This Gifted Age: Science and Technology at the Millennium
Often roads through the Virginia Piedmont initially appear to take a direct, gently rolling course to a summit. However, they can quickly engage the traveler in steep switchbacks that obscure the final destination. One could say the same of my career.
In my youth, physics appeared to provide a straight path to my goal of a career that could enable me to serve society as well as my curiosity. At Randolph-Macon College, I explored broadly—from math and science to history and literature—and finally chose physics over medicine. I wanted to learn more about nuclear physics; I wanted to use my math aptitude; and I wanted a profession that would allow time for family and hobbies. (All well, two out of three is not bad.)
During my fifteen years at the experimental physics “bench”—at Duke and Oak Ridge—the climb got harder, but the course was clear. I worked with great colleagues, and we received federal support to tackle tough, long-term problems. My tools were accelerators (to produce neutrons in an intermediate-energy range roughly corresponding to the interior temperature of stars), neutrons, and detectors of various sorts. Accumulated knowledge—models of nuclear structure, various sources of information about solar system elemental and isotopic abundances, and papers on the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis—guided my colleagues and me to the more promising areas of inquiry.
Neutrons are very convenient probes in learning about the structure of atomic nuclei. I spent years characterizing the responses of various nuclei when struck by low-energy neutrons. The probability (cross section) of such events as scattering or absorption of neutrons can be extremely sensitive to the neutron energy and also varies widely from one nuclide to another.
Ultimately, the systematics of neutron cross sections shed light on the interior order of heavy nuclei. The same numbers were helpful in the design of nuclear reactors and weapons. But our greatest satisfaction emerged from a painstaking series of measurements of neutron capture relevant to the nucleosynthesis of the elements in the solar system. Astronomers and physicists, such as W. A. Fowler, were probing various stellar mechanisms that could help explain the curious differences in the abundances of elements and isotopes. An enticing hypothesis was that the solar-system materials came about from a complex series of neutron captures in the interior of stars (before the solar system formed), including both “slow” transformations of elements in red giant stars where free neutrons are rare, and “rapid” transformations, for example, in exploding stars where neutrons fluxes are extraordinarily intense.
The neutron buildup processes of heavy-element synthesis in stars have left us a number of tantalizing nuclear clues to the early history of solar system material. The critical test of the concept of nucleosynthesis was to study correlations between abundance and neutron-capture cross section. One of the challenges of making these measurements was developing the new technique of pulsed beam time-of-flight methods to provide neutrons in the correct energy range. A clear conclusion from five years of work is that most of our heavy elements were slowly built up inside stars, which can be thought of as giant nuclear reactors. Extensions of these capture studies have also provided a clearer picture of additional, violent processes which produced some neutron-rich heavy elements, particularly thorium and uranium. In addition, the correlations were used for obtaining an independent measure of the time that has elapsed since the solar system material was synthesized. Finally, data on capture cross section relative to abundance enabled us to calculate rather accurately the solar system abundances of gaseous, volatile, and highly segregated elements. For certain, as Walt Whitman declared, “I believe every leaf of grass is the journey work of the stars.”
Despite the gratification I found in working in the laboratory, endeavors in various technology and public policy arenas have been the focus of my career for the last twenty-five years. These “switchbacks”—from energy and environmental policy, to technology assessment, to advising the President on science and technology—have given me vertigo more than once, but they enable progress, I believe, toward societal and personal goals.
Fate, perhaps more than forethought, influenced my direction(s). Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been at the forefront of the science and engineering of nuclear power for fifty years. the city itself—rich by comparison to surrounding towns—sits just to the east of the coal strip mines of the Cumberland Mountains. As new residents, my wife and I sought ways to improve the economic, environmental, and health conditions of the East Tennessee region. And I also believed the Laboratory could benefit by expanding its field of energy related endeavors. In 1970 I began, physicist-like, to think about the symmetry of supply and demand, and how the energy demand side was chock-full of opportunity for improved technology to lessen the amount of energy required to deliver energy related services. Bingo: a chance for more conservative use of energy resources; big opportunities to cut the environmental impacts of energy production; and a perfect new direction for one of the world’s most prestigious energy-related institutions.
With ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg’s assistance, financial support from the National Science Foundation’s program on Research Applied to National Needs, the distinctly unenthusiastic acquiescence of the Atomic Energy Commission, and a handful of eager and diverse associates, we systematically explored over the next several years the diverse technical opportunities to provide all manner of goods and services at far less energy requirements. We also learned that technology, especially energy, doesn’t operate in a vacuum but instead is deeply influenced not only by economics of the marketplace but also public policy and institutional inertia.
Several years later, when I directed the first U.S. Office of Energy Conservation (created by former President Richard Nixon) I was vociferously instructed in an irate call one evening from a private citizen from Texas that “America did not conserve its way to greatness…we produced our way to greatness.” President Nixon sadly equated energy conservation with being hot in summer and cold in winter. President Jimmy Carter later did almost as bad by appearing on TV clad in a sweater, in front of an open fire, and dwelling exclusively on the moral imperative to conserve energy—unfortunately ignoring the compelling economic, environmental, and national security reasons. The notion of providing goods and services using technologies that save resources (including money) while improving the environment has been resisted long and hard. Despite that reality, and continued low energy prices, efficiency of use of energy in the United States has increased by more than one-third over the past 20 years, and essentially all of it, thanks to technology, at a net financial savings.
It takes multiple encounters to fundamentally change long held attitudes and special interests. Witness the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), also labeled by some critics as “the office of technology harassment,” before I became its director in the late 1970’s. For over a decade I labored there to convince Congress of the utility of impartial but authoritative analysis of the implications of scientific and technological developments for our society. While our work influenced policy choices, it was seldom the prime factor. We were always reminded of Victor Hugo’s admonition: “Science says the first word on everything, but has the last word on nothing.” OTA made stakeholders an essential part of its assessment process, but integrated the views of interested parties and unbiased experts when presenting options for congressional action. Despite considerable success in building a reputation for fairness and influencing policy, OTA became the victim of shortsightedness and partisan ideology and was eliminated by the 104th Congress.
I presently work for an Administration that clearly recognizes the power of science and technology to influence American lives for better and for worse. The Clinton-Gore Administration treats science and technology (inseparable features of the innovation process) as high-leverage investments in America’s future. Investments in science and technology contribute to a growing economy with more high-skill, high-wage jobs for American workers: a cleaner environment where energy efficiency, information technology, and advances in science increase profits and reduce pollution; a stronger, more competitive private sector able to maintain U.S. leadership in critical world markets; an educational system where every student is challenged; and an inspired scientific and technological research community focused on ensuring not only our national security but quality of life for ourselves and our children. The most important measure of success will be our ability to make a difference in the lives of American people, to harness science and technology to improve the quality of life and the economic strength of our nation.
Topics chosen for presentation in this compendium essentially ignore my investigations in nuclear reaction and nucleosynthesis—not because it was not a central phase of my career and source of great satisfaction, but because the material is of more specialized interest.
My belief that technology and enlightened governance can transform the world for the betterment of all, especially future generations, should be apparent in these collected writings. What the reader misses here, however, is my conviction that physics training and laboratory experience are an integral part of a continuum. The success with which we negotiate each turn in the road depends on the education and experience that came before. I look forward to more turns and surprises along the road ahead and confess that I still don’t know what I will want to do when I grow up. Perhaps the best answer to that rhetorical question is to simply decide not to grow up at all!
John H. Gibbons