Mr. Nose Cone and the Weapon of Openness

Arthur Kantrowitz, renowned scientist and ever the student, asks what would happen if we kept fewer secrets.


In 1978, at the age of 65, the physicist Arthur Kantrowitz decided to try something new. An avid boater, he arranged to sail his 33-foot sloop from Cape Cod to Bermuda, navigating with a sextant. His wristwatch, he found, was accurate enough to serve as a chronometer, to determine longitude. Nevertheless, Bermuda was a very small island amid the immense ocean, and Kantrowitz could have missed it. "I found it," he recalls, "by using one of the navigational techniques of the Polynesians. Cumulus clouds form high over islands, so on a sunny afternoon while at sea, I looked for clouds on the horizon. That gave the direction to Bermuda, from 150 miles out."

Kantrowitz has been steering in new directions for a long time. He has spent the last 50 years working at the frontiers of science, in atomic energy, ultra-high-speed aerodynamics, cardiac-assist devices, and lasers. Increasingly, though, he has been concerned not so much with the problems of science as with its values, with the sources of integrity that make science respected. Today, as he ranges across both science and history, he asks: Is there not a deep consistency between the values of science and those of a free society, which leads nations toward Western ideals of liberty and openness, ensuring that science and freedom together will prosper or fall?

When Kantrowitz speaks of science, other people listen, because his contributions have been so large. As a lad fresh out of college, working at the nation's main aeronautical research center in 1938, he became interested in the problem of producing atomic energy. His approach proved to be enormously original. Rather than attempting to split the uranium atom, Kantrowitz tried to achieve controlled fusion, within a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber he'd devised. This is the approach being pursued at today's major fusion laboratories. Although the vacuum chambers may be as large as a house, they are little more than bigger and more elaborate versions of what Kantrowitz first built, at a time when the most basic principles in this field still lay undiscovered (and the Patent Office refused to patent his invention).

Kantrowitz spent the war years working on jet engines, a topic that introduced him to high-speed aerodynamics. To learn more, he began to work with a type of cannon known as a shock tube, in which an explosion would set off a momentary flow of gas at unusually high speeds. This work came in handy in 1954, when the United States launched a series of crash programs to develop rocket-propelled missiles. Their nose cones would have to slam back into the atmosphere at meteor-like speeds. The problem was to keep these warheads from burning up like meteors. Kantrowitz's shock tubes made it possible for laboratory researchers to blast away at experimental nose-cone models, at temperatures up to 12,000 degrees. These violent instruments successfully solved the problem of missile reentry, earning Kantrowitz the name "Mr. Nose Cone."

He had been a professor at Cornell, but his work on missiles led him in 1955 to found Avco Everett Research Lab in Massachusetts. After the laser was invented in 1960, he got off to an early start in this new field, and Everett was soon setting the pace in building lasers of the largest possible size and power. These, in turn, would eventually form part of the basis for the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Still, as presidential advisors and Nobel laureates sought his company, Kantrowitz himself often sought the company of students. Throughout his career, he has always seen himself as a teacher. "Teaching is probably what I've done most of," he says. "Even when I ran the Everett lab, I was less an executive making business decisions than I was a senior teacher. I tried to be a mentor, leading people to work in new directions. It's been a very satisfying activity." He could often be seen at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talking with talented undergraduates, encouraging them and learning from them as they worked on such topics as space colonization and future energy sources. Well into his '70s, at Dartmouth College, his questing mind, Santa Claus–like beard, and expressive face were as familiar as ever to the students he cherished.

During the 1970s, Kantrowitz had watched with considerable concern as the environmental and antimilitary movements brought forth widely publicized and influential opponents of nuclear power, supersonic transports, and military weapons. He had spent most of his career working with technologies that can have major and dramatic impact on society and the nation, and now technology was becoming controversial. He spoke of a "time of timidity." The nation, held back by fears of technology that he regarded as exaggerated, had lost its willingness to take risks so as to build and achieve. As a scientist, he was convinced that many of the controversies might be better illuminated by bringing out the facts. He began to call vigorously for a new institution, a Science Court, that could help to do this, enabling people to develop more-informed judgments.

