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Table of contents
He had built the model in the hope of launching a business. Marquette alumni and other visitors, he had figured, would eagerly buy replicas of the chapel and display them in their homes. He placed the chapel models in local gift shops on consignment, but few sold. After this failure, Coster-Mullen decided to make replicas of something with wider commercial appeal. In December, , he persuaded his son, Jason, who was then seventeen, to accompany him on a road trip to the National Atomic Museum, in Albuquerque, where Coster-Mullen could examine the empty ballistic casing of an atomic bomb at first hand and make sketches that he could use to build an accurate scale model.
After driving two thousand miles to the museum, he was distressed to find that the atomic-weapons area was closed for renovation. He protested until his contact at the museum finally appeared and let them in. He and Jason spent hours measuring the bomb casings on display. In the early nineties, after the fall of the Soviet Union, no one was particularly disturbed by the sight of a father and son poking measuring tape inside the casings of fifty-year-old bombs. During these and other excursions, Coster-Mullen discovered that much of the dimensional information about the bombs in history books was wrong.
Wondering what other errors the historians had made, he began to attend reunions of the th Composite Group, the military unit that dropped the bombs. He went to his first reunion in , in Chicago. Before the gathering, he wrote a draft of a pamphlet about the bomb and sent it to Frederick Ashworth, a naval commander who was in charge of the Fat Man weapon. Coster-Mullen spent the next ten years of his life mastering a body of recondite technical data.
He extracted photographs from government archives and scrutinized them with a magnifying glass; he interviewed one retired machinist after another, as well as scientists and engineers. Researching the bomb provided Coster-Mullen with an outlet for a sensibility that might have been equally at home collecting tropical butterflies or double-print stamps. To suggest that Coster-Mullen is a garden-variety classification freak, however, is like comparing a high-school trumpet player to Miles Davis.
Driven by his desire to solve a great puzzle, he is personally affronted by recycled information and secondary sourcing, which often leads him to express contempt for people who are lazier than he is—a category that includes virtually everyone. With the publication of the book, which has since undergone several hundred revisions, Coster-Mullen became a leading member of the loosely organized scholarly fraternity dedicated to challenging the ethic of secrecy behind the atomic security state.
Many customers seem to enjoy thumbing their noses at U.
Accurate information about how a simple nuclear bomb is made, and how it works, is now available to anyone with Internet access. Rhodes said of the U. The notion that we are safer because we have all these bombs tucked away is a huge fraud. Coster-Mullen is a man of rigid preferences.
He loves Diet Coke, but under no circumstances will he drink Diet Pepsi, which he describes as having a sugary, chemical aftertaste that makes him feel nauseated.
Even a teasing mention of Diet Pepsi can set off a rant that will momentarily eclipse talk of the bomb. Other subjects capable of replacing the bomb in his mind for short periods of time are his wife and children; the stupidity of Christian beliefs; the stupidity of religion in general; the prevailing etiquette at truck stops; and stories about rescued cats.
The longest he has ever gone in my company without mentioning the atomic bomb is thirty-seven minutes, a record he achieved on a particularly beautiful stretch of road running through the sun-baked canyons east of Salt Lake City. To say that Coster-Mullen actually went that long without speaking about the atomic bomb is an exaggeration, as he referred to nuclear weapons twice in passing, and because he was aware that I was timing him with a stopwatch.
Coster-Mullen had agreed to drive us from Waukesha to Wendover, while I sat in the passenger seat of my rental car and asked questions. Research materials shared the back seat with a small cooler that plugged into the dashboard cigarette lighter and contained cheese, salami, and four twenty-ounce bottles of Diet Coke, which Coster-Mullen consumes at the rate of one per hour. When he finished a bottle, he tossed it onto the back seat. After two or three empties accumulated, he refilled them with soda from a two-litre mother-ship bottle that he kept in a shopping bag on the floor.
Soon after we had begun the car trip, we passed the industrial city of Beloit, Wisconsin. As a young photographer on the Beloit Daily News , in , he was responsible for one front-page picture and five inside photos per day. He spent hours in the darkroom each week, and the knowledge that he gained about the technical side of photography proved indispensable when he began researching his book, and subjecting declassified photographs from government archives to detailed analysis.
If Coster-Mullen could figure out the size of the box in the picture, he reasoned, he could determine the maximum size of the object inside. There were distinctive-looking suicide doors on the vehicle, which made him think that he could identify the model, so he took the photograph to an antique-car dealer south of Milwaukee. A few weeks later, Coster-Mullen was driving with his wife past an antique-auto show, where he found two Plymouths. So I measure the height and applied proportional measuring. And it turned out that that box was only about ten and a half inches long. Later, when we took a break at a truck stop in Iowa, he told me about another early discovery: a declassified report about the death of Harry Daghlian, who died of radiation poisoning at Los Alamos after he dropped a block of tungsten carbide onto a bomb assembly containing a plutonium sphere, on August 21, A ruler was helpfully positioned on a tungsten block, which allowed Coster-Mullen to determine that the plutonium sphere, which was identical to those used in the first atomic bomb, was 3.
