Sid Drell, 1926 – 2016, Whom We Still Needed


Last Wednesday, December 21, Sidney Drell died.  I can’t imagine anyone called him anything except “Sid.”  He was 90.  He was a particle physicist who for a while was deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator.  He had a persistent South Jersey accent which somehow seemed to go with his attitude that nothing was too frightening to look at and to tell the truth about.

In particular, he was a leader of the cadre of physicists who advised the government on how to defend itself against nuclear missiles and what to do with its vast collection of nuclear weapons.  He was, of course, intelligent; he was also complimentary about other people; he was kind, funny, perceptive, and humane.  Talking to him, you really couldn’t help but smile.  But this is a list of facts and adjectives, more of which are in a bunch of obituaries.  So I’ll tell a story.

The world’s countries have spent the last 70+ years trying to figure out the vagaries of living with nuclear weapons.  Obviously everybody should stop testing new ones; peace could be kept if everybody relied on knowing that if one country used a nuclear weapon on another country, the second country would surely use a nuclear weapon right back.  But how was this mutually-assured destruction going to work if nuclear weapons, being mere machines, got old and incompetent? What if a country used nuclear weapons on us and we tried to mutually destroy them back but we couldn’t count on our weapons blowing up?

So in June of 1995, the Pentagon argued that the newly-proposed Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty be not comprehensive after all, and that some little tiny bombs could still be tested.  Political opponents argued back that such an exception would leave the barn door wide open for tests not only of existing nuclear weapons but of new and improved ones by countries that wanted them but were banned by the treaty from testing them.  By this point, the situation didn’t need any more political argument, it needed facts.

Drell belonged to the Jasons – you’re probably tired of me talking about them – and that summer, led a Jason study on how to assess the health and competence of nuclear weapons without blowing them up.  Going into the study Drell thought these little tests might be necessary. They turned out not to be.  By July 16 the Jasons had a report ready, saying there was no good scientific argument for testing, that the existing stockpile could be judged safe without it, and that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was signable.

Drell briefed William Perry, then the Secretary of Defense.  Afterward, Perry recommended to President Bill Clinton that he sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which after a lot of carrying on by Congress and the news media – unbelievable, isn’t it – Clinton did.  But Perry himself had also had doubts:  “I went into the briefing [with Sid] not believing that I could make that recommendation.  And I left the briefing saying, ‘Yes, I can make that recommendation.  I’ve got enough.'”

For Perry, this was unusual in two ways.  One, Drell was a government outsider, and on policy issues, Perry said, outsiders rarely “turn the tide.”  Two, Drell and the other Jasons were known to back the test ban and he worried that they might bias their advice, “that you might end up with people who had the right expertise,” he said, “but who had an axe to grind.”  What decided him to recommend signing the treaty was his “great confidence in the competence and the integrity of the particular Jasons who were giving the briefing to me,” he said. “I mention Sid in particular because he stands out in my mind as having worked so hard on that problem.”

Drell explained the story from his point of view.  As a scientist, “you are there to help the government but you’re not part of the government, and you’re free.”  Freedom must be handled carefully, “in a way which doesn’t make you ineffective because you’re just one of the leading mouths on all issues,” he said. “We have to judge where and how we can use the fact that we really know what’s going on.  The people inside are trapped.  They’re part of the system. We’re not part of the system.  And they can’t shut us up.”

Let me repeat that:  scientists who know what’s going on but who are not part of the system, who are outsiders, cannot be shut up.

While I was interviewing Drell and the other Jasons, I was most interested in how physicists handled the moral situation created by their invention of nuclear weapons.  No one set out to invent nuclear weapons; physicists were trying only to understand the atom and once they found that the immense energy inside the atom could be released, the idea of a nuclear weapon became obvious.  So then what?  “I mean, you can’t control science,” Drell said.  “You’re discovering something and you have no idea what it’s going to be.  But the minute you get some idea and you can start thinking about the technical applications, that’s where societal questions come in.”  That is, consideration of the moral questions begins when science suggests applications; but the considering must be done by society, in a social debate.   “And having a debate on these things,” Drell said, “that’s what I call the moral obligation of the community.”

Such debate has a lot of obvious caveats, including classification and secrecy and technical complexity and the notorious messiness of democracy.  But this is where the science adviser who can’t be shut up comes in; to start the debate and then to inform it; to keep the public debate grounded in fact; to keep it within the bounds of reality.

Let me say that again: the science advisor who can’t be shut up must inform the debate that must be decided by the public.  Again:  the science advisor who can’t be shut up must keep the public debate grounded in fact.

This is a hell of a time for Sid Drell to die.


This CTBT story, and some of the sentences, I straight-up plagiarized from myself.  The quotes are from interviews.  One interview was not by me but by an historian of science named Finn Aaserud, and it’s so good I’m linking to it right here.  I just wanted you to know all this.


Abandoned nuclear site by Jan Bommes, via Flickr.

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