There's something wrong when the Defense Department's top science guy says the scientific method is invalid.
Noah Shachtman (ex-guru of DefenseTech.org/current guru of Wired magazine's Danger Room blog) has kindly posted the entire transcript of a recent interview with Tony Tether, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Noah: I'm sure you'd agree that the best science is done out in the open, right?
Tony: Not always.
Noah: Not always?
Tony: No. I mean, I think that's the legend. But I have not found that to necessarily be the case. The best science is done when you get the best people together. That doesn't have to be in the open. What you do have to do is gather a large enough population of people with different disciplines in order to make progress. And whether you do that open source or by having a very tightly knit project, I've not seen -- I can give you a fairly near-term example, and that is stealth. Stealth was very closed, a very secure program. Great advances were made. Lots of science. Materials science actually made great leaps and bounds. And it was a very, very closed discipline for a long time. Actually, it still is closed.
In the above paragraph, Dr. Tether not only dispenses with nearly five centures of collective wisdom on the scientific process; he butchers the history of stealth's evolution.
It began in the 19th century with the work of Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who developed a set of equations that explained electromagnetic behavior. Later, methods of solving Maxwell's equations were invented by other scientists, including Arnold Sommerfeld. In 1966, a Soviet physicist named Pyotr Ufimtsev applied that wisdom to create a formula to solve the radar signature of any two-dimensional surface. Ufimtsev's open-source paper was translated into English by a special US Air Force office. His research caught the eye of a brilliant Skunk Works engineer named Denys Overholser.
According to the book "Skunk Works," a memoir by former Skunk Works director Ben R. Rich, this is what happened next:
"Ufimtsev has shown us how to create computer software to accurately calculate the radar cross-section of a given configuration, as long as it's in two dimensions ... We can break down an airplane into thousands of flat trangular shapes, add up their individual radar signatures, and get a precise total of the radar cross section."
This is no attempt to minimize Lockheed Martin's distinct contributions to stealth technology. However, Tether should know better than to use stealth technology as the example for the merits of a closed-door approach to science. As in any scientific discovery, stealth is the product of years -- even centuries -- of inter-connected theories, discoveries and mistakes.
Conducting science under a veil of secrecy may sometimes be necessary, but -- as Tether must acknowledge -- that approach comes with a price. It is an aberration of the scientific process -- not an ideal.