Hans Bethe, a Nobel-winning physicist from Cornell and a long-time friend, recalls a congressional hearing that Kantrowitz regarded as all too typical of the handling of technical controversies. "I was arguing in favor of nuclear power-plant safety, supported by eight Nobel Prize winners," Bethe said. "On the other side Dr. Kendall [a leading nuclear critic] was arguing against it, supported by eight Nobel Prize winners. Surely this is no way to make up the mind of a decision maker—to count the number of Nobel Prizes on each side. There must be a better way."

Kantrowitz thought his Science Court could be such a way. He imagined that Henry Kendall, the critic from MIT, might confront Norman Rasmussen, the author of a detailed review asserting that nuclear power is safe. This confrontation would not take the form of a debate but would be a proceeding similar to that of a court trial. The idea was "to have Kendall and Rasmussen cross-examining each other in a Science Court proceeding before the public, each knowing the other will pursue every assertion long enough and hard enough to get to the bottom of the matter," Kantrowitz said in 1980. "That would bring to public debate the same care and candor that scientists use in communicating with each other."

But it is often not the facts that are the subject of disagreement, observed critics of his Science Court. Rather, people disagree about the interpretation of facts in the light of values. If nuclear waste has agreed-upon properties, what risks result? And are these risks acceptable or too large? Indeed, Kantrowitz noted from the start that a Science Court would seek only to establish technical facts, not to make decisions based on them.

The Science Court idea stirred some interest within President Ford's administration, but Jimmy Carter's people declined to pursue it. The first such proceeding took place only in 1983. Kantrowitz was spending a term at Berkeley, where two scientists had strongly opposed each other over the issue of health hazards at the Love Canal chemical dump. These scientists—Beverly Paigen, a geneticist, and William Havender, a biochemist—met in an open cross-examination late in February. This followed a series of preliminary private meetings, in which they determined more precisely where they agreed and disagreed.

In their public meeting, they put particular emphasis on developing a list of disputed technical issues on which new evidence might sway their conclusions. Kantrowitz was cheered when the proceeding was written up in the Christian Science Monitor, showing that a Science Court could offer a new way for scientists to be heard. The main consequence of the meeting, though, was his conclusion that in future proceedings, it would be particularly useful for the adversaries to develop in advance the list of statements on which they already agreed.

Such "neutral zones" proved to be central to a new set of proceedings, held at Dartmouth in May 1985. The subject was the technical basis for the Strategic Defense Initiative. Four scientists participated, one of them Richard Garwin, widely known as one of the most knowledgeable critics of the SDI. The results of their confrontation proved to be quite surprising—the adversaries found extensive areas of technical agreement. Kantrowitz described this as "a major contribution to the narrowing of technical controversy about the feasibility of Star Wars defense." And even where the experts disagreed, they succeeded in narrowing their disputes to specific questions. Here they found additional points of agreement and Kantrowitz noted that these "might transform the public debate."

The Berkeley and Dartmouth tests did show how politicized advocacy might be separated from scientific debate, how adversaries might use public cross-examination to broaden the range of agreement and to narrow their differences. Nevertheless, as Kantrowitz says today, "the Science Court idea is almost completely in limbo. I don't see much emphasis on finding facts in a controversy. Instead, we act on the prejudices of the chosen few."

Kantrowitz's experiences with the Science Court also set the stage for his current concern: openness as a source of strength both in science and in free societies. Openness, after all, was to lie at the core of the Science Court, with all assertions being brought out into the open for close scrutiny.

He traces his appreciation of openness to the physicist Niels Bohr, who met near the end of World War II with both President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, urging that the atomic bomb should not be treated as a secret. Instead, said Bohr, it should be discussed openly in international meetings, for the purpose of drawing the Soviets and other powers into treaties that could head off an arms race and its attendant risk of nuclear war. As Kantrowitz sees it, the subsequent decades have shown the merit of Bohr's bold viewpoint, by demonstrating the folly of seeking national security through "secret weapons" that somehow would be beyond the ken of our adversaries.

He is fond of a statement of Bohr's: "The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness." America, declares Kantrowitz, "became the strongest country in the world by being the most open country in the world. Open societies have evolved as fittest to survive in the international jungle. Thus the strength of the weapon of openness has been tested and proven in battle. This was most clearly demonstrated during the Industrial Revolution by the rapid rise of open societies in Western Europe and America."

During this century's middle decades, such an argument might have been questioned by people pointing to the equally rapid rise of the Soviet Union. But Kantrowitz observes that the recent decline of the Soviets, and the continued rise of Western democracies, adds new power to his view. And glasnost, "openness," is now official Soviet policy, he notes. "It's purpose, we are told, is to increase their strength."

As an example, Kantrowitz offers a highly controversial assertion: that there should be open discussion of developments in cryptography, the science of secret codes. This would not mean open disclosure of the codes themselves but discussion of the underlying mathematical and technical principles. Admiral Bobby Inman, former director of the super-secret National Security Agency, claims that openly published research in mathematics could be dangerous. It could reveal to other countries that their codes were insecure or could lead to the development of codes that even the NSA's best analysts could not break. Under his tenure at the agency, the federal government instituted controls over the dissemination of U.S. scientists' work in cryptography and related mathematics.

Kantrowitz, by contrast, argues that openness in this field can "make America stronger." It can, for example, "provide early warning of the possibilities an adversary might have in breaking our codes." Remembering that the Germans in both world wars went on blithely using codes that the British had broken, he adds that "there are many instances where secret bureaucracies have disastrously overestimated the invulnerability of their codes." While acknowledging the need for secret codes, he urges a parallel effort in cryptography that would be open. Lacking this, he declares, excessive secrecy could promote a smug and false sense of security among those in the know, while making it harder to learn of technical advances that might break others' codes.

Secrecy, in his view, brings more than complacency; it brings corruption. He cites the war in Vietnam, which escalated in secrecy as our policymakers kept their aims hidden. In time this fostered a corrosive distrust, leading to the great political upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Kantrowitz also points to a more recent instance of tightened secrecy, a 1982 order from President Reagan on national security: "In no case shall information be classified in order to conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error; to prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency; to restrain competition; or to prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection."

What use is it, asks Kantrowitz, to "order criminals not to conceal their crimes and the inefficient not to conceal their inefficiency"? Rather than place such temptations in the hands of bureaucrats armed with TOP SECRET rubber stamps, he believes it would be far better to subject them to checks and balances, by providing for independent reviews under law. "When technical information is classified," he observes, "technical criticism inevitably degrades to a contest between competing authorities, and one cannot tell whether politics or science is speaking."

Recalling Niels Bohr's proposal for openness in atomic energy, Kantrowitz now strongly endorses the suggestion made by President Reagan in 1984 that we share our SDI technology with the Soviets. As with cryptography, this would not mean revealing operating details, but rather would involve an open discussion of research on underlying principles. There still would be classified efforts involving attempts to build actual weapons, but "the open work would outpace the classified work." Broad-ranging and general research, widely shared, would relegate the secret work to a collection of compartmentalized cubbyholes, whose areas of concern and technical contributions would both be narrow. And this atmosphere of openness could encourage leaders on both sides to develop strategic defensive measures to strengthen peace rather than to provide a secret advantage in war.

Is openness, then, an imperative of modern societies? Is this a direction in which the world as a whole is moving? "Openness isn't developed in my mind as a historical imperative," he admits. "That's high on my list of things to do. I'd like to know the history of secrecy better, so I could better make the case for openness. I believe that if we knew this history better, it would show a lot of Iran-Contras, things that weaken the country. Dartmouth has all the books, if I get around to study this."

Kantrowitz is 75 years old. But he has the enthusiasm of a graduate student as he pursues this newest and most significant issue.

T.A. Heppenheimer writes frequently for popular scientific publications. His latest book is The Coming Quake.