Field of Science

Deconstructing Little Boy and Fat Man

A high-school educated truck driver uncovers the classified details of the first atomic bombs with unlimited verve and imagination

The details and specifications of the first two atomic bombs developed by humanity- Little Boy and Fat Man- are still secret. While a lot of material about nuclear weapons has been declassified, the specs for the first bombs dropped on Hiroshima are still considered out of reach, and probably absurdly so. Even after other countries have built countless nuclear weapons like Little Boy and Fat Man and vastly improved ones, the original bomb design details remain under a shroud of secrecy.

Now, a truck driver with a high school diploma has uncovered these details in excruciating detail. His work has been lauded by prominent historians including Richard Rhodes. His fascinating story is recounted in the December 15 New Yorker. John Coster-Mullen, with the "Coster" in his name curiously being the last name of his wife, has gone to simple but extraordinary lengths to get detailed information on the design of the first two nuclear weapons. He has succeeded to a degree that no professional scientist or historian has before, and which no national laboratory scientist will admit.

Coster-Mullen's story proves that to make significant headway in a problem you don't have to be a professional historian or a professor with a PhD. All you need is the patience to stick with a topic and keep on drilling deep into it. Coster-Mullen has worked with this single purpose for the last fifteen years or so, and has exploited almost every publicly available source to put together the details of Little Boy and Fat Man. These include museum exhibits around the world, scores of books written about nuclear weapons, thousands of documents declassified in the last fifty years, and testimonies and interviews with everyone from top scientists to machinists who worked on the bombs. The most important asset that Coster-Mullen brings to bear on the problem is unremitting determination and pure old common sense.

Consider the instance where he looked at an old and commonly seen photograph of two scientists carting the core explosive 'physics package' for the device exploded in the first atomic bomb test- Trinity- into a sedan. Coster-Mullen simply looked at the height of the sedan doors, figured out which model it was (a 1942 Plymouth) went into a car museum to measure the height and width, and then by simple proportionality deduced the size of the box the men were carrying. In another instance, he deduced the length of a crucial plug used for Little Boy from the account of the number of turns needed to screw it in. His general approach is to patch together material from a variety of sources and then connect the dots using simple deductive logic. While there are still unresolved questions about the designs, he has put together an extraordinary amount of detail. This is classic detective work at its best. The culmination of this work is Atom Bombs, a book about the detailed designs of the first atomic weapons that Mullen is selling on Amazon for 50$.

Again, Coster-Mullen has nothing more than a high school diploma and works as a truck driver and part-time photographer. His example eminently indicates that what is needed for success is an iron will to uncover something, and knowing where to look for the data. Read the entire article- it's fascinating.

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