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The story of DARPA, the Pentagon's cutting-edge research agency

The Department of Mad Scientists
by Michael Belfiore, Smithsonian Books 2009,
295 pages

Dwight D. Eisenhower, who commanded Allied forces in Europe during World War II, is one U.S. president readily associated with military service. Conjure a mental image of "Ike," and it will most likely show the five-star general in his army uniform, bedecked with medals. What is less remembered, author Michael Belfiore reminds us in his new book, is Eisenhower's concern about the increased militarization of the United States during the 1950s Cold War with the Soviet Union. The cost of a single heavy bomber could pay for a school in 30 cities, Ike told the American public in a 1953 radio broadcast - or two electric power plants, two fully equipped hospitals, or 50 miles of highway. An armaments race is "not a way of life at all," the president warned: "Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."

Eisenhower's concerns helped determine the unusual configuration of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA (originally "ARPA," before the addition of the D, for "Defense," in 1962). The agency, which came into existence during Ike's first term, serves at the pleasure of the secretary of defense, undertaking the specialized research projects the secretary identifies, in support of the different U.S. military branches. Yet DARPA employs both military and civilian scientists and engineers; and, more notably, it contracts R&D to businesses, research universities, and other government agencies. Thus, while its budget is a tiny fraction of total military spending - less than one half of 1 percent - DARPA infuses considerable sums into American society. And the cutting-edge technology developed for DARPA often finds broader application in civilian life. It was ARPA, not NASA, that in 1958 launched the first U.S. satellite into orbit. The super alloys developed by ARPA engineers helped high-speed turbines survive the intense heat of jet engine combustion during a space launch - and became an important feature of modern aircraft. Another early ARPA development was a network of Earth-monitoring satellites that helped advance the field of seismology.

Yet while DARPA has contributed to some of the most important technological advances of the past 50 years - the Internet, the Global Positioning System (GPS), and advanced robotic technology - very little attention has been paid to it by the general public. Belfiore's new book may correct that situation, bringing to light those contributions and the workings of the "department of mad scientists."

The author notes that his study offers only a sampling of DARPA's current and past work - in large part because of the continuing classified nature of many of the projects. Nonetheless, readers will enjoy this engaging inquiry into the workings of the agency, its past contributions, and its concerns for future technology. As he crisscrosses the different campuses and labs where DARPA-funded work is conducted, Belfiore exposes us to a panoply of promising R&D work: robotic surgery at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI); the development of more sophisticated hand prosthetics at Johns Hopkins University; and investigations into alternative energy sources, addressing what some of Belfiore's sources feel is America's most pressing security issue.

Beyond these current projects, Belfiore gives us a sense of the agency's development over the decades, and its struggle to remain both creative and "nimble" in its research. Particularly engaging is his account of DARPA's efforts in the 1960s to develop an "intergalactic computer network" - the precursor of today's Internet.

DARPA's mandate to serve the needs of U.S. armed services is crucial to its success, Belfiore asserts: It ensures that the research will focus on practical application and development, and necessarily involve cutting-edge technology for military deployment. Yet another crucial aspect lies within the "benign neglect" with which the agency is treated, the author believes. Despite having its research fielded out around the country, core DARPA operations remain small, housed in a single building. With its low overhead and term limits on certain positions, the agency operates with limited bureaucracy. That's a model Belfiore believes other government organizations could emulate.

Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.




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