Catalyst Winter 2017

UCS Board Member Wins Presidential Medal of Freedom

President Obama pinning the medal of freedom on Dick Garwin

Former President Barack Obama presents Richard Garwin with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony on November 22, 2016.
Photo: White House/Chuck Kennedy

by David Wright

In November 2016, President Obama awarded UCS board member Richard Garwin the Medal of Freedom (the nation’s highest civilian honor) for his many contributions to science—alongside Michael Jordan, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Bill and Melinda Gates, and others.

Dick may not have won Grammy Awards or NBA championship rings, but he has had a fascinating, distinguished career. An advisor to presidents from Eisenhower through Obama, Dick is one of the very few people elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Engineering. President George W. Bush awarded him the National Medal of Science in 2003. While few in the general public may have heard of him, they benefit daily from technologies he’s helped develop over the years: touch screens, laser printers, the GPS navigation system, earth-imaging satellites, and many others.

Nuclear Weapons and International Security

In 1951, Dick designed and help build the first hydrogen bomb—at age 23, when he was spending summers at Los Alamos—displaying an unusual combination of theoretical insights and practical engineering skills. The goal of the project was to see if the theory behind the bomb worked, and he showed it did.

That started a lifetime of grappling with issues related to nuclear weapons. Dick has worked tirelessly to support arms control efforts and reduce the risks posed by these weapons. In an interview 50 years after building the H-bomb, he told the New York Times, “If I could wave a wand” to make the H-bomb and the nuclear age go away, “I would do that.”

Working with UCS

Dick has been on the UCS board of directors for more than 15 years, and has worked with UCS for much longer. For example, in 1983 he joined with UCS cofounder Kurt Gottfried in advocating a treaty to prevent the development of antisatellite weapons, and he continues working to limit space weapons.

Dick was a student and later a colleague of the great physicist Enrico Fermi. He recounts that another student once said, “We were all smarter when Fermi was around.” My own experience—and I think everyone at UCS would agree—is that we’re all smarter when Dick is around.

David Wright is senior scientist and codirector of the UCS Global Security Program. Read more from David on our blogs, The Equation and All Things Nuclear.