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Editorial Reviews

"Annie Jacobsen...is a great storyteller, making the tantalizing tale of The Pentagon's Brain - from the depths of the Cold War to present day - come alive on every page." (Gerald Posner, author of God's Bankers)

Publisher's Summary

The definitive history of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, from the author of the New York Times best seller Area 51.

No one has ever written the history of the Defense Department's most secret, most powerful, and most controversial military science R&D agency. In the first-ever history of the organization, New York Times best-selling author Annie Jacobsen draws on inside sources, exclusive interviews, private documents, and declassified memos to paint a picture of DARPA, or "the Pentagon's brain", from its Cold War inception in 1958 to the present.

This is the book on DARPA - a compelling narrative about this clandestine intersection of science and the American military and the often frightening results.

©2015 Annie Jacobsen (P)2015 Hachette Audio

Critic Reviews

"A fascinating and unsettling portrait of the secretive US government agency.... Jacobsen walks a fine line in telling the story of the agency and its innovations without coming across as a cheerleader or a critic." ( Publishers Weekly starred review)
"Filled with the intrigue and high stakes of a spy novel, Jacobsen's history of DARPA is as much a fascinating testament to human ingenuity as it is a paean to endless industrial warfare." ( Kirkus Reviews)

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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Not what I expceted but thats not a bad thing

The author seems to have no love lost for the activities of ARPA and then DARPA from the hydrogen bomb to its work on artificial limbs. Ms Jacbosen tends to see the agency in a more negative than positive light despite the advances that have been made by its efforts. This is not uncommon as any agency that works mostly in secret, or tries to, gets the jaundiced eye more often than not.
Enough opinion on Ms Jacobsen's opinion, the book was well researched and she does a great job telling the story of DARPA despite its secretive nature. If you can get beyond the negative tone it is an informative book on one of the more influential government agency's over the last 50+ years. Good back stories on its more prominent personnel and good detail on some of its creations. Some good side stories s well.
She did a good job narrating. Her voice was paced and her pronunciation was easy to follow. I listened to it while operating equipment with one earbud in and the other listening to the machine. Despite this I had no problem hearing and comprehending the content. While being a conscientious operator, of course.

23 of 23 people found this review helpful

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Informative, inspiring, and disturbing

Pros: There is a lot of highly detailed history presented here, and Ms. Jacobsen obviously did a LOT of research and interviews for this book. I hope (and also fear) the myriad happenings she suberbly and theatrically summarizes from the 1950s through the present are all correct. Due to the nature of the subject matter, there's really no way to accurately verify that however; most of those who know for sure may not want or even be able to talk. Anyone who's been in the military or associated with it for any length of time knows we are not supposed to talk hyper accurately about things we do and know about for both security and patriotic reasons. Regardless, the book was very enjoyable and inspiring. It was also disturbing, if even half of what Ms. Jacobson outlines here is true. We had a very dangerous last half century. We're likely in for an equally dangerous next half-century, both from threats without as well as what our scientists develop from within.

Cons: Two small things. 1) A couple of very minor items were not exactly right (only reason I know is due to being on the ground in Iraq during Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom), but like I said they were minor and didn't majorly or negatively affect my enjoyment of the book or her credibility regarding the rest of it. 2) Regarding her performance when reading her own book, it's much better than some books I've heard that were read by their own authors, but set your playback speed to 1.10x and you'll enjoy it a little more. :)

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark T
  • Portland, OR
  • 12-06-15

Very Interesting Story, Not an Extraordinary Book

Where does The Pentagon's Brain rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Top 50%

Did the narration match the pace of the story?

It's always tricky when the author reads their own work. In this case it worked ok, although the delivery was a bit flat. And her mispronunciation of a few words in the book was pretty strange. But it was fine for this particular book (being non-fiction, and not emotion-laced).

Any additional comments?

I found this a very interesting book. But it's almost stream of consciousness in terms of DARPA's history over 50 years, as opposed to providing much analysis or insight. For a book of that length, I would have expected more framing, as opposed to just recounting of history.

6 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Cynthia
  • Monrovia, California, United States
  • 10-08-15

Scientia Est Potentia/Knowledge is Power

I am not a particularly paranoid person. Well, that's not quite right any more.

Until I listened to Annie Jacobsen's "The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency" (2015), I didn't realize that the NSA (National Security Agency) has had the ability to figure out where I've been pretty much the entire last 5 years. And no, not just that trip to China I took a few years ago that required a visa and customs.

If someone at the Puzzle Palace wanted to figure out if I'd been going into work on time every single day, what my favorite beach is, or what park I watched 4th of July Fireworks at in 2013, they probably could. I've had an iPhone with a GPS (global positioning system) since 2010, and GPS is DARPA originated technology. There's facial recognition software, too, used in large crowds, also developed under DARPA auspices, and that technology became urgent after 9/11. The only reason I haven't gone completely conspiracy theory mad over the whole situation is that I can't imagine who would care what I've done 24/7 for the last half decade.

