Garwin the Movie, Reviewed

April 28, 2014
Lisbeth Gronlund
Former contributor

I was in Washington, D.C., last week to attend the screening of a new documentary, “Garwin.” It features Richard “Dick” Garwin, an eminent physicist on UCS’s board of directors who has worked on an incredible array of technology and public policy issues for more than six decades now. Dick and his wife of 67 years, Lois, were in attendance.garwin

As Dick himself noted during a panel discussion after the screening, the film presents an impressionist view of him and his life. There is no narration, and his life’s events are not portrayed in chronological order. But the sense it conveyed of Dick was exactly right—calm, rational, persistent, purposeful. My favorite part was the beginning, which featured footage of him walking in front of the White House and up the stairs of a congressional office building in his suit and with his backpack on. Just doing what he does, with no sign of stopping.

Although the film includes footage of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, Dick was too young to be involved with that effort. In many respects, however, it set the stage for the rest of his life. After completing his Ph.D. in physics at the age of 21, he was invited by his thesis advisor Enrico Fermi to Los Alamos. Over the next year, Dick designed the first hydrogen bomb test, which was detonated on November 1, 1952, on one of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

Dick spent most of his career at the IBM research center in Yorktown Heights, New York, where he had an arrangement that allowed him to spend a third of his time advising the government. Rather than a focus on academic research, he wanted to follow his wide-ranging interests, and IBM gave him the resources and freedom to do that. In one scene in the film, he is sitting in the office he still maintains there, noting that more important things have taken precedence over filing all his papers.

Indeed, Dick has spent his life doing important things. As the film notes in passing, he developed the touch screen, but that is the tip of the iceberg. He also was instrumental in developing the laser printer, the GPS navigation system and reconnaissance satellites, among many, many other things in both military and civil realms (including a mussel washer!). And he has done ground-breaking physics research.

But perhaps the most important thing Dick has done—and still does—is advise the government on nuclear weapons and nuclear arms control issues. That’s the focus of the film, and it touches on many of the arms control issues he has been involved in. He has served on the president’s Scientific Advisory Council and an array of government advisory panels, has testified before Congress innumerable times, and has long been a member of the JASON group of elite scientists that advises the government on a wide range of security issues. But his advice has not always been welcome, and unlike many people with security clearances and inside access, Dick works to publicly promote his analysis and ideas (without revealing secrets, of course). He travels the globe to speak about arms control issues at meetings and conferences. The filmmaker followed him to Erice, Sicily, for one such meeting.

Dick also collaborates with UCS and other like-minded groups that are working to change U.S. nuclear weapons policies—which is how I know him. He has been an invaluable ally.

For example, Dick has worked long and hard to make the case for U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban all nuclear explosive testing, and against unworkable missile defenses of the sort the United States first deployed under President George W. Bush and continues to develop under President Obama.

Some 25 years ago, I was sitting in a D.C. hotel lobby with a group of scientists in town to make the case against President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the so-called “Star Wars” program. The coffee table we were sitting around wobbled when someone put a cup on it. Dick pulled a screwdriver out of his backpack and got down on the floor to repair the table. I quipped that it was a good thing he didn’t need a soldering iron to fix it, and he replied that he had one in his hotel room. I’m still not sure if he was joking.

At any rate, Dick, at 86, is still working to fix things.