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Two decades after helping to design the first atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, was asked to describe how he felt after the bomb’s first test. “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky," he quoted from the Hindu scripture, Bhagavad Gita, "that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”
When bombs that he helped design were unleashed over two cities in Japan in August 1945, they detonated at temperatures 10,000 times hotter than the surface of the sun. So began the Atomic Age, a period that would blow apart our ideas about warfare and technology, send the Americans and Russians into a perpetual state of fear, and set the world on a course of nuclear power – the unintended effects of which are being felt once again in Japan.
- Also read: The Trinity Test: What “Gadget,” the First Atomic Bomb, Looked Like and Want to Survive a Nuclear Attack? Just Chill Out
While the Fukushima disaster reawakens global concerns over nuclear power, the separate but related threat of nuclear weapons has been mostly lost in the shuffle. Political treaties aside and protected weapons caches aside, the atomic bomb remains a tangible danger. There is no telling what North Korea and Iran might do with their atomic caches – or what a terrorist could do with the right ingredients and know-how.
A lot, says John Coster-Mullen. A truck-driver with minimal college education, Coster-Mullen taught himself how to build the most detailed replica of an A-bomb ever made. “The secret of the atomic bomb is how easy they are to make.”
Last year, Motherboard visited Coster-Mullen to talk with him about his life project: reverse engineering the atomic bombs America dropped on Japan. His findings are available in a book he continuously updates and publishes himself called Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man, which has received rave reviews from the National Resource Defense Council: “nothing else in the Manhattan Project literature comes close to his exacting breakdown of the bomb’s parts.”
Coster-Mullen gives an intensely technical history of the atomic bomb, which is centered around a detailed explanation of how the bombs were built, including exact dimensions and configurations, inside and out. For almost ten years, Coster-Mullen painstakingly analyzed photographs and interviewed more than 150 scientists, engineers, and others involved in their development. The result is an unprecedented and highly accurate recreation of the bomb on paper, both in its mechanics and history.
Coster-Mullen’s ambitious project is certainly a neat example of the ingenuity that led America to be the first to develop the atomic bomb. But it’s also a stark reminder that our most powerful technologies can end up being reworked and used in other ways, by people much less friendly than truck drivers with lots of time on their hands. — Alex Pasternack
John Coster-Mullen took your questions on Reddit, here.
Also see John Samuels 2008 profile of Coster-Mullen in The New Yorker. “To suggest that Coster-Mullen is a garden-variety classification freak, however, is like comparing a high-school trumpet player to Miles Davis," writes Samuels.
See more documentaries in the video room, and read more from the the Atomic Motherboard:
- Interview with the Last Atomic Bomber: “I’d Do it Again”
- The Black Hole of Los Alamos Will Sell You A $5 Atomic Bomb Detonator Cable
- The Documentary About Hiroshima and Nagasaki The U.S. Didn’t Want Us to See
- Isao Hashimoto’s Time Lapse of the 2053 Nuclear Explosions Since 1945: Video
- Q+A: Bill Geerhart Sifts Through The Fallout of the Atomic Age
IMAGES: courtesy John Coster-Mullen