Jacobsen's book on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Is fascinating and frightening. She starts with its founding in 1958, before the 'D' had been adhered to the acronym, but after the Soviet Union had shocked the United States by launching the first-in-space Sputnik. The Vietnam War was a major driver of ARPA projects - and in hindsight, some of those projects were dangerously crazy. Yes, you can track people contaminated with depleted uranium, but fortunately, that idea ended up round filed before it went anywhere.

ARPA didn't invent what's widely recognized as the first of the non-human calculators, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator And Calculator). The US Army did, in 1946. J.C.R. Licklider, working for an ARPA contractor, originated the concept of an 'Intergalactic Computer Network' in 1963. ARPA contractors hardwired the first nodes and created TCP/IP protocol and half a century later the world's on the Internet. And, while the whole galaxy isn't networked, the solar system is. It's always a kick to get tweets from the International Space Station, especially when it's dark out and the Earth's rotation is right, so you can see it flying across the night sky.

There's a lot more to DARPA and to Jacobsen's book. Her discussion about medical data collection, medical advancements, and related developments in artificial intelligence - well, there's so much information there, each subject could be a separate book or 5. And the fact that recent mandatory changes in medical reporting and the use of ICD-10 coding (medical diagnosis codes) probably has more to do with tracking nuclear, biological, and chemical attacks than anything else never even occurred to me - and I work with ICD codes all the time. What a revelation.

Annie Jacobsen narrated her book, and she was good - not in a performer kind of way, where she was making up different voices for people - but in a 'let me read my book to you' way.

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63 of 73 people found this review helpful

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meh

What did you like best about The Pentagon's Brain? What did you like least?

The book provided interesting information on DARPA that I was unaware of. The delivery was terrible, and the story was not what I expected.

Has The Pentagon's Brain turned you off from other books in this genre?

No. But I will not choose other books by this author.

How did the narrator detract from the book?

The narrator (also the author of the book) annunciated her words in such a strange choppy manner, that it was particularly distracting. Each word felt like it was its own sentence, and there was never a comfortable flow to the cadence. There were also a number of acronyms that were mispronounced.

Was The Pentagon's Brain worth the listening time?

I’m not sure. I listened to the entire book, and was not upset with it. But there were a few points where I considered giving up, and I was happy when the book was over.

Any additional comments?

I was expecting a book detailing the history, structure, political dynamics, and insights to DARPA. The story does provide history, and is a chronological detail of DARPA’s progression throughout the years. However, it is more focused on the role DARPA has played on the battlefield throughout history, describing in great detail the various innovations that have come to be standard for battlefield operations. The feel of the book is strange, alternating between a dry academic style, where every acronym is explained, and each and every character’s security clearance level is indicated, to flowery argumentative language providing little substance. One component I took issue with was the author’s account of the invention of the laser. The author used the invention of the laser as an allegory for innovation in general and the scientific and technological advancement driven by DARPA. The author circles back multiple times throughout the book describing the work of Charles Townes in developing the laser as an example of this innovative spirit, but fails to mention even once the name of Gordon Gould, or mention the controversy over rights to the laser’s invention. The fact that this substantial point was ignored leads me to question the objectivity and diligence of the author in the rest of her writing.

12 of 14 people found this review helpful

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  • Chris
  • Los Angeles, CA, United States
  • 03-26-17

Fascinating. Superb Reporter. Mediocre Writer.

Where does The Pentagon's Brain rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

Jacobsen is a superb reporter, a mediocre writer and an execrable narrator. What that boils down to is a really frustrating audio book. Her research is first rate. Her logic is strong. But her writing is clumsy. Her narration is simply dreadful. Both her strengths and her weaknesses are consistent, and they're woven together in a really frustrating way.

She explores really important questions here. Really important, which is why it's such a pity that flaws that could easily be corrected mar her work.

As I found with the other Jacobsen book I've read, Operation Paperclip, this book is at its strongest at the end, especially in her description of her interview with Allen Macy Dulles Jr., where at moments she's almost lyrical, and in her concluding analysis of what DARPA's direction means to our republic and the future of humanity.

Elsewhere, her writing is poor and her narration almost unbearable. It is a tribute to her skill as a reporter that I was able to force myself through this book's weaknesses. I repeat what I've said elsewhere. Jacobsen needs a writing coach, better editing, or both. She should either improve her delivery or leave the reading aloud to someone else.

And yet, I'm glad I read this book. Jacobsen takes the time to examine the workings of the military-industrial complex thoroughly. She raises unsettling questions about technology and responsibility, and she explores them thoughtfully. I'll be thinking about this book for a long time. I may read it again. There's a lot to think about here.

What was most disappointing about Annie Jacobsen’s story?

