In Memoriam: John Coster-Mullen


Illustration of John Coster-Mullen and the Little Boy bomb

by Alex Wellerstein

I don’t know off-hand exactly when I started talking to John. A look through old e-mails suggests that in 2006 we had been talking, but that those e-mails reference earlier conversations. My guess is that we had been in touch in 2005, when I was working on my paper on how people draw atomic bombs…Around that time I probably bought John’s book and got in touch with him, and we began exchanging documents as well…

Over the next 15 years or so, we exchanged quite a bit of documents, I acquired three versions of his book, Atom Bombs, and we got to spend some time together in person at the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s conference for the 70th anniversary of the Manhattan Project. He was always generous and excited. He clearly really enjoyed that he, a truck driver (among other things), was producing research that academics from places like Harvard and Princeton thought was important and valuable

I enjoyed John as a friend, correspondent, and as a subject of study. John is what I call a “secret seeker” in my book, someone who — for whatever reason — is driven towards learning “nuclear secrets.”…With John, I never got the sense that he was strongly motivated by the politics of secrecy, though he sometimes could sound like that when he got irritated with the Department of Energy…Sometimes he would give the old Ted Taylor line, that the surprising thing about the atomic bombs is that they aren’t that hard to build (if you have the fuel, etc…

I think discovering “the secret” for him was more about proving himself as a researcher than probably any big statement about secrecy. Over the years I’ve gotten various documents from him trying to explain himself, and to my eye they come down to a sort of love for the work, the topic, and the people — one that only grew over time and he had more exposure to all three…

The Cold War mentality was premised in part on hiding science and technology from your competitors. The easiest part of that for American politicians was – and remains – casting all serious competitors as somehow inherently EVIL. That justified reliance on secrecy about absolutely everything…and still does. Including the banal which have already made it to the back pages of local, regional newspapers.

But, the tale, the personality of John Coster-Mullen grows through this dedication to the history of his work and achievements. I hope that recognition of his research will continue to grow, as well.

7 thoughts on “In Memoriam: John Coster-Mullen

  1. Artifactual says:

    “Picture TR-229 shows the inside of the tent under the Trinity tower with the sphere on the left (Slotin leaning against it) and the litter with the capsule on the right side. This litter is the one Daghlian and Lehr placed into the 1942 Plymouth in front of the McDonald Ranch. The litter is sitting on a crate with the wood box cover off and the completed Pu filled tamper cylinder sitting strapped to the litter. It can be clearly seen.”
    TR-229: http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/SlotinLehrTrinity-TR-229.jpg (click to enlarge)
    The sphere Slotin is leaning against is the Trinity Gadget, officially a Y-1561 device, as was the ‘Fat Man’ used a few weeks later in the bombing of Nagasaki. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_(nuclear_test)#The_Gadget

    • p/s says:

      “As part of the Manhattan Project, Slotin performed experiments with uranium and plutonium cores to determine their critical mass values. After World War II, Slotin continued his research at Los Alamos National Laboratory. On 21 May 1946, Slotin accidentally began a fission reaction, which released a burst of hard radiation. Slