UCS Board Member Dick Garwin Wins Presidential Medal of Freedom

November 18, 2016
David Wright
Former contributor

The White House announced this week that UCS Board member Dick Garwin will receive the Medal of Freedom from President Obama on November 22—where he’ll be joined by Michael Jordan, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Bill and Melinda Gates, Tom Hanks, and others.

Richard Garwin

Richard Garwin (Source: UCS)

Dick may not have won Oscars or NBA rings, but he has had a fascinating career with his share of awards, and is a great addition to this eclectic collection of awardees.

Dick has advised presidents from Eisenhower through Obama. He is one of the very few people elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Engineering. President Bush awarded him the National Medal of Science in 2003.

While few in the general public may have heard of him, they benefit daily from technologies he’s helped to develop over the years, including touch screens, laser printers, the GPS navigation system, earth-imaging satellites, etc.

He holds nearly 50 patents. He has worked on a wide range of issues, including air traffic control, detecting gravitational waves, various aspects of nuclear power, the Supersonic Transport (SST), health care technologies, the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, and the electric grid. He was called on to help analyze acoustic recordings of the Kennedy assassination.

He told me once that he had built an early baby monitor when he was working at the Los Alamos weapons lab in the early 1950s, which he strung between houses when he and his wife went to visit a neighbor for the evening.

Nuclear weapons and international security

Dick has spent much of his life working on issues related to nuclear weapons, which is the context in which I’ve gotten to know him.

He’s the person who designed and help build the first hydrogen bomb—in 1951 at age 23, when he was spending summers at Los Alamos—bringing an unusual combination of theoretical insights and practical engineering skills. The goal of the project was to see if the theory behind the bomb worked, and he showed it did.

That started a lifetime of grappling with issues related to nuclear weapons. In the years since, he has worked tirelessly to support arms control efforts and reduce the risks posed by nuclear weapons. His extensive online archive of papers—now into its eighth decade—gives a sense of the range of issues on which he has written and testified. He has continued through the years to work with the government, including consulting with the Pentagon, serving on expert panels and the president’s science advisory committees, and chairing the State Department’s Arms Control and Nonproliferation Advisory Board at the US State Department from 1993 to 2001. He has also been active with private groups like UCS, the Federation of American Scientists, and Pugwash.

In an interview 50 years after building the H-bomb, he told Bill Broad of the New York Times, “If I could wave a wand” to make the hydrogen bomb and the nuclear age go away, “I would do that.”

Working with UCS

Dick has been on the UCS Board of Directors for more than 15 years, and has worked with UCS for much longer. For example, in 1983 he joined with Kurt Gottfried and UCS in advocating a treaty to prevent the development of anti-satellite weapons, and he continues to work on the issue of limiting space weapons. In the following years he played a very active role in UCS’s efforts to highlight the technical and strategic problems with Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense proposal. In the late 1990s he took part in a project I co-organized to write a technical analysis of the vulnerability of the planned US missile defense system to decoys and other countermeasures (a scaled-down version of that system is now deployed in Alaska and California). He continues to write extensively about the problems with missile defense—an issue he once told me he started working on in 1954.

Kurt Gottfried, Hans Bethe, Dick Garwin, and Henry Kendall at a press conference on missile defense, March 22, 1984 (Source: James J. MacKenzie)

Kurt Gottfried, Hans Bethe, Dick Garwin, and Henry Kendall at a UCS press conference on missile defense, March 22, 1984 (Source: James J. MacKenzie)

He also worked with UCS in the early 1990s on an unusual project. When Iraqi forces were expelled from Kuwait at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, they retaliated by starting more than 600 Kuwaiti oil wells on fire as they left. He and long-time UCS Board Chair Henry Kendall pulled together a meeting of scientists and experts in oil well fires to figure out the best ways to quickly and safely extinguish the fires.

Dick was a student and later a colleague of the great physicist Enrico Fermi. He recounts that another student once said “We were all smarter when Fermi was around.” My own experience, and I think everyone at UCS would agree, is that we’re all smarter when Dick is around.

For those who want to know more, a film about Dick’s life and work came out a couple years ago, and a biography is coming out in February.

Update: November 23: Here is a link to a video of the White House ceremony.

(Source: whitehouse.gov)

(Source: whitehouse.gov)