All it took, he said, was a set of digital calipers and a little high-school geometry. A road sign informed us that Omaha was ninety-three miles to the west. I bought it because it was roughly the same size as one of those polonium-beryllium initiators they used in Fat Man.
He said that it was possible, though not easy, for a rogue figure to acquire material for an atomic weapon. Supposedly, thorium can be used to make uranium. Well, thorium was in camper gas lanterns. Americium, which is the key element in smoke detectors, is supposedly a fissile material. At midmorning, we reached the outskirts of Omaha, where we visited the Strategic Air and Space Museum, whose grounds are marked by a towering Atlas D ballistic missile. Energized by forty ounces of Diet Coke, Coster-Mullen ignored the SR Blackbird spy plane hanging over the entrance to the museum and headed straight to the front desk, where he corralled a retired armed-services veteran who was volunteering his time.
Smooth jazz played in the background. By the time we left the museum, the sky had gone dark and storm clouds were on the horizon. When he had visited the Bradbury Science Museum earlier that year, he noticed that a diagram of the exterior of the bomb had been mislabelled; it placed a contact fuse on the nose of Little Boy. An archivist agreed to send Coster-Mullen a copy of the flawed diagram in the mail. The diagram revealed that a long gun barrrel had been screwed directly into an adapter attached to the target case.
This was the first piece of hard information that researchers had about how the mechanism inside Little Boy was actually assembled. Not long afterward, Coster-Mullen told me, he read a coffee-table book about the Enola Gay. Perhaps a dozen Little Boys were produced. The bomb had originally been intact, save for its uranium, but in agents of the Department of Energy arrived at the museum and took the weapon away. Government officials were worried that a terrorist group with access to sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium might commandeer the bomb, load it with fissile material, and set it off.
The gutted artifact was returned to the museum in A small number of visitors to the Smithsonian exhibit may have noticed that the bomb had been modified in a peculiar way. He realized that, by adding thirty-six and sixteen, he ended up with fifty-two—a number that almost certainly corresponded to the placement of the front of the projectile that would be shot down the gun barrel at the uranium target situated twenty-six inches away.
He had figured out the essential geometry of the bomb. Coster-Mullen surmised that the numbers on the casing had been written by whoever had been given the job of disassembling the bomb and removing its interior mechanisms. During the process of gutting the bomb and shipping it back to the Smithsonian, no one had bothered to wipe the bomb clean.
We were making our way toward Wyoming, through an empty stretch of Nebraska farmland. A hummingbird perched on a wire fence outside my window. A yellow school bus with no wheels was marooned by the edge of the highway. In the middle of a field, some inventive local person had used aluminum tubing to fashion what looked like a dinosaur skeleton. We drove by a herd of cows. A biotic stench soon vied against the pleasant fresh-leather scent that the car-rental place had sprayed on our seats. As we drove, I paged through declassified memos from the machine shops at Los Alamos; these documents had provided Coster-Mullen with several crucial details about the bomb.
I read aloud from a checklist used by Captain William Parsons, who loaded the gunpowder into the bomb. Learning the number of turns had helped him to gauge the length of the breech plug—which Captain Parsons removed in order to slip in the four silk bags filled with cordite that fired the gun that sent the uranium projectile smashing into its target.
The subdivision outside Milwaukee where Coster-Mullen grew up was constructed for returning veterans. Everyone got a narrow lot with a nice back yard and a smaller front yard. Hyphenated names are not exactly common among truck drivers, he said. When Coster-Mullen was a child, he and his friends often spent Saturday afternoons at the Fox Bay theatre, a movie house with curved plaster walls, where popcorn was fifteen cents.
Coster-Mullen loved the newsreels that came first, describing wars and new weapons and the conquest of space. There was a little town square with a gazebo and a Civil War cannon. Attached to the side of the cannon was a metal box, and inside it was a brush with sharp steel bristles, which park workers used to clean out the cannon. It thrilled Coster-Mullen to reach inside the dark box and feel the brush pricking his finger. A generation of German artists had immigrated to the city and introduced the art of creating full-sized dioramas filled with cunningly imagined and finely worked details that took full advantage of the laws of perspective and the taxidermic craft.
In a scene set in the Grand Canyon, a stuffed mountain lion was depicted in midair, ready to pounce on two mule deer.
In a Pacific Northwest diorama, you could see a salmon drying on a rock, with giant trees and ice-capped mountains in the background. At the nearby Milwaukee County Historical Society, there was an intricate scale model that allowed viewers to gaze upon, in every direction, the chaos of the Battle of Gettysburg.
- Plastic Analysis and Design of Steel Structures.
His favorite teacher in high school, Darwin Kaestner, had worked at the University of Chicago during the Second World War, in a metallurgical lab that was part of the Manhattan Project. The lab was run by Glenn Seaborg, who discovered plutonium.