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I bought it because it was roughly the same size as one of those polonium-beryllium initiators they used in Fat Man. He said that it was possible, though not easy, for a rogue figure to acquire material for an atomic weapon. Supposedly, thorium can be used to make uranium. Well, thorium was in camper gas lanterns. Americium, which is the key element in smoke detectors, is supposedly a fissile material.
At midmorning, we reached the outskirts of Omaha, where we visited the Strategic Air and Space Museum, whose grounds are marked by a towering Atlas D ballistic missile. Energized by forty ounces of Diet Coke, Coster-Mullen ignored the SR Blackbird spy plane hanging over the entrance to the museum and headed straight to the front desk, where he corralled a retired armed-services veteran who was volunteering his time.
Smooth jazz played in the background. By the time we left the museum, the sky had gone dark and storm clouds were on the horizon.
When he had visited the Bradbury Science Museum earlier that year, he noticed that a diagram of the exterior of the bomb had been mislabelled; it placed a contact fuse on the nose of Little Boy. An archivist agreed to send Coster-Mullen a copy of the flawed diagram in the mail. The diagram revealed that a long gun barrrel had been screwed directly into an adapter attached to the target case. This was the first piece of hard information that researchers had about how the mechanism inside Little Boy was actually assembled.
Not long afterward, Coster-Mullen told me, he read a coffee-table book about the Enola Gay. Perhaps a dozen Little Boys were produced. The bomb had originally been intact, save for its uranium, but in agents of the Department of Energy arrived at the museum and took the weapon away. Government officials were worried that a terrorist group with access to sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium might commandeer the bomb, load it with fissile material, and set it off. The gutted artifact was returned to the museum in A small number of visitors to the Smithsonian exhibit may have noticed that the bomb had been modified in a peculiar way.
He realized that, by adding thirty-six and sixteen, he ended up with fifty-two—a number that almost certainly corresponded to the placement of the front of the projectile that would be shot down the gun barrel at the uranium target situated twenty-six inches away. He had figured out the essential geometry of the bomb. Coster-Mullen surmised that the numbers on the casing had been written by whoever had been given the job of disassembling the bomb and removing its interior mechanisms. During the process of gutting the bomb and shipping it back to the Smithsonian, no one had bothered to wipe the bomb clean.
We were making our way toward Wyoming, through an empty stretch of Nebraska farmland. A hummingbird perched on a wire fence outside my window. A yellow school bus with no wheels was marooned by the edge of the highway. In the middle of a field, some inventive local person had used aluminum tubing to fashion what looked like a dinosaur skeleton. We drove by a herd of cows. A biotic stench soon vied against the pleasant fresh-leather scent that the car-rental place had sprayed on our seats.
As we drove, I paged through declassified memos from the machine shops at Los Alamos; these documents had provided Coster-Mullen with several crucial details about the bomb. I read aloud from a checklist used by Captain William Parsons, who loaded the gunpowder into the bomb. Learning the number of turns had helped him to gauge the length of the breech plug—which Captain Parsons removed in order to slip in the four silk bags filled with cordite that fired the gun that sent the uranium projectile smashing into its target.
The subdivision outside Milwaukee where Coster-Mullen grew up was constructed for returning veterans. Everyone got a narrow lot with a nice back yard and a smaller front yard. Hyphenated names are not exactly common among truck drivers, he said. When Coster-Mullen was a child, he and his friends often spent Saturday afternoons at the Fox Bay theatre, a movie house with curved plaster walls, where popcorn was fifteen cents.
Coster-Mullen loved the newsreels that came first, describing wars and new weapons and the conquest of space. There was a little town square with a gazebo and a Civil War cannon. Attached to the side of the cannon was a metal box, and inside it was a brush with sharp steel bristles, which park workers used to clean out the cannon.
It thrilled Coster-Mullen to reach inside the dark box and feel the brush pricking his finger. A generation of German artists had immigrated to the city and introduced the art of creating full-sized dioramas filled with cunningly imagined and finely worked details that took full advantage of the laws of perspective and the taxidermic craft.
In a scene set in the Grand Canyon, a stuffed mountain lion was depicted in midair, ready to pounce on two mule deer. In a Pacific Northwest diorama, you could see a salmon drying on a rock, with giant trees and ice-capped mountains in the background. At the nearby Milwaukee County Historical Society, there was an intricate scale model that allowed viewers to gaze upon, in every direction, the chaos of the Battle of Gettysburg.
His favorite teacher in high school, Darwin Kaestner, had worked at the University of Chicago during the Second World War, in a metallurgical lab that was part of the Manhattan Project. The lab was run by Glenn Seaborg, who discovered plutonium. Kaestner said tantalizingly little about his experiences. Coster-Mullen and Kaestner made a bubble chamber out of glass, in which they detected the movement of subatomic particles. An engineer had saved the fragment from the Anchor Ranch test site, in Los Alamos. The purpose of the cylindrical tamper was to reflect neutrons back into the critical assembly, thus containing the chain reaction for a fraction of a second, until enough matter was converted into energy to destroy Hiroshima.
The tamper fragment was half an inch wide, an inch long, and two inches deep. It bore a notable resemblance to the State of Illinois. A spring-loaded probe touched the curved surface at twenty different points. Thirty seconds later, a number popped up on a screen indicating that the original diameter of the tungsten-carbide cylinder was The diameter of the cylinder gave him a maximum distance of one inch between the cylinder and the outer casing.
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He was getting closer and closer to a full understanding of the inner workings of the atomic bomb. We had driven more than nine hundred miles and been on the road for about sixteen hours. A tanker truck was on the road ahead of us, passing a field of wind turbines. Behind the turbines was a freight train loaded with containers. This act of atomic coitus created a mass sufficient to produce a critical reaction.
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The mass of the projectile was said to be But no matter how many times Coster-Mullen did the math the numbers never quite worked out in a way that allowed the projectile and the target to fit inside the gun barrel while remaining subcritical. The source of the error, Coster-Mullen recognized, was an assumption that every male researcher who studied the subject had made about the relation between projectile and target.
But Coster-Mullen realized that a female-superior arrangement—in which a hollow projectile slammed down on top of a stationary cylinder of highly enriched uranium—yielded the correct size and mass. But even Richard Rhodes, after examining the evidence, admitted that Coster-Mullen was right.
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Little Boy was female. Coster-Mullen said that his insight into the sex of the bomb was connected to a discussion that he had, in , with an engineer named Harlow Russ, who had worked on Project Alberta—the code name for the bomb-delivery portion of the Manhattan Project. But there was one point that he needed to make sure was on the record.
At the time, Coster-Mullen had suspected that Russ was senile. A year later, Coster-Mullen received in the mail copies of four file cards from the National Archives, which contained a detailed synopsis of an eighty-two-page paper that had once been in the archives but was withdrawn. The paper summarized on the cards may or may not have been, in turn, a summary of a longer and more detailed secret history of the Little Boy program.
The cards also indicated that the uranium-tipped projectile contained nine stacked rings of active material, with a total mass of 38, It was the end of the second day of our journey.
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We were now in Wyoming, driving in deep-purple darkness; high mountains were distantly visible, looking as if they had been spray-painted on velvet. His bladder was about to burst, he confessed.
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Over the past three hours, he had consumed three twenty-ounce bottles of Diet Coke. After all, a man like Harlow Russ, the bomb engineer, could have spared him thousands of hours of trouble simply by explaining how the device worked. They were proud of keeping secrets, just as they were proud of what they had done to defeat Japan.
When the war was won, the country turned in on itself, in order to safeguard the deadly knowledge that the gadget-builders had acquired. We remain fascinated by the story of the bomb, in part, because it shows us who we were at the exact moment that we became the people we are now. I asked Coster-Mullen what he thought about the fact that so many eminent historians got the story of the bomb wrong. We had arrived late the previous night, and checked into the Montego Bay Casino Resort. We got in the car and headed to Wendover Air Field, where the crew of the Enola Gay trained for six months.
I shaded my eyes from the glare bouncing off the Utah salt flats. When light hit the crack, it appeared as a tiny bright star floating in front of his eyeball. The Enola Gay crew arrived at Wendover on December 17, , on the forty-first anniversary of the day that the Wright brothers proved that men could fly. B crews dropped hundreds of weighted bomb casings, in order to develop ballistics tables for the elephantine munitions that ended the war.
By February, , Wendover had more than six hundred buildings, and nearly twenty thousand residents. The eeriness of the place was heightened by the unnaturally flat, bright sunlight, which resembled the light used on television shows to illustrate near-death experiences. Two F fighter jets disrupted the quiet.
Coster-Mullen, who was slathered in sunscreen, drove us to the secure areas of the old base, near where the Enola Gay practiced its maneuvers. We parked next to two coffin-like pits in the desert floor. The wind sounded like the hiss on old-fashioned tape recorders. Coster-Mullen climbed down into one of the pits, which were each six feet deep, twenty feet long, and twelve feet wide; they had once been used as loading bays for the test units.
In preparation for bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the pilots of the rd Bombardment Squadron dropped a hundred and fifty-five Little Boy and Fat Man test units in the desert, honing the sharp turns that they would need to escape the blast. We returned to the car and drove to two barely discernible concrete patches on the desert floor, where the bombs had been assembled, inside huts whose floors had been covered in copper and attached to grounding wires, in order to eliminate any static that might accidentally set off a bomb.
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