Little boys

What do we make of an amateur nuclear bomb scientist riding around with a cheesy replica of the Hiroshima bomb? One thing is clear: he should find a new hobby.

I’m not the smartest or most accomplished RBC contributor, but I am probably the nerdiest. How nerdy? I drafted these words at 35,000 feet en route to a funeral. In my backpack are two items for diversion: The December 15 New Yorker, and Ramamurti Shankar’s majestic Principles of Quantum Mechanics. These backpack reading companions turned out to be unexpectedly related….

For economy and grace, Shankar’s prose stacks up well against “Talk of the Town.” More to the point, my New Yorker included a “Reporter at large” by David Samuels, which profiles atomic bomb buff John Coster-Mullen. a trucker and photographer who has traveled the county reverse-engineering the Hiroshima bomb and publishing the results.

Coster-Mullen has spent years practicing, in effect, open-source espionage. Scrutinizing old photographs and diaries, schmoozing retired Los Alamos lab techs, examining old test junk, he has figured out much about Little Boy’s inner workings. He has even assembled a cheesy life-size replica, which he drove around in back of his pickup truck. Samuels’ article is chock full of passages such as: “The gun barrel had been configured to vent the air displaced by the hollow uranium projectile…”

This makes me queasy. No–I’m not worried that he will reveal some golden secret to Iran, though I would hate to make things even a little easier for nuts holed up in a cave someplace. Fear isn’t the reason I frown on this project.

According to Samuels, Coster-Mullen regards nuclear bomb design as “a diverting mental challenge—not unlike a crossword puzzle.” That’s a sick way to view these obscene objects. By historical misfortune, mankind stumbled upon them during an absolute struggle against a monstrous regime. Driven first by the need to outrace Hitler, then by bloodlust in a justified war and by the sheer momentum of a huge investment, we almost couldn’t help using them against Japan. The two superpowers and then others built ever-more lethal and efficient “nuclear devices” capable of incinerating millions of people.

For six decades, we managed the resulting threat through deterrence and through (selectively enforced) nonproliferation agreements. This regime seems to be unraveling. We must reduce the strategic value of holding these weapons. That’s obvious. Less obvious but no less true, we must reduce the awe and prestige that surrounds the ultimately crude technologies that make a large BBBBBBBOOOOOOOMMMMMM!!!!

Robert Oppenheimer called atomic weapons “technically sweet.” They were, but no sweeter than your $5 watch, which harnesses quantum mechanics to fantastic accuracy, no sweeter than your dashboard GPS from Best Buy, which harnesses general relativity to correct a orbiting satellite’s visibly accelerated clock. An MRI machine that uses nuclear magnetic resonance and Fourier analysis to image suspected brain tumors is far more impressive than a nuclear bomb.

Despite all evidence, millions of people regard “membership in the nuclear club” as a serious symbol of national development. I wish we could refute this pathetic message. Sixty-five years ago, nobody understood how to manipulate highly enriched uranium. There were no (non-human) computers to do massive calculations, and you couldn’t buy accurate sensors, timers, and triggers by overnight mail. So making a crude bomb required real scientific genius and the world’s fanciest machine shop. Even then, the basic ideas were known. Japanese scientists quickly realized what had happened when Hiroshima was hit.

Today, thousands of people around the globe know, in broad outline, how nuclear weapons work. Given sufficient determination and time, any moderately industrialized country can gin up a toddler’s weight in fissile material with high explosives to make a bomb. When the bomb’s rudiments are reasonably clear to a charming eccentric who rants about the differences between diet Pepsi and diet Coke, new national trophies are in order.

As the plane lands, my mind wanders back to my own past career. I remember walking into a colleague’s office to see a glossy wall photo of a recent missile test. Against the backdrop of a South Pacific evening sky, two flaming reentry trails burned through the atmosphere to converge in the distance onto a single point. It was way beyond anything in the back of a pickup truck.

I loved the people I worked with. Some had designed guidance systems that guided people safely to the moon. Others designed “smart weapons” that have made us safer. Still, my gut reaction to this awful picture was to ask: What the hell am I doing here?

Within the year, I was in grad school, embarked on a new career. My subsequent public health career has included many ups and downs. I’ve never regretted embracing life.

Coster-Mullen is a smart, obsessive guy. He should find a new hobby.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.