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December 2, 2010 8:01 AM   Subscribe

Sam Cohen, Father of the Neutron Bomb RIP. Remembered by many for his influence on Alex Cox's movie, Repo Man. He wrote an interesting autobiography. It was initially published on the web but now has become a rare book.

Cohen was an outspoken proponent of his invention, the neutron bomb.

Mefites may recall that in at least one on-line interview, he voiced fears about red mercury. previously and previouslier.
posted by warbaby (28 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
God works the same way--kills the people, but leaves the buildings.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:04 AM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


God works the same way--kills the people, but leaves the buildings

Only on a hu-mon time scale. Look a bit longer and the buildings become just a future sedimentary layer.
posted by chebucto at 8:13 AM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Read the obit. I too was in Seoul, Korea, in 1952, and yes, he was right: it was a mess.
posted by Postroad at 8:14 AM on December 2, 2010


So immoral, working on the thing can drive you mad. That's what happened to this friend of mine. So he had a lobotomy. Now he's well again.
posted by klapaucius at 8:16 AM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


.
posted by AugustWest at 8:36 AM on December 2, 2010


But could he do the Neutron Dance?
posted by stormpooper at 8:38 AM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


He also invented Olivia Neutron Bomb.
posted by w0mbat at 8:41 AM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


“It’s the most sane and moral weapon ever devised,” he said in September in a telephone interview for this obituary. “It’s the only nuclear weapon in history that makes sense in waging war. When the war is over, the world is still intact.”

This is the sort of paragraph one could spend years thinking about.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:01 AM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


For Cohen, the neutron bomb is the ultimate sane weapon. It kills humans, or as he puts it "the bad guys," but doesn't produce tremendous collateral damage on civilian populations and the infrastructure a civilian population needs to survive.

I suppose minimizing the destruction and damage to vital infrastructure is important, but I can't help but think this is a little naive--even the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima targeted the city's urban core, which was also of military significance. It seems to me a large number of civilians are going to be killed regardless of limiting damage to infrastructure. Beyond which, I have to wonder how large a factor "leaving infrastructure intact" and "only killing the bad guys" is in the calculus of deciding to drop a massive bomb on the enemy. I have no doubt his intentions were good, but in the end it's not up to the scientist to decide how the weapon will be used.

.
.
.
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(boom)
posted by Hoopo at 9:19 AM on December 2, 2010


But many military planners scoffed at the idea of a nuclear bomb that limited killing and destruction

"But whatever did you do commander?"
posted by pianomover at 9:21 AM on December 2, 2010


It is pretty rare that I breath a sigh of relief when someone passes away, Cohen fits that bill. Sociopathic bastard.
posted by edgeways at 9:21 AM on December 2, 2010


...he said in September in a telephone interview for this obituary.

How does a reporter start this conversation? So, I'm calling from the New York Times. I know you're not dead yet, but...
posted by chavenet at 9:42 AM on December 2, 2010


His rare bio is still available on the internet in what appears to be a legitimate free version. [PDF]

"The second (now third) edition explicitly gives you permission to put it on your web site, or to print and sell full and unaltered copies of it, among other options. See the copyright page for details. Among other changes Sam requested or otherwise approved of, the second (now third) edition has all the original expletives fully restored. I've also fixed a bunch of typos and misspellings and updated the bibliography." From the bottom of the page at the hosting site.
posted by chavenet at 9:47 AM on December 2, 2010


I suppose minimizing the destruction and damage to vital infrastructure is important, but I can't help but think this is a little naive

I think Cohen was referring to a characteristic of the radiation produced by neutron bombs, which makes them actually more dangerous to personnel who are shielded than those standing out in the open.

The scenario they were deployed for, e.g. in the form of the MGM-52 Lance, was basically a large-scale Soviet invasion of Europe using armor and heavy mechanized infantry. You could detonate them over the invasion force as it came through a choke point and, if you did it just right, and this was mostly hypothetical, cook the guys in tanks and APCs while leaving the civilian population -- who probably wouldn't be sitting behind a few inches of dense shielding -- in less trouble than they'd be in if standard (non-"enhanced radiation") nuclear weapons were used and you had to dial the yield up until the blast effects killed the armor. First because the weapons produce less blast effect, second because you'd hopefully need fewer weapons to do the same job.

Viewed within that framework -- where you're going to use nuclear weapons one way or the other, so it's really a matter of which -- it almost makes sense.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:07 AM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Remembered by many for his influence on Alex Cox's movie, Repo Man
J. Frank Parnell - the fictitious inventor of the Neutron Bomb - was the central character for me. He sets the film in motion, on the road from Los Alamos, and, as portrayed by the late great actor, Fox Harris, is the centrepoint of the film.

Fourteen years later, I had a call from one Sam Cohen, who announced himself the father of the Neutron Bomb.
I went to go read because I thought it'd be interesting to see how close Parnell was Cohen or where the director drew his inspiration: sounds like Cohen's neutron bomb was the influence and Cohen was largely irrelevant in the creation of "the inventor of the neutron bomb".

Also, this line from the Times was absolutely horrific:
“It’s the most sane and moral weapon ever devised,” he said in September in a telephone interview for this obituary.
Must be a great phone call on both ends: "Can I ask why you're calling at this particular time?"
posted by Ogre Lawless at 10:14 AM on December 2, 2010


chavenet: "...he said in September in a telephone interview for this obituary.