See above. Jacobsen obviously is really smart and she's very thorough. So why does she use such dumb phrases as "future plans?" I have yet to plan anything retroactively. I'm surprised she didn't find a place to throw in "free gift."

I suppose I could comb through the book and give you a list of malapropisms, cliches, dangling modifiers, clumsy constructions, and on and on, but why bother? It's a pity that such an incisive mind expresses its thoughts so awkwardly. Again, she needs a writing coach and a much tougher editor.

How could the performance have been better?

By performing adequately or assigning that to someone else. She simply can't read aloud. Red tape. Read that aloud. Where's the emphasis? Slightly stronger on "tape," right? Not when Jacobson reads it. With her, it's always RED tape. There are lots and lots of such failures in delivery in this narration. She stops. And starts. In weird places alternately jamming words together with no punctuation. And then laying the stress on the wrong syllable or mispronouncing a word. She sounds like she's scared to death of the mic and is just trying to get through the narration because it's part of her contract. She does an awful job. It's disconcerting. In fact, it can be really distracting.

Strangely enough, her voice itself is kind of nice, a little breathy. It sounds like a voice you'd like to have a conversation with. But she doesn't know how to use it. I can't imagine she talks to her friends the way she reads in this book and in Operation Paperclip.

The fact remains that if Jacobsen weren't such a good reporter -- not writer, but reporter -- I'd have given up.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

No, it didn't make me laugh or cry. It made me think, despite the flaws I've described.

Any additional comments?

I sometimes wonder whether writers and narrators ever read these comments. I know that Internet reviews can make for dreary reading, apparent self-aggrandizement by people who may have accomplished far less than the writers and narrators they criticize. They did the work. They got paid. Why listen to the carping of some dissatisfied customer?

But still, it bothers me that in the two Jacobsen books I've listened to, I've had very similar criticisms. She could be really, really good. Good editing improves most writers. Delivery is crucial to story-telling.

I wish I could tell Jacobsen, "Look. You're more-or-less OK, but you could be really good. Your fine reporting is undermined by flaws that can be corrected. You could be really, really good. You're shooting yourself in the foot."

I'd like to see her work improve. I value what she has to say. I just wish she didn't say it so poorly.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Vicki
  • Montpelier, VA, United States
  • 12-15-15

Facsinating subject that needed editing

What did you like best about The Pentagon's Brain? What did you like least?

All-in-all I found the subject matter of the book fascinating. The author clearly has a negative opinion of ARPA/DARPA, the military in general and of the Bush Administration. Once you get through her biases, the book is fascinating. However, it needs some serious editing. A good editor could edit out her personal biases and those sections that are remotely about DARPA and instead about her own negative opinions of administrations.

I am not surprised by any of the information and, frankly, I am glad that we have organizations that are so forward thinking. If we don't do it someone else will fill the void. Yes, there are lots of risks but I believe the risk of inaction are greater.

Would you be willing to try another book from Annie Jacobsen? Why or why not?

Probably not. I think she is thorough in her research and that's very valuable. However she is unable to edit her own work and clearly doesn't allow anyone else to edit it either. The end product suffers for it.

How could the performance have been better?

There's rarely a book that benefits from the author also narrating it and this one is no exception. Her voice is too soft and too monotonous for this material. It was an effort to keep focused.

Do you think The Pentagon's Brain needs a follow-up book? Why or why not?

Absolutely not.

7 of 9 people found this review helpful

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I can't stand her voice.

she wrote the book as if she were speaking to children, and reads it as if she is a robot. I stopped halfway through even though I enjoyed the subject material.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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Amazing story of the evolving technology of warfare

There is a tremendous story here of how technology has come to dominate defense strategy. Some of it good. Some of it not. Some of it frightening. Ms Jacobsen has woven a fascinating story that we don't get from the media quoting insider sources and whatever is accessible in the clear. I cannot recommend this book highly enough! The people have a right to know what is coming AND WHAT IS ALREADY HERE!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Engaging content, robotic delivery

Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

The complex history of a little known agency is presented in detailed, sometimes wonky level of detail.

Would you recommend The Pentagon's Brain to your friends? Why or why not?

I would recommend the print version of this book.

How could the performance have been better?

The delivery is drone-like. Although supposedly narrated by the author, some passages have incorrect pauses or non-pauses due to punctuation; this makes for uneven flow that seems jarring and requires replays. I’m not entirely convinced it’s a human reading the book.

If this book were a movie would you go see it?

Nope.

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  • Neil Ferguson-Lee
  • 02-09-18

Detailed but Turgid

I think this could have been shorter but - boy - is it comprehensive?! I'm afraid that the narrator's delivery was rather soporific.

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  • Vincent
  • 12-24-15

Brilliant insight into DARPA

Frightening revelations about secretive developments. The scary part is that as humans we may eventually outsmart ourselves into extinction.