The Atom Bomb

Yesterday I read one of the most fascinating and eerie articles I can remember. It’s about John Coster-Mullen, a high school-educated Wisconsin truck driver who knows more about the first atomic bomb than anyone. Oh by the way. All of that info? Technically classified.

The United States government has never divulged the engineering specifications of the first atomic bombs, not even after other countries have produced generations of ever more powerful nuclear weapons. In the decades since the Second World War, dozens of historians have attempted to divine the precise mechanics of the Hiroshima bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, and of the bomb that fell three days later on Nagasaki, known as Fat Man. The most prominent is Richard Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1988, for his dazzling and meticulous book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” But the most accurate account of the bomb’s inner workings—an unnervingly detailed reconstruction, based on old photographs and documents—has been written by a sixty-one-year-old truck driver from Waukesha, Wisconsin, named John Coster-Mullen, who was once a commercial photographer, and has never received a college degree.

Some people are obsessive about their hobbies. Most of them are things like stamp collecting. This guy was obsessed with unlocking the secrets of the first atomic weapons. By using basic geometry, photo analysis, and the examination of old scraps, screws and casings Coster-Mullen has come close to being able to model an atomic bomb down to the last inch. He even has self-published a book.

…eminent atomic historian Robert S. Norris, began, “For many years, Coster-Mullen has been printing his manuscript at Kinko’s (adding to and revising it along the way) and selling spiral-bound copies at conferences or over the Internet.” Norris clearly considered Coster-Mullen’s understanding of the bomb superior to his own. It was known that Little Boy and Fat Man brought together two masses of fissile material inside a bomb casing, forming a critical mass that set off a nuclear explosion. Little Boy shot one mass of highly enriched uranium into the other with a gunlike mechanism; Fat Man used explosives to squeeze together two hemispheres of plutonium. But the exact details of how these devices worked were unknown. Norris said of Coster-Mullen’s work, “Nothing else in the Manhattan Project literature comes close to his exacting breakdown of the bomb’s parts. Coster-Mullen describes the size, weight, and composition of many of Little Boy’s components, including the nose section and its target case; the uranium-235 target rings and tamper; the arming and fuzing system; the forged steel 6.5-inch-in-diameter gun barrel through which the uranium-235 projectile was fired at the target rings; and the tail section—to cite just a few.”

One of Coster-Mullen’s biggest discoveries was the nature of the collision of enriched uranium that resulted in the atomic explosion. This was also the funniest part.

Coster-Mullen’s discovery revolved around what might be called the “sex” of the bomb.

In the standard historical accounts, the way that the bomb’s gun mechanism worked was by shooting a cylindrical “male” uranium projectile into a concave, stationary uranium target. This act of atomic coitus created a mass sufficient to produce a critical reaction. The mass of the projectile was said to be 38.5 kilograms, and the mass of the target was said to be 25.6 kilograms. But no matter how many times Coster-Mullen did the math the numbers never quite worked out in a way that allowed the projectile and the target to fit inside the gun barrel while remaining subcritical.

The source of the error, Coster-Mullen recognized, was an assumption that every (male) researcher who studied the subject had made about the relation between projectile and target. These scholars had apparently been unable to conceive of an arrangement other than a “missionary position” bomb, in which a solid male projectile penetrated a vessel-like female target. But Coster-Mullen realized that a female-superior arrangement—in which a hollow projectile slammed down on top of a stationary cylinder of highly enriched uranium—yielded the correct size and mass.

The atomic-research community was initially dubious about Coster-Mullen’s argument. But even Richard Rhodes, after examining the evidence, admitted that Coster-Mullen was right. Little Boy was female.

It’s really eerie to here about the exact specifications of the most destructive weapon ever used. The whole time you can’t shake the knowledge that, “This thing worked.” And then you think that there are some really bad people out there in the world who wouldn’t hesitate to use a Hiroshima-style weapon.

I asked Coster-Mullen why the government insists on classifying even the least significant details about this decades-old device. He shrugged. Actually, he said, nothing about the bomb is secret. He smiled and added, “The secret of the atomic bomb is how easy they are to make.” 


You know, in school growing up we were taught that the atomic bombs dropped on Japan sparred soldiers and civilians untold devastation from a prolonged invasion. But even if that maybe the case, I don’t think we were excused on using it like we did. It’s another thing if it was a massive military target, but it was a city.

It’s similar to the debate over the use of torture in interrogations in the current War on Terror. Sure it might gain us valuable information quicker and by consequence, save lives. But it’s wrong. We have certain ideals that we have to adhere to that make us the United States. Japan -like al Qaeda- did some terrible things in the war, but so did we.


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