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Nuclear Archeology with John Coster-Mullen
March 31, 2011 1:37 PM   Subscribe

John Coster-Mullen didn't finish his university degree in physics, yet in less than ten years of spare time, he figured out how to make Fat Man and Little Boy, while driving semis for a living. What started as an effort to make replicas of the bombs for the 40th anniversary of the detonation of the two atomic bombs became a larger challenge to simply to present readers with accurate information about the past.

Along with the replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy, John Coster-Mullen was going to include a pamphlet of information about the dimensions of the model. That pamphlet has since grown into a continually updated book, which Coster-Mullen prints and sends himself. The book is a collection details, not only of the bombs, but also pays attention to chronology, people, and places surrounding the construction and the use of the bombs, giving long overdue credit to many unsung heroes for their contributions (PDF of a review from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). The information was gleaned from old photos, first-hand accounts from engineers and various people who were involved with making the bomb casings, as well as members of the 509th Composite Group, the US Army Air Force unit created for operational deployment of nuclear weapons. The result of Coster-Mullen's research is that his book and diagrams are considered to be the most accurate publicly available history and detailing of the historic (and now-antiquated) atomic bombs.

More:
Motherboard TV (a branch of Vice) has a short documentary video of John Coster-Mullen discussing his progress, and talking at an informal presentation at High Energy Physics department at the University of Chicago. This video was also posted on CNN's website, which lead a Reddit AMA post.

Coster-Mullen is also a registered user of Wikipedia, where his profile provides something of an autobiography, which notes that his full-scale exact replica of Little Boy was signed by all surviving members of the 509th Composite Group, and is now on display in Utah at the Historic Wendover Airfield Museum.

There is another short bio in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which draws a parallel between another Wisconsin publication of information on atomic bombs, the November 1979 issue of The Progressive (full article online as a PDF). For more of this history, see United States v. The Progressive, which was a case brought by the Department of Energy against the magazine, trying to prevent the publication of the "secret" of the hydrogen bomb.
posted by filthy light thief (17 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
John Coster-Mullen was mentioned previously as a side-note to a post about Paul Shambroom's "Nuclear Weapon Series" photos.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:39 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess it beats HO-scale trains.
posted by GuyZero at 1:41 PM on March 31, 2011


Ooooh. Fascinating. Thanks for posting this!
posted by zarq at 1:54 PM on March 31, 2011


Amazing. I just did no work for too long. Love Richard Rhodes' book. One of the greatest non-fiction books in the English Language.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:15 PM on March 31, 2011


Also, top-notch post. Really, really well done. Best of the web for sure.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:15 PM on March 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


More bonus bits: the two diagrams on the Little Boy wiki page and one diagram on the Fat Man wiki page are based on images created by John Coster-Mullen. And according to John's Wiki autobio, Jim Sanborn's Critical Assembly art installation/recreation was based largely on John's research.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:29 PM on March 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


this guy is hardcore!
posted by mlo at 2:48 PM on March 31, 2011


And if anyone doesn't at least skim TFAs, a bit of clarification on this line:
What started as an effort to make replicas of the bombs for the 40th anniversary of the detonation of the two atomic bombs became a larger challenge to simply to present readers with accurate information about the past.
His goal was to sell accurately scaled miniatures of the bombs as collectors items, after he failed to sell many Joan of Arc chapel models. Hardcore historic detail fanatic, not someone obsessing over making old explosives.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:54 PM on March 31, 2011


It's kind of like watching Norm Abrams, though. "First, run your wood through your ten thousand dollar joiner...."
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 3:15 PM on March 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


See what happens when you get a copious daily amount of Diet Coke and lots of time to think?
posted by Alles at 3:23 PM on March 31, 2011


"Cool yer jets. I got the safety on."
posted by azpenguin at 3:37 PM on March 31, 2011


Reminds me of the US's efforts to rediscover FOGBANK, an adulterated aerogel or polystyrene compound used in its thermonuclear weapons to distribute heat from the initial explosion to pump the secondary explosion and create nuclear fusion.

After the one factory that produced it shut down in 1993, the American government realised that no had kept records of how to make the stuff. So they managed to get former workers and engineers to recreate the process, only to find that the new FOGBANK wasn't nearly as effective. It turned out that one of the secrets to its creation had been the cleaning solution (acetonitrile) they had used on the machinery. Trace amounts were left behind and reacted with the aerogel, making it a more effective heat transfer medium than it otherwise would have been.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 3:51 PM on March 31, 2011 [7 favorites]


I'll stop hopping in and directing y'all to various points, but the Reddit AMA is pretty keen. The questions are broad, and his answers are (IMO) fantastic.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:19 PM on March 31, 2011


Brings to mind John Aristotle Phillips
"In 1977, he became known as the A-Bomb Kid while attending Princeton University as a junior undergraduate when he designed a nuclear weapon using publicly-available books and papers.
Phillips was an underachieving student who played the tiger mascot at Princeton games. Hoping to stay at the school, he proposed a term paper for a seminar on nuclear proliferation outlining the design for an atomic bomb similar to the Nagasaki weapon. According to Phillips' supervisor Freeman Dyson, a renowned physicist, and professor Harold Feiveson, who held the seminar, Phillips' design was not functional, and the story was widely circulated in exaggerated form. Nevertheless, the Federal Bureau of Investigation confiscated Phillips's term paper and a mockup he had constructed in his dormitory room. Phillips published his story together with a co-author, David Michaelis, as Mushroom: The True Story of the A-Bomb Kid."
posted by ericb at 5:24 PM on March 31, 2011


Previously on MeFi:
" ... here's how to build a fusion bomb (along with a lot of discussion related to the publication of these instructions)."
posted by ericb at 5:27 PM on March 31, 2011


These are the same kind of people that obsess over creating the most accurate Deckard gun from Blade Runner. Crazies, grandma used to call 'em. God bless 'em.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:57 PM on March 31, 2011


awesome post although I confess as great as the subject of security security is, I straightaway found myself way more interested in the guy himself, his habits, systems and idiosyncrasies.

"Enthusiasts are appealing but a fanatic is irresistible" - Herriott (the wine story)
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:04 PM on March 31, 2011


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