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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Atomic John A truck driver uncovers secrets about the first nuclear bombs. by David Samuels

The single, blinding release of pure energy over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, marked a startling and permanent break with our prior understandings of the visible world. Yet for more than sixty years the technology behind the explosion has remained a state secret. The United States government has never divulged the engineering specifications of the first atomic bombs, not even after other countries have produced generations of ever more powerful nuclear weapons. In the decades since the Second World War, dozens of historians have attempted to divine the precise mechanics of the Hiroshima bomb, nicknamed Little Boy, and of the bomb that fell three days later on Nagasaki, known as Fat Man. The most prominent is Richard Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer Prize, in 1988, for his dazzling and meticulous book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” But the most accurate account of the bomb’s inner workings—an unnervingly detailed reconstruction, based on old photographs and documents—has been written by a sixty-one-year-old truck driver from Waukesha, Wisconsin, named John Coster-Mullen, who was once a commercial photographer, and has never received a college degree.

I first came across Coster-Mullen’s name in January of 2004, after I attended an exhibit by the artist Jim Sanborn, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. The show, called “Critical Assembly,” included what appeared to be spookily exact replicas of the interior mechanism of the first atomic bomb, which Sanborn had manufactured according to Coster-Mullen’s specifications. A year later, I read an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that mentioned a six-hundred-mile trip Coster-Mullen had taken across the Midwest with a full-scale model of the Hiroshima bomb in the back of a Penske rental truck. He had built the replica with the help of his son, Jason, in his garage, basing it, in part, on his analysis of sixty-year-old screws, bolts, and fragments of machined steel that had been stored in rural basements and attics.....


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