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Blog

Little Boy was a little girl

By Hamish Johnston

Sorry for the delay on this entry, but the 15 December issue of the New Yorker just landed on our doormat about a week late.

In that issue there is an article by David Samuels about an American truck driver called John Coster-Mullen, who has spent the past 15 years or so trying to understand how Little Boy worked.

Little Boy was the atomic bomb that destroyed much of Hiroshima in 1945 — and not surprisingly, its design has remained a secret.

Coster-Mullen, who is 60, described his quest as “nuclear archeology,” and doesn’t seem too concerned that his book, Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man could be of interest to those intent on wreaking mayhem. Defending Coster-Mullen, Samuels writes “Surely, hostile powers could easily obtain the kind of information that Coster-Mullen has acquired, however painstakingly, in his spare time”.

Indeed, after reading the New Yorker piece, I was left with the chilling thought that just about anyone with about 60 kilograms of uranium-235 could build a bomb like Little Boy. And the key to success, according to Coster-Mullen, is realising that the bomb was “female” in design rather than “male” — something that previous historians had missed completely.

The New Yorker also has a slide show called Secrets of the Bomb

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5 comments

  1. Gregg C Levine

    Oh wow!
    I remember reading the two primary books on the subject of how we ended up making both of the bombs, for example the book Rhodes wrote and is considered to be a classic, and the one by the General who ran the District, which was more or less made into a film.
    But this is a new one. Incidentally a lot of books such as the encyclopedias that most of us had around the house during the Sixties had under the As, Atom Bomb and gave an expert description on the internals.
    Of course the idea that just anyone could make a device, and all that it would take was about say anything over ten Kilos of fissionable material was the part left out by the encyclopedias. Explosives of course were the obvious details.
    And one high school near where I grew up actually had in its storage lockers for the students a large jar of such materials. (The fissionable stuff that is.)

  2. Chris

    It’s perhaps worth pointing out that this gender discussion is completely nonsensical. The name “Little Boy” was used in distinction to “Fat Man” – it has nothing to do with the process used for critical assembly. And the discussion of the “sex” of the bomb on p.7 is just as absurd:
    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/12/15/081215fa_fact_samuels?currentPage=7
    If they’re going to insist on using a sexual metaphor, it’s clear that the bomb is a merging of both male and female parts. The projectile is not the bomb, and neither is the target. They’re both parts of the bomb. Taking one part of the bomb and applying its “gender” to the whole device makes no sense.
    Moreover, they make it sound like the original mistake in interpretation was some sort of male bias, when it’s merely the simplest assumption to make based on the fact that the bomb was designed like gun. The sexual obsession seems to be entirely Coster-Mullen’s, rather than an obsession shared by any previous analysts of the bomb’s design.

  3. In 1968 someone sent a nuclear threat to the City of Tampa in the form of a description with drawings for a device. This of course brought in the FBI and everyone else as the drawings were accurate enough to cause much alarm. The ransom was left at the drop point and the pick up was made, the arrest was soon to follow. Surprise! it was a couple of sixteen year old boys. They failed to understand that to build such a device, even if you could purchase the parts, the cost would be much more than the $150,000.00 ransom they demanded. On inquiring where they got the plans for a nuke the boys told them the public library.

  4. Regarding the comment, “anyone with about 60 kilograms of uranium-235 could build a bomb like Little Boy”, I rather doubt this. I haven’t yet read the book, but from the New Yorker drawings I can see that there is quite a lot of technology embodied in Little Boy’s design and fabrication, and few garage machinists would have the equipment and skills to build one. A nation with $1B to invest is another story, of course.

  5. Jimbo

    What always amazes me is why any level of concern exists about this `danger’, when the material and techno-reqts to brew up a bio-toxin WMD is about one percent of that req’d for a `homemade nuke’.
    Lest anyone forget, in 1979 the US Govnt went to court to stop `The Progressive’ magazine from publishing an elementary description of how the Hydrodgen bomb works. Exactly 30 yrs later, no homemade H bombs. Relax, there’s lots more realistic dangers to be worried about than `Dr.Atomic’.

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