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Invention as a hostile act
 

Some of Lowell Wood’s detractors joke that Brilliant Pebbles turned out to be Dumb Boulders or Moronic Feebles.

For other researchers, though, Wood's research was not a joking matter.

Roy Woodruff, Wood’s onetime supervisor at Livermore, may be seen as emblematic of this. In 1985, Woodruff warned the lab’s management that “There’s a dark side to him [Wood] that needs to be kept under control.” Oct. 21, 1987, a leaked memo from Woodruff accusing Wood of research misconduct hit the headlines. Within hours, Woodruff received a summons to brief Rep. George Brown, the ranking Democratic member of the House Science and Technology Committee. When Woodruff returned from Washington, he encountered the sign “Gorky West” on the door of his office, a reference to the city where dissident Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov had been exiled. After an investigation by the General Accounting Office, Rep. Brown announced that Wood’s claims about the x-ray laser had been “politically motivated exaggerations aimed at distorting national policy and funding decisions.” This conflict ended Woodruff’s career.

All this may appear to be an indictment of Wood, who has declined to be interviewed for this report. In Wood’s defense, technology historian Elting E. Morison has noted that “It is possible… to look upon invention as a hostile act – a dislocation of existing schemes.” Morison further argues that the best innovators are often driven to “surprise or irritate or appall” and that “No military service should or can undertake to reform itself.” He points to the introduction of continuous aim firing for naval guns as an example of these dynamics. Despite it being technically sound and tactically invaluable, President Theodore Roosevelt eventually had to step into the debate and force the Navy to adopt it. Consequently, “Bitterness, suspicions, wounds were made that it was impossible to conceal and were, in fact, never healed.

Likewise, the wounds of Wood’s adventures with politics are unlikely ever to heal. Some researchers joke that they have three levels of security: “secret, top secret and don’t tell Livermore.” Others joke, darkly, about the “Livermorons.”

Notes, Physics Program Review, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Jan. 30, 1985, pg.5.

See chapter six, “Assignation of Blame,” from Teller’s War.

Men, Machines and Modern Times, by Elting E. Morison (MIT Press, 1996), 12th printing, pp. 9, 33, 37, 38, 100, 135.

 

 

 
       © 2013 Carolyn Meinel