The Problem-Solver: A Portrait Of Physicist Richard Garwin

16:13 minutes

True Genius published by Prometheus Books.

Many people may not be familiar with physicist Richard Garwin, but his research and designs have played a prominent role in a wide range of fields, including nuclear weapons, personal computing technology, and science policy.

He began his research at the University of Chicago in the lab of Enrico Fermi, who reportedly called Garwin the only true genius he had ever met. After graduation, Garwin became a consultant at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he created the design for the first hydrogen bomb. Later in his life, he would become one of the most vocal scientists advocating for disarmament. Garwin also worked at IBM’s Watson laboratory and conducted research that would become the foundation for technologies such as touch screens, MRI, and GPS.

Journalist Joel Shurkin, author of True Genius: The Life and Work of Richard Garwin, the Most Influential Scientist You’ve Never Heard of, discusses Garwin’s seminal research and inventions and his influence on science and public policy.

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Segment Guests

Joel N. Shurkin

Joel N. Shurkin is a Baltimore-based writer. He is author of multiple books and taught journalism at Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. What is the common link between the touch screen on your smartphone and GPS and MRI machines and even the hydrogen bomb? Here’s a hint, it’s a person. The basis for all of these technologies can be traced to the research of one scientist, the physicist Richard Garwin. And TO folks of a certain age, his name could be heard in the corridors of the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, and research think-tanks across the country.

For the rest of us, we really have not really heard much about Richard Garwin. But Joel Shurkin is here to change all of that. Arguably, Garwin’s most significant design was the one for the hydrogen bomb, which he came up with as a consultant at Los Alamos in 1952. And since that time, he has advocated for the disarmament of the nuclear weapons that he helped develop. And along the way, he has worked for IBM on different technologies that we use every day.

And this prodigious problem solver, as I say, the subject of my guest’s latest book, True Genius. I called it Genius before. It is True Genius, the Life and Work of Richard Garwin, the Most Influential Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of. And Joel Shurkin is also part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team of journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a longtime friend of mine. Joel, welcome to Science Friday.

Enrico Fermi, who was a big thinker himself, reportedly called Richard Garwin the only true genius he had met? Why?

JOEL SHURKIN: Well, apparently he was. It’s extraordinary, coming from Enrico Fermi, who was known in physics as the Pope, because he was never wrong. And one day, he walked into a luncheonette at Los Alamos and said, I’ve just met the one true genius. And everybody at the table thought he was talking about them. And they said it was Richard Garwin.


IRA FLATOW: In fact, let me play a– we spoke with Richard Garwin a few weeks ago over the phone. And this is how he described how he began working in Fermi’s lab.

RICHARD GARWIN: Well, I went for graduate school to the University of Chicago Physics Department. But I’m an experimenter. And my fingers itched. I wasn’t in a laboratory. And I decided I would go to Professor Fermi. I asked his secretary. He gave me an appointment. Fermi didn’t need thinking. I thought he could use help with doing.

IRA FLATOW: Thinking but not doing, Joel.


JOEL SHURKIN: Well, Garwin group grew up in a family– his father was very handy. He was a projectionist and ran a company that fixed movie projectors. And he taught both Richard and his son Edward, who also became a physicist, by the way, how to use their hands, how to blow glass and do all sorts of things. So he’s very handy to have around.

IRA FLATOW: So what type of work did Garwin do for Fermi?

JOEL SHURKIN: He worked on his dissertation. But it has to do with gamma rays. And if you push me any farther, I can’t go, because I’m not sure I actually understand it.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, we all know that one of his biggest projects was working on the first hydrogen bomb. How did he get involved? Was he invited in? Or–

JOEL SHURKIN: He was invited.


JOEL SHURKIN: He spent the summer in Los Alamos as a post-doc. And one day, Edward Teller walked into Fermi’s office. And Fermi and Garwin were both there. And Garwin innocently asked, what’s going on?

And Teller told him what was going on. And Garwin offered to help. And Teller sent him to the classified library and told him what documents to look up and to go off and to build a test that they could run, just to prove that the hydrogen bomb would work. There were a lot of scientists who didn’t think it would work.

Instead, he came back with a design for the bomb. He said, he had been wasting his time just coming up with a test. So he came back with what was, very largely, the first hydrogen bomb, which was called Ivy Mike.

IRA FLATOW: The title of your book is The Most Influential Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of. Why haven’t we heard of Richard Garwin?

JOEL SHURKIN: Personality. There was a woman, whose name I’ve just forgotten– I just blanked out on– who wrote a book called The Visible Scientist. and she characterized the kind of scientists that you always read about in newspapers. And he filled none of those categories, except that he had a steady job.

He was not interested in self-promotion. He did not know how to give interviews, still doesn’t, by the way. He knew how to put himself in front of reporters in a handy way that reporters would come back to. And he just didn’t do it. He wasn’t interested.

IRA FLATOW: You as a–

JOEL SHURKIN: He had problems to solve.

