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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

L. Don Leet

Faculty Profile

By Fred Gardner

Secretary of State Rusk announced yesterday that a test-ban agreement with the Soviet Union now looks hopeless. At the same time, an uncomfortable Professor sits in a small office on the fourth floor of the Geological Museum, convinced that he could effect that agreement within a week if given the chance.

It is hard to avoid a melodramatic tone in recounting this story. Professor L. Don Leet thinks that the great detection dispute which separated American and Soviet negotiators in January, 1949 (and has kept them apart since), was based on scientifically invalid information. The man who has been in charge of the University seismograph station since 1931 is convinced that the Berkner panel report which insisted that the U.S. raise its inspection demands just when treaty plans had been settled, was simply dead wrong.

"They had data so insufficient that they shouldn't have made any claims," Leet said the other day in reference to the fourteen man advisory committee, "but they swore by their findings. The Russians took one look at the stuff, and laughed. And by God they were right. Any good seismologist would have laughed." So at that turning point in 1958, it was the scientists, not the diplomats, who were irreconcilable.

The crux of Leet's complaint is that the Berkner panel, formed to study the problems of test detection, excluded professional seismologists. They only members of the panel who had any seismological experience were what Leet calls, not derisively but not respectfully, "doodlebuggers,." This is a popular term for seismic prospect seismologists, electronic engineers who use a fraction of the know-how of earthquake seismology. Leet himself is an earthquake station seismologist. His application to work for AFTAC, a unit that presently constitutes the Air Force Vela Uniform test detection project, was turned down on the grounds that Harvard had no instrumentation manufacturing facilities. Leet dismisses this as a "thin lie," since he had submitted estimates of the instruments he needed, all of which are available at a firm located in Boston.

"Not using earthquake station seismologists on a project like this," he explains, "is like revising our measurement system without consulting the Bureau of Standards." Others on the committee included representatives of instrument companies, and one man who, according to Leet, "never took the equivalent of Nat. Sci. 10." Berkner himself is a fairly well-known scientific administrator; he and nuclear physicist Hans Bethe were the only members of the panel not associated with those who were awarded grants by the panel itself (for "further research").

At his own expense, Leet made two trips to Washington in an effort to complain. One official of the Disarmament and Control Agency listened patiently to him and finally asked, "if your theories prove correct does it mean that we'll need more or less inspection in the Soviet Union?" When Leet answered "less," the official told him don't call us we'll call you. He was never called. He went to the Defense Department and was given a similar hearing.

Obviously the scientific conclusions Leet has reached could reverberate to Geneva. Even if the United States can no longer withdraw its inspection demands (inspection is being sought as a political precedent as well as a military necessity), a consideration of Leet's data might lead to better historical understanding of the Soviet suspicion that Inspection is an American ruse.

Leet has no political axe to grind. "I was naive enough to believe that science was objective in anyone's hands, but that Vela data was as full of holes as Swiss cheese. Three months ago I wasn't aware that it would be carried over and used at Geneva. How the hell can a thing like this go on? When I found out I was mad enough to do some digging." The Professor, who was born in Alliance, Ohio, sixty-one years ago, has a ready laugh still untainted by cynicism. He knows it seems quixotic for a lone scientist to question the demands which the United States government has made at Geneva, but he has been frustrated for two years in winning a responsive, influential audience. After his fruitless visits to Washington he described to his Nat. Sci. 10 class why he suspected the detection data was inaccurate. Thus the story broke; he has since been interviewed by several publications, but none has yet run anything. Cambridge 38 is planning to carry a piece by Leet himself in the forthcoming issue; it should prove interesting.

The seismologist has received something of a political education recently. "The forces that I now realize are operating here are financially powerful. $24,000,000 worth of contracts were awarded to seismology in one year; but not to seismologists...I think I know who is responsible for the composition of the Berkner panel. I know the background and the corporate entanglements. But my personal certainty isn't proof. I'm still digging."

Where can Leet expect to find an objective audience, let alone support? McGeorge Bundy and Jerome Weisner both owe his charges some careful consideration; they are well-documented and substantial, if not yet substantiated. The University itself should weigh its obligation to support research which the military dismisses as extraneous.

When Leet was asked if he thought a peace research institute at Harvard or M.I.T. would be a good idea, he replied almost indignantly, "Why no, Science can't prove peace just as it can't prove war. Science shouldn't set out to prove anything." His objection, however, was just to the name. He went on to say that the military establishment has failed to keep things intellectually straight, and that only in a sufficiently endowed academic community could scientists study problems related to the arms race without feeling pressure for preconceived results.

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