure of a project or a development. Example; Edison's DC generators made retail power stations necessary. A.C. generators gave power distribution the proper form.

We learned the beauty of logic in high school when we studied plane and solid geometry. There is a single answer to every valid question. In the Thirties when I was in high school there were National High School Debate Topics. Each year a new question was presented; for example, Resolved: The Marines should be withdrawn from Nicaragua. In debates the debating team took the Pro or the Con side of the question. The winner was not the team that gave the right answer, for this is a rational question. The winner was the one the most gracious in presentation or persuasive in argument. There was no right answer; having the right answer is a luxury reserved for the higher administrative functionaries.

The democratic political system recognizes the several answers to the question of how best to govern, Several political parties campaign on their own rational platform for political action. How necessary this diversity is may be seen from the fact that if the diversity is not great enough there is discontent and enhanced activity of lesser, third parties. Dictatorships ignore the diversity of rationality, and forbid dissent. It does seem strange, but the human mind adapts to this stricture. In 1969 I discovered during a trip around the Soviet Union that humans can avoid trying to resolve contradictions if it is necessary to do so to live; the difference between what is supposed to be and what actually exists is simply ignored. The legal system in a democracy recognizes rationality by having an adversarial court system. Defense and prosecution each present a viewing of the facts that lead to contradictory conclusions. The judge is the gatekeeper determining admissibility of evidence. The jury is in a unique role of choosing between the two rational presentations; it seems to have a role of deciding how justice will be done, rather than trying to select an elusive truth.

Given this state of affairs the physicist can feel he is badly used when his rational opinion is rejected or contradicted. He can also forget that the real social world is rational, and so he can feel his opinions should carry more weight than that given any other person's opinion. All opinions are, of course, true.

And even the real physical world can contradict the physicist's logical physical systems when the assumptions upon which it was built are just plain wrong.

In Radiation Laboratory during WWII I had a friend, J. S. Foster, the professor from McGill University who provided liaison with Canada in the magnetron development work being done at M.I.T. He had tales about Rutherford at McGill. He had carried comprehensive work on the Stark effect in hydrogen in the late Twenties. In 1943 he was working on a scanning K band antenna. I came into his laboratory early one Monday morning. He was obviously pleased with something for he tried to stifle a laugh, and his eyes were sparkling. ``Now I've really done it,'' he said. He had a friend who supervised a youth group at a local church who had asked Foster to address the Sunday night meeting of the group on Leadership. Foster told them that the primary quality of a leader was ignorance. Given that the rational world has two answers for every question, only an ignorant person would be able to choose a rational plan of action, and be able to ignore the other rational plans that must exist, without worrying whether the right choice had been made.

In the Matter of APS Study Reports

The APS issues reports based on studies made of important public policy questions that appear to be based on matter within the ken of a physicist. These studies have all the limitations of the rational analysis; what are the weighting of the various factors, are all factors considered, the lack of predictability in the rational world, etc. A recent report on the boost phase missile defense is reported to be ``careful not to make any policy statements or recommendations'' but the panel ``did conclude that `when all factors are considered none of the boost-phase defense concepts studied would be viable for the foreseeable future to defend the nation against even first-generation solid-propellant ICBMs' ''. I guess that's called a conclusion. Given the fact that the report is a rational statement it does seem that at least one dissenting report should have been supported. This second report would have allowed some of the points that have been brought up in correspondence to Physics Today about the findings of the report to have been given equal exposure. It would counterbalance the report issued in the manner necessary for all rational opinions. The rational world requires rational adversarial opinions simply to make it clear that decision making in the rational world is a crap shoot and there is a diversity of opinions from which the future will be constructed. Stalin issued a single report; the United States Supreme Court usually issues at least one dissenting opinion.

In any case, in evaluating a given project to determine that the appropriate technology is not available is a no brainer. Technology always lags application. It is the difference between the available technology and the needed application that is the potential that drives technological development.

There is another more serious reason for providing for counter balancing reports. The report could be one prejudiced against the object of the study from the beginning, so that its aim is to deal a coup de grace to the project. But that possibility is one I ignore as a social, or political, or moral, or ethical judgment, one for which physicists' opinions per se would have subordinate importance. If the report is not simply an attempt to support some one's opinion, then the result of the study is a definition of the problems to be solved and the setting of the rank order of their importance. If you do not define your problem correctly then you cannot expect to be successful in finding a solution to your problem. Given the vagaries of predictability in this world, making sure of having a winning solution in your ensemble of choices improves the chance of success immeasurably in the crap shoot of making a choice. Having more choices from which to choose does not guarantee that a choice of a successful program can be made, but is does increase the probability of a choice of a successful project.

There is also a question of the aging of the report, given that technology is forever changing. The Timeliness Conjecture says that a report that is up to date by a time interval T will also be obsolete after a time interval T.

But Wait, There's More: The Proactive Report

There is another type of report, the proprietary report, that has a different approach to the report structure. It can evaluate the present status of technology but it also incorporates creative additions to the technology. For example, the Lexington Study Group in the early Fifties undertook a study of what turned out to be the DEW Line, the Arctic early missile detection radar. The staff meetings would end with Zacharias urging everyone to get back to work and get out the patent disclosure forms. Technologists know there is no predictability unless you invent the future yourself. Other study groups for the armed services that I participated in had less to do with what could be done today and more to do with what could be invented to provide a perfect solution to a problem. As a consultant to the armed services and to industry I considered my task less that of introducing my client to what can be done now but rather what might be possible 5 or 10 years from the present when the application will be finally produced for use.

The proprietary report often starts with someone with enough administrative power who has had a creative moment and is convinced that the idea she had is really a great one. But being prudent, the idea is passed on to a group who are to evaluate it. The idea is torn apart and the faults as well as the benefits of the idea are exposed. The faults are corrected, if possible, with creative changes to the idea with inventions to bolster its weakness. A firm foundation for the project based on the idea is constructed, the necessary creations for the technology to be realized are made, the necessary science is demonstrated to be available.

In the early Fifties I was a consultant for the design of a ground support missile that was unique in being successfully employed by the service for which it was designed. There were several other missiles at that time, MIT had Meteor, that never saw acceptance or use. But the one I was affiliated with had canny engineers who pushed the envelope of technology to what they considered would be available when the missile went into production a few years in the future. This included optical radar for target ranging and digital processing of the range data from the radar and from the DME that provided the missile range. In a time when analog was the norm and before lasers, the instrumentation was prescient and appropriate. Of course those decisions were not the key to success of the missile. They only indicate the competence with which the whole project was administered.

Given the naughtiness of physicists in calling every wiggle they observe when they tickle Mother Nature a great technological advance, the invention of a new world, I must add my opinion on what an invention is. Cobbling together present technology to produce a new functionality is probably not an invention. In Radiation Laboratory, at the end of WWII, an analog version of a radar moving target indicator was being developed. It was a dreadful thing with acoustic copies of the target returns processed in meter long mercury delay lines to provide a template with which to compare the next pulse return to extract the difference, the moving target component of the return. The technology was simply inappropriate to the task. With many things to control, temperature drifts trashed the output signal. The processing would only be done properly when digital processing of the radar signal became possible.

There were integrated signal processing modules, compact collections of interconnected discrete electronic components available before Robert Noyce and others printed the circuits on a silicon chip in 1957. The silicon chip version was not only many times smaller but also an appropriate technology for the purpose.

When I joined Radiation Laboratory in June 1941 I was assigned to the Advanced Development Group. I was shown around the roof top laboratories on Building 6. At one place members of the group were tuning up the X-band wave guide transmission lines from the magnetron transmitter to the T to the line to the antenna and to the receiver Transmit-Receive switch. This involved changing the wave guide line length between stationary elements. So a trombone section of wave guide was employed. As it was moved the trombone was arcing and I thought to myself what a kludge that was. So I soon invented an appropriate technology to do the job, a squeeze section. Changing the width of a wave guide that has slits in the top and bottom wall changes the phase velocity of the wave and hence the effective length of the wave guide. I told my boss, Ed Purcell, of the idea. He said it would never work. That conversation was on a Friday and at that time we worked 5 days a week. So I came in Saturday, and milled out a model of the squeeze section and made measurements of the effective line length change as I changed the width by squeezing the wave guide. I showed the results to Purcell on Monday. He did not say much but the device was quickly put into use in many ways in the Laboratory. Purcell asked me to construct an X-band spectrometer so I did not go on finding uses for the phase shifter because of the new job I was given. I designed a cavity frequency meter for the spectrometer. I still have the cavity frequency meter and it is in my portrait, But others did capitalize on the phase shifter. When I came back from duty in Great Britain in 1943 I was told that Jerry Wiesner had used my squeeze section to make a bridge to cancel out the flat transmitted energy through a T-R box and hence measure the spike energy that was doing the damage to the receiving detector. Jerry never expressed appreciation to me for my phase shifter, but alpha males seldom do express pleasure from the help of others in doing things they could not do themselves. Louie Alvarez used my phase shifter principle to make a large scanning antenna for the Eagle Project. Whenever we met he, also, never complimented me on the idea on which the antenna was based. But he was ingratiating and yet frustrated and red-faced as we tried to think of neutral things to say. Purcell's boss was I.I. Rabi. Working with or for Nobel Prize winners-to-be does have its disadvantages. For me, I was delighted that I had predicted a future that I had invented.

In 1943 I was in England working on radar countermeasures for the RAF at TRE in Gt. Malvern. Lindemann, newly dubbed Lord Cherwell, Winston Churchill's science advisor, visited TRE to plan the future program with Robert Coburn, the head of House 7, the building isolated within the security of TRE for added security for the countermeasures work going on there. Lindemann had a reputation as a good physicist before the First World War. After the meeting the future plans were announced. I was disturbed by the pomposity of the process and I told Coburn, later Sir Robert, that it was silly to create goals without learning from those working on the projects what the present technology would allow being done, or learning what would have to be invented to allow what you would like to accomplish. They thought I was having a nervous breakdown, I think, for they set up a tour of radar posts on the English south coast for me and three other Americans. Years later I learned that I was not alone in criticizing Lindemann's edicts. He was apt to come up with ideas that would have been ignored had they come from anyone else. They absorbed technological talent that was needed for other tasks. Fortunately, when I departed on the trip, I was able to leave them a breadboard version of a carrier finding circuit, or double detection circuit. I had designed it for use on an automatic searching jammer. The problem inherent in automatic search receivers is that of finding the carrier frequency of a signal with a broad spectrum like that of a pulse radar.

For example, an automatic surveillance receiver that could be stowed in a bomber and operated unattended during a bombing mission would record a received signal on a moving strip of teledeltos paper with a mark on the width of the paper with its position indicating its frequency. The position along the length of the tape indicated geographical position. With the broad radar pulse spectrum the mark was a broad smudge on the width of the tape. My circuit used the detected output from a broad filter to subtract from the detected output of a narrow filter. Only at the carrier frequency would the narrow band signal surpass the broad band signal and yield a signal to be recorded. The automatic searching jammer for which I had designed the circuit needed the circuit to be able to determine the radar carrier frequency for the most efficient use of the jamming signal it would emit when a radar signal was found. When I returned from the rest tour I was shown the fine line traces that the automatic surveillance receiver, Bagful, displayed when the circuit was used in it. And Carpet II, the automatic searching jammer, used the circuit to lock on the radar carrier. And everyone was pleased. But I was most pleased by the future I had invented for myself, the use of my circuit in the barges loaded with Carpet II's that were used in diversionary feints in the Pas de Calais as part of Operation Fortitude in the invasion of Europe in WWII that pinned German forces in the north while Normandy was being secured. Though I was pleased when an engineer from the project at RRL that was designing an American version of Carpet visited TRE. I showed him the carrier finding circuit. He said, laconically, You can retire.

So an invention must use appropriate technology. If the technology is not available it must also be invented. It must have clearly understood properties so that it can be appropriately employed. An initial application is a nontrivial requirement, also. If all these factors are put together and one has the functionality needed to assure success of a project, then one can invent the future and overcome the unpredictability of the real world.

To summarize, an APS status report without an accompanying competitive analysis is incomplete. An APS report on project viability without the invention of the missing technology has not much credibility.

I have had the good fortune to observe several projects that were proposed by alpha male physicists that were monumental failures simply because they had not had thorough studies made before beginning the project. In all cases the reason for failure could have been foreseen and could have been avoided with creative adjustments. The balance sheet of achievements of alpha male physicists never lists their blunders, so not to worry.

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Malcom W. P. Strandberg, Email: mwpstrATmitDOTedu
Essay Installed 2006-07-04