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Garwin: Witness to History—a review

A new documentary looks at the life of a physicist whose influence spans the worlds of government, industry, and national security.

Richard Garwin’s physics career began with a bang. Edward Teller, who, together with Stanlislaw Ulam, had conceived the basic design for a thermonuclear bomb, asked Garwin (then just 23 years old) to devise a test of the scheme. No scale model for him: Garwin, in just 18 months, planned, built, and demonstrated the first full-scale H bomb blast. On 1 November 1952 the 10-megaton “Ivy Mike” device was detonated on an atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

In all the years since, Garwin’s chief professional concern has been the nuclear component of national security. His primary employer for the entire time has been IBM, with whom he came to an early agreement: One-third of his hours would be devoted to government work. IBM would not ask what he was doing for the Pentagon, and he would reimburse the company for any fees he received.

IBM came out of this bargain extremely well, considering the excellence of Garwin’s research for them. For the country, the deal was even better. Considering his input on such programs as satellites, reactors, conventional weaponry, missiles, and missile treaties, Garwin is arguably the most important individual defense consultant of the past half-century. For this work he has received the highest government awards a scientist can earn: the Fermi Prize and the National Medal of Science.

Richard Garwin poses for the author at a recent showing of Garwin: Witness to History. CREDIT: Phil Schewe

Richard Garwin poses for the author at a recent showing of Garwin: Witness to History. CREDIT: Phil Schewe

A documentary about this extraordinary scientist, Garwin: Witness to History, was screened for a public audience in Washington, DC on 22 April 2014. The showing, together with a panel discussion, was organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). The organizations concern themselves with the role of science in society.

The film, directed by Richard Breyer and Anand Kamalakar, uses both still photographs and stock footage of Garwin speaking over the years. But the majority of the film follows Garwin as he makes various visits—to an atomic museum at Los Alamos, his childhood home in Cleveland, the White House, and a security conference in Europe.

It is on these orchestrated trips that Garwin’s assigned role as “witness” becomes clear. We see a lot of Garwin—the 85-year-old Garwin participating in the shooting of a film—looking out of cab windows, or walking on a beach, or standing in front of the White House (as if waiting for the directors to tell him where to stand). We see much less of Garwin in action, testifying before Congress or handling complex questions in his characteristically unflappable style.

Some of the footage is quite effective: the roiling blast clouds issuing from the Mike explosion are beautiful and appalling at the same time. The same is true for shots of the solemn near-catastrophe of the Cuban missile crisis or the patented slow-motion aerial view of napalm strikes over Vietnam. The clips certainly put us in mind of the dramatic national events in which Garwin was an active participant—supplying a steady supply of calm and informed advice to presidents from Eisenhower onward—and not just as a passive witness.

More like a tourist

During the discussion that followed the movie, the filmmakers said that they had hoped to tell the story of a journey. But what they call a journey is really just a series of locations. Again and again, the film returns to Garwin pulling up in his car at still another building, ultimately looking less like a witness than like a tourist. The setup is so static at times that we find ourselves watching Garwin watching a film about the cold war.

We can’t expect Garwin to compete for drama with theater, such as Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileo or John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic about Robert Oppenheimer. But it should stand up to comparison with other documentaries about scientists.

For example, the NOVA episode devoted to Richard Feynman’s last years also centered around a journey, namely his effort to reach the central-Asian province of Tuva. That documentary made splendid use of prior interviews, graphics, and musical background (central-Asian throat singing accompanied by Feynman on bongos). By contrast, Garwin’s musical score is pedestrian, its graphical displays almost non-existent, and its narrative largely restricted to Garwin’s heavily curated itinerary.

Errol Morris’s film about Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (taken from Hawking’s book of the same name) is another filmic example of successful science biography. Hawking’s journey is of course mental rather than physical, but is nonetheless fully fleshed out. A series of interviews of those closest to Hawking are filmed with ethereal lighting that helps to maintain the exciting topic—black holes and other mysteries of the cosmos. Clever graphics and a Philip Glass musical score hightens the ethereal tone.

Why isn’t Richard Garwin better known? For one thing, his most exciting history is expurgated, with national security cloaked in technical detail and decisive policy debates classified. Another reason is that Garwin is such a reasonable person. An habitual carrier of an overstuffed backpack, he cuts an unpretentious figure. He gives no-nonsense, expert answers to difficult questions. He doesn’t play the bongos.

The directors said at the discussion that they hoped to bring the film to college campuses. Getting young people interested in security issues and in Garwin’s career is a worthy goal. But on campuses, Garwin will have to compete with other distractions--other entertainment, other movies, and other, more glamorous, scientists’ stories.

Do documentaries have to be artful? Well, why not? The current version of Cosmos shows that science can be interesting when packaged in the right way. This principle applies even to the science of national security. It applies even to Richard Garwin.

Phil Schewe is the communications director of the Joint Quantum Institute, a research partnership established in 2006 between the University of Maryland and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. His most recent book, Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson, is now out in paperback.

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