Yonas Book: Death Rays and Delusions

March 21, 2021

Book: Death Rays and Delusions
by Gerold Yonas, Ph.D.

Book Review
by Stephen O. Dean, Ph.D.
Fusion Power Associates

In 1984, Dr. Gerold Yonas became the first Chief Scientist of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), commonly known as the Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” Program. He has chronicled his experiences in a well-written, engaging and witty book titled Death Rays and Delusions (ISBN:09692919554, Amazon $14.45).

He opens his book with a short description of how “death rays” have always played a central role in science fiction. He tells how he began his career 20 years earlier, receiving a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Caltec and beginning work at Physics International during the U.S. Apollo era of the 1960s. There he initiated a research effort on high power pulsed generators aimed at simulating bursts of radiation from exploding nuclear weapons. While trying (without success) to focus a beam of energetic electrons on a small target to produce the desired radiation burst, Yonas describes how an engineering colleague solved the problem by making an adjustment to his apparatus. Yonas comments, “I had gained a profound appreciation for how first class engineering was necessary to make physics a reality.”

He transferred in 1972 to the Atomic Energy Commission’s Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, where a much larger effort was underway on pulsed power simulators. Over the next ten-plus years, he developed the Pulsed Power program there, not only for weapons simulations research but also as a fusion approach called Particle Beam Fusion, as part of a larger U. S. program called Inertial Confinement Fusion. He initiated plans for a series of pulsed power facilities at Sandia, one of which has evolved as the current Z facility, a centerpiece of what is now called Magneto-Inertial Confinement Fusion.

When Fusion Power Associates was launched in August 1979, Yonas served on its first Board of Directors. By the mid-1980s, with his reputation solidified, Yonas was serving on several high level government advisory committees, mostly for the Department of Defense, and in 1984 he was asked to come to the newly established SDI office in Washington as Chief Scientist and Acting Deputy Director. He arranged a 2 year leave of absence from Sandia and accepted the positions. As the title of his book suggests, his primary purpose here is to describe his two years in Washington. Although he was chosen (he thought) for his technical expertise, he says he found that “my new job was primarily public relations.” He says he was advised “whenever you are talking to the press, don’t pay too much attention to what they are asking. (Instead) always go into a meeting with three messages you want to give and, no matter what they ask, always give one of your three messages.” Yonas was a recipient of Fusion Power Associates 1984 Leadership Award.

Yonas says “The only thing more challenging than talking to the news media was talking to Congress.” He says he was advised “when you testify in front of Congress, you must never lie to the Congress — but don’t tell them the truth.” He says “I became quite fond of this technique of going into long technical discussions when I did not want to answer a question.” On the technical side, he notes “The (SDI) program was wallowing in controversy from the moment Reagan delivered the infamous Star Wars speech. There were so many different opinions about what we should do, by when, (and) for how much (money).” He credits his boss, General Abrahamson, with being “always optimistic rather than critical.” He says “Abe really believed in technological miracles and he was able to convince others they could achieve more (than) they could had expected.”

Yonas provides numerous accounts of interactions, both technical and political, with prominent members of the scientific community (who mostly opposed the program or had their own favorite technologies), members of Congress, and high level members of the Administration (mostly involving the Department of Defense versus the State Department). Key figures include scientists Edward Teller, Wolfgang Panofsky, Sidney Drell, Hans Bethe and Richard Garwin; politicians like Senator Proxmire; and Administration officials like Casper Weinberger and Richard Perle (Defense Department) and George Schultz (State Department). The book also contains insightful discussion of similar activities in the Soviet Union (including the role of Evgeny Velikhov) and interactions with other countries. Yonas states that Velikhov told Soviet Premier Gorbachev that “the SDI concept of defense against the Soviet missiles was foolish at best.”

Yonas describes the (second) Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Meeting, held in Reykjavik in October 1986, at which Reagan wanted to proceed vigorously with the Star Wars program, including deployment, while Gorbachev strenuously argued for limiting the program to research and development with no deployment. The two leaders did not reach an agreement on SDI at the Summit.

Paradoxically, at the first Reagan-Gorbachev Summit, held in November 1985 in Geneva, an agreement was reached on cooperation on fusion energy research, stating “The two leaders emphasized the potential importance of the work aimed at utilizing controlled thermonuclear fusion for peaceful purposes and, in this connection, advocated the widest practicable development of international cooperation in obtaining this source of energy, which is inexhaustible, for the benefit of all mankind.”

Yonas finished his SDI assignment in Washington in the Fall of 1986. He describes a December 1986 SDI conference in Germany shortly after leaving his SDI position. He presented the opening talk, stating that in his opinion “in less than two years of real organized activity, there had been little real resolution of any of the key issues.”

In the final chapters of the book, Yonas provides commentary on subsequent world events and subsequent technology progress. No Star Wars weapons have yet gone into production or been deployed. U. S. military strategy vis a vis Russia still revolves on nuclear weapons and Russia as adversary. Yonas says “I believe science and technology can play a part on preventing nuclear holocaust, but my time working with the SDI has shown me that people, politics and perceptions will have an even more important role.” Yonas’ book was published in 2017, approximately one year before President Donald Trump proposed the United States Space Force (USSF).

This book is a fascinating account of Yonas’ experiences and insights with the interplay between science and politics in the Star Wars program. I highly recommend it to all. It is available from Amazon.