How does a reporter start this conversation? So, I'm calling from the New York Times. I know you're not dead yet, but..
"

Actually that is sort or what you say when you call. A lot, A LOT, of people would love to have a say in their obituary. Especially people with big egos.
posted by AugustWest at 10:31 AM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


No sense in war, but perfect sense at home.
posted by squalor at 10:41 AM on December 2, 2010


The Neutron Bomb always struck me as more than a little bit problematic. I guess I don't really see how eliminating the consequences of mass murder is particularly noble, nor does facilitating the potential theft of entire cities strike me as particularly moral.

That a traditional nuke is an indiscriminate killer, that its target is reduced to rubble that must be rebuilt: These are things that make its use unappealing. The neutron bomb does not have any such inherent deterrents against its use; what it does have, however, is a twelve-year shelf life.

Thanks but no thanks, Sam.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:28 AM on December 2, 2010


Chavenet: I'm calling from XYZ and I wonder if you could help me. I'm updating your obituary. Let them say "But I"m not dead yet", then you can make a joke about that clearing that one up and you're off.

Yeah. Really. Although you don't say "I'm updating the graveyard", which is what the files held in readiness can be called within the paper. Unless, I guess, you're talking to a newspaper type.

It helps that every publication - well, almost every - that does obits is a long-trousered affair and many marks are avid consumers of the art. The Daily Telegraph's (get them before it goes paywall) are probably the best.
posted by Devonian at 11:50 AM on December 2, 2010


Sam was my neighbor for many years. He was a very friendly guy and passionate about world affairs, always seeking information from a wide range of sources, right up to the end of his life. While he had strong opinions, he loved a good discussion and had an admirable way of not making any assumptions about anyone else's politics. I'm not in any way endorsing the neutron bomb but I did enjoy knowing Sam.
posted by grounded at 11:55 AM on December 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


It's nice and quick and clean and gets things done.
posted by Guy Innagorillasuit at 2:03 PM on December 2, 2010


Efficiency and progress is ours once more/now that we have the neutron bomb/It's nice and quick and clean/and gets things done!
posted by jokeefe at 2:19 PM on December 2, 2010


Damn you, squalor.
posted by jokeefe at 2:21 PM on December 2, 2010


And Guy Innagorillasuit, too.
posted by jokeefe at 2:21 PM on December 2, 2010


An interesting tidbit about the neutron bomb: It's a form of hydrogen bomb.

You know how we were told for years that hydrogen bombs are nice and clean and all because they use fusion instead of fission? Turns out that was a big fat lie. Hydrogen bombs generate an enormous neutron flux, and 80% of the explosive energy comes from those fast neutrons fissioning the heavy, cheap, depleted (non-fissile) uranium tamper which is also there to hold the bomb together while its reactions run to completion.

A neutron bomb is a hydrogen bomb that doesn't do this. It has a tamper that doesn't fission, so the neutrons go spraying out into the environment. Cohen didn't invent the neutron bomb as in design it; he happened to walk in while some engineers were discussing the possible uses of a device that used a non-fissioning tamper. And Cohen was the guy who asked them, "How many neutrons does this thing put out?" And the answer turned out to be "a whole lot." And it was Cohen who figured out that the neutrons would be far more lethal than the blast.

Neutrons don't leave inanimate objects untouched. They induce artificial radioactivity in a lot of elements, including some particularly nasty isotopes of aluminum. They knock atoms out of their place in crystal lattices (knocking atoms out of place in your DNA is how they kill you). They can harden metals and make them brittle and would undoubtably not be good for the future functionality of a lot of machines, even if they weren't radioactive afterward.

Oh, and of course the neutron bomb kills by radiation sickness. That can take awhile, and if you had a choice you'd probably rather be blown apart.
posted by localroger at 3:46 PM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


You know how we were told for years that hydrogen bombs are nice and clean and all because they use fusion instead of fission?

No one in my long years has ever said, alluded to, or implied this. Anyone who has ever talked about one has known that they use a fission reaction to get the necessary conditions for fusion. People don't present hydrogen weapons as cleaner; they present them as bigger. Who was telling you that they would be nice?
posted by Lord Chancellor at 6:24 AM on December 3, 2010


Lord Chancellor, there are two corrections I need to make. First, when the H-bomb was first deployed the public was indeed told that it used a "clean" fusion reaction instead of the "dirty" fission reaction of the A-bomb. Yes, that was the public line about the H-bomb, very big explosion but minimal fallout, and that line continued to be the "common knowledge" pretty much until Howard Morland blew the lid off the inner workings of the H-bomb. Even today you meet plenty of older people who still believe H-bombs are clean. They were all told that in the 1950's and 1960's.

Second, I am not talking about fission being used to set up the conditions for fusion; I'm talking about that happening, yes, then the fusion reaction setting up the conditions for a far far far bigger fission reaction than you could possibly create by simple chemical implosion (and in cheap un-enriched uranium too). I'm talking about 80% of the bomb's output is from fission. It's not a fusion bomb that is triggered by fission, it is a ginormous fission bomb that is set off by fusion. That was not common knowledge at all before Morland.
posted by localroger at 9:33 AM on December 3, 2010


Well, that's understandable that perhaps when the Hydrogen bomb was first introduced, they presented it as a "cleaner" alternative. I really don't know much about that so I will certainly take your word for it.

And, yes, I understand the heavy neutron flux that occurs with fusion bombs, but I was thinking more along the lines of "it's impossible for a fusion bomb to be cleaner than a fission one, because the fusion bomb contains a fission bomb primer". And yes, depending on the materials around, the neutron flux can activate certain elements and make them radioactive for long periods of time. Thanks for the information on the public perception of early hydrogen weapons though.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:56 AM on December 3, 2010


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