Scientists across the country seem more and more obsessed these days with what one distinguished physicist described as "a subject almost totally devoid of the hope, optimism and beauty of science."
Sidney D. Drell, co-director of the Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control, used that expression in describing one of the dominant themes haunting the scientific community. That theme centers on the creation of a new generation of weapons systems as part of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, known popularly as "Star Wars."
The goal of establishing a space-based defense system offers scientists their greatest challenge in many years because any progress in that direction will require monumental breakthroughs in many fields.
Money is readily available, primarily because of the buying power of presidential priority, paving the way for generous grants to build the equipment and carry out research in some of science's most esoteric areas.
No Unbridled Enthusiasm
The availability of funds--the President is seeking $3.7 billion for the coming year--and the presence of such a challenge would in most cases be met with unbridled enthusiasm by scientists, but that has not been the case for "Star Wars."
The recent convention of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science in Los Angeles featured no fewer than 10 symposiums devoted to all aspects of national security during the nuclear age. But the overwhelming majority of scientists who participated in the discussions expressed grave concerns over the feasibility of "Star Wars" and over where that research will ultimately lead.
Their concerns, according to some who participated, grow partly out of the fact that the current nuclear "balance of terror" is largely their fault.
"It was science and technology that presented mankind with this challenge to our survival," Drell said in a major address during the convention.
There is widespread concern among scientists that any effort to build a space-based defense system will lead to the development of improved delivery systems and more nuclear-tipped missiles in the Soviet Union as one means of defeating the "Star Wars" program.
"Countermeasures must be a primary concern," said Richard Garwin, a physicist and a national security expert who has served for many years as a consultant to the federal government.
Garwin and other scientists have argued in technical papers that the limitation of any space-based defense system lies largely in the fact that most enemy missiles would have to be shot down within the first three or four minutes after launch, known as the "booster" phase when the missile's hot rockets would offer the best targets.
But the booster phase could be shortened through the development of better, faster rockets, Garwin said. That would leave the Soviets with an improved delivery system and the United States with a defensive network that would be obsolete even before it could be operational.
"Maybe," Garwin suggested, "the United States is returning to a reliance on prayer. As in praise the Lord and pass the ammunition."
Concept Has Changed
The concept of "Star Wars" has changed markedly since 1983 when President Reagan first called for an anti-missile umbrella that would shield the nation's citizens in the event of nuclear war.
Even Gerold Yonas, chief scientist on the project, concedes that blanket protection for the nation is not feasible and, at best, any anti-missile system could only reduce the number of incoming warheads, not eliminate them entirely.
That is one of the few points that nearly everybody agrees on. It is nearly impossible to find a reputable scientist who contends today that an "umbrella" could be built to remove the threat of nuclear war.
The issue of "Star Wars" has split the scientific community into two distinct camps: those who favor research in that area, believing it could lead to scientific breakthroughs and possibly even to defensive techniques that are unimaginable today, and those who oppose it because they think it will lead to an expansion of the arms race into space.
If the recent science convention is any indication, most scientists fit into the latter category, but nearly all scientists are extremely interested in the subject. National defense seminars were by far the best-attended meetings during the weeklong conference.
The division within the community led to mild confrontations between foes, prompting retired Air Force Gen. John Toomay to grouse:
"We have a mixture of flower people and Genghis Khans. There doesn't seem to be anybody in the middle."