Reagan had assembled a large committee of eminent scientists to advise him on Star Wars. One of them very publicly resigned. He was the man I wanted to meet.
I first saw him on some late-night tv news show, discovered he was coming to London to deliver a paper at a software engineering conference at Imperial College and take part in a discussion on Friday 30th August on 'The Technical feasibility of software for strategic defense initiatives.' I interviewed him after his presentation and wrote the following piece for Time Out magazine, which appeared on Sept 18th.
'The unlikeliest and sternest critic of Reagan's Star Wars programme is Professor David L Pamas, a short, irascible, bespectacled, ginger-bearded professor of computer science, wearing a navy blazer and brown boat shoes with fraying laces.
Software engineering is a field in which he's considered a giant by his peers and explains the importance one should attach to the fact that he recently resigned from the SDI computer panel, the first scientist on the project to do so. His resignation letter read, in part, 'I do not believe that further work by the panel will be useful and I cannot in good conscience, accept further payment for useless effort
In an exclusive interview and in his barnstorming speech to the Conference, crackling with intelligence and humour, Professor Parnas outlined his arguments. He knows from experience that in a complex engineering project the computer software is always the most unreliable part. He says: 'You never know when you've got the last important bug out, so what is our basis for confidence in SDI when all defence systems fail first time? Realistic testing would require a series of nuclear wars.'
Parnas thinks analogies to the Apollo missions and the Space Shuttle programs are misconceived. The software for SDI is much more difficult, he says, though not perhaps the longest program ever produced as some have suggested. 'On Apollo we could predict the behaviour of the moon and there were no decoy moons to confuse us. With the Shuttle there were manual fallbacks and no surprise launches. With SDI we have no reliable information on targets.'
Nor does Parnas accept the comparison of the Manhattan Project which, unlike SDI, was based on theoretical principles that had already been made. He believes that if Reagan had proposed Faster Than Light Flight — a scientific impossibility — that half the defence scientists and corporations in the
Parnas first heard talk of an SDI-type system at the
Parnas says: 'Personally, I would feel safer if they spent the money on tanks.' Pretty soon the defence establishment is going to have to start listening.