IRA FLATOW: You’re his biographer now. But you as a journalist– I remember– we all must have covered Richard Garwin, back in the day. Did–


IRA FLATOW: You didn’t cover him?

JOEL SHURKIN: No, I never heard of him.

IRA FLATOW: So that’s why the name of your book. Because I was in Washington. I’d heard of Richard Garwin. Maybe it’s because I was in those halls where he used to hang out at the Pentagon and Congress.

JOEL SHURKIN: Exactly. That’s right. He testified in Congress hundreds of times. He was the bane of the Pentagon’s existence on any number of projects. He was a science adviser to a half a dozen presidents. So in Washington, he was extremely well-known. Outside of Washington– not so much.

IRA FLATOW: And he became very vocal. We’re talking about the hydrogen bomb– not using nuclear weapons. In fact, let me play a clip in which he describes, then, what happened.

RICHARD GARWIN: I became involved with people in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who were not only interested in technology but in the defense against the missiles. And I understood what many of these hydrogen bombs would mean. There, I decided that it would be a lot better if they weren’t used, a lot better if they were impossible to build. But if I hadn’t designed it, somebody else would have, probably within the year or so.

IRA FLATOW: And he still thinks that way about nuclear weapons?

JOEL SHURKIN: Yes. He had also added that the bomb they’d come up with would be more expensive than the one he designed.

IRA FLATOW: Is that right?


IRA FLATOW: I get, from reading the book and the biography there, that he would just go into a project, get it done, and then move on to the next thing.

JOEL SHURKIN: His theory was, they came up with a problem. I solved it. They paid me. And what they do with it is their problem. And that has always been his philosophy.

IRA FLATOW: And he did write a letter to President Trump about the Iran Nuclear Deal that was signed by many other scientists, right? How did Garwin view that disarmament problem? And how did he get all these scientists to sign that letter?

JOEL SHURKIN: Essentially, he viewed it as better than nothing, that it had advantages, and there was no disadvantages. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages. He got the other scientists to sign it– and only one refused, by the way, Steve Weinberg of Texas– simply because he was Dick Garwin. And everybody knows that he knows what he’s talking about. He knows more about nuclear defense than probably any living human. And he’s known for that.

IRA FLATOW: And he’s still doing work? He’s still active? He must be– what?– near 90? Something like that?

JOEL SHURKIN: Actually, Wednesday was his birthday. And he was 89-years-old. And if you’re listening, happy birthday, Dick.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Was his advocacy work for disarmament spurred by his work on the hydrogen bomb? Does he have any regret about building it? You hear quotes about Oppenheimer. What about Garwin?

JOEL SHURKIN: That is the good question and the one I spent most of my time trying to answer. And the answer is, I don’t know. He says he does not have a guilty conscience. He said, if he didn’t build it, somebody else would. It was an interesting scientific problem. I asked his children whether they thought his father had a guilty conscience. And they said, no. His wife also says no.

Plato said that in unexamined life is not worth living. And Garwin disagrees. He has never gone profoundly into the question whether his work on disarmament was because of his work with a hydrogen bomb. He says it is not.

The book has been criticized, because I do not go deep into his soul to find out whether that’s true or not. After spending several years dealing with the man, I think he is what he says he is, that there is no relationship. A psychiatrist might disagree. But I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m a biographer.

IRA FLATOW: What you see is what you get when you–


IRA FLATOW: –talked about him. Our number– 844-724-8255. Talking with Joel Shurkin, author of True Genius, the Life and Work of Richard Garwin, the Most Influential Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of. Let’s talk about some of the things that made him so famous. Give me an idea of some of the things that we use today that we didn’t know he had a hand in.

JOEL SHURKIN: Well, he had a very interesting and quite a wonderful job. He worked for IBM for all his adult life. The arrangement was that he would work 2/3 for the corporation– and he headed a number of their research labs– and 1/3 for the government. In almost all cases, the work he did for his government was classified. So not anybody, including the chairman of IBM, knew what he was doing or where he was going.

In his research, he did such things as develop the first touchscreen, which IBM never made use of; the prototype of the first ATM, which IBM also never made use of. He invented the non-impact laser printer, which they did make use of, and things like that. His handiwork is in almost every satellite.

He’s probably most famous in defense for his spy satellites, which he can’t talk about. So you have absolutely no idea what it was he did with the spy satellites. But apparently, he helped design them. And that includes, I believe, the ones that we use for GPS in your car.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Yeah, Richard Garwin talked about his work with Jim Levine, one of his colleagues at IBM.


IRA FLATOW: And we have a little clip. He describes, in this clip, their work on one of his favorite projects there, which you touched on.

RICHARD GARWIN: So we invented several touch-technologies, the first of which I like most, which was a laser-scanned input device. And we built it into the first IBM color monitor on the IBM PC in 1981 or thereabouts. And you could use your finger or a stylus or whatever and point to a tenth of a pixel accuracy and draw at whatever speed you like.

And Jim Levine programmed up airline ticket-issuing terminals. We built a couple of hundred smart lecterns. And so we had it out of fun. But I couldn’t persuade IBM, really, to pick it up and go with it in a big way. And so we published our work. And it was there when other people, I guess, had the gumption– Steve Jobs– to put it all together into the iPhone, as all the technologies developed.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, when you work for a giant company, they do not like to take chances on things.

JOEL SHURKIN: He once got into a fight with somebody at IBM on whether or not the touchscreen would be rejected because it would leave finger marks on the screen, and that people wouldn’t use it because they wouldn’t want to see the finger marks on the screen. So it got down to that. He did not enjoy corporate science very much. But it was a good well-paying job. He was well-respected. And he did get to do lots of things that he really did like to do and run into people like Jim Levine.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Did he suffer fools gladly? I mean, did he–

JOEL SHURKIN: No The answer to that question is, no. It’s hard. When you walk into the room and you’re the smartest person in any room you walk into, it gets really difficult after a while.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me go to the phones. We have, in Washington, DC, Brett. Welcome to Science Friday.

BRETT: Hi. I haven’t read the book yet. I’m looking forward to reading it. But I just want to let everyone know what a what a great mentor he was to younger people. I was younger at the time. And he sponsored me on a couple of different efforts. And he just took a lot of time and patience because, as you mentioned, he is always the smartest guy in the room.

But I don’t think he gets enough credit for how much time he spent mentoring people in national security in particular. He was just a great, just a wonderful mentor, in my experience, actually, the best I’ve probably had.

IRA FLATOW: And what made him so great is that he took extra time to mentor you? He was careful? He–

BRETT: He was careful. He was deliberate. He sponsored me for the Council on Foreign Relationships membership. And he took a lot of time. And he was thorough about everything he did in doing that. But it was not an easy mentoring. He had a lot of questions. But he was very positive but challenging. And I just found that a really nice combination.

IRA FLATOW: Well, thanks for calling, Brett. We’re talking with Joel Shurkin about True Genius, the Life and Work of Richard Garwin, the Most Influential Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Joel, that doesn’t surprise you, I imagine.

JOEL SHURKIN: It surprises me a little bit. He always lamented the fact that he had very few graduate students. And he told me he paid very little attention to them or less attention than he should have paid to them. I detected some regret about that. So the fact that he did mentor some– which I’m sure is true– is good to know.

IRA FLATOW: Well, how does he view the role of scientists in society? We’re going through the marches with scientists and scientists speaking out. How did he view that role?

JOEL SHURKIN: Well, he goes back into the 1950s. And in the 1950s, scientists were still gods. They had invented the atomic bomb. They ended World War II. And government was very greatly influenced by the generation of Los Alamos scientists. And then, with the Vietnam War, it started turning.

There is a long history in America of anti-intellectualism. And you’re seeing it now full-blown. So science is much less powerful, much less influential than it used to be, for various reasons. For one thing, most every department has its own scientists and science advisors. You’ve got some presidents who are interested in science– like Kennedy and Eisenhower, actually– and some who have no interest in it whatsoever, like the one we have now. So he’s witnessed the diminution of influence of science in Washington and laments it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Does he think about bigger ideas about the role of science? Like, we see automation, the problems with people losing their jobs to technology– does he still think about things like that?

JOEL SHURKIN: I didn’t ask him that question, to be honest with you.


JOEL SHURKIN: I don’t know.

IRA FLATOW: We’re going to have to have him come on, Joel. And maybe you’ll sit in with us, and we’ll talk to him. Because–

JOEL SHURKIN: I highly recommend it. Dick’s problem– and I say this with great love and affection– is that, if you ask him a simple question, you will not get a simple answer. Although, he’s getting better at it. He’s got so much stuff in his head, just walking around, it’s hard to get a simple answer.

Also, he explained to me once, a lot of the stuff that’s running around in his head is classified. And he is always afraid that he’s going to say something he shouldn’t be saying. So you may find him asking you to give the questions ahead of time. He’s not doing this to be a rotten guy. He’s asking that because he wants to make sure he does not say anything he shouldn’t say.

IRA FLATOW: And stuff–

JOEL SHURKIN: He knows all the secrets.

IRA FLATOW: Stuff that’s 40-years-old– still classified stuff?

JOEL SHURKIN: Even the titles of some of the stuff was still classified. In my book, I have one paper that the last three or four words were classified. I found out what they were and published it, naturally. But they’ll even classify the title of papers, which doesn’t really tell you anything about the paper. The one he did on the hydrogen bomb is still classified.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Thank you, Joel. Great book– True Genius, the Life and Work of Richard Garwin, the Most Influential Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of. Joel Shurkin– author of the new book. Thanks for taking time to be with us today, Joel.

JOEL SHURKIN: My pleasure, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Good luck on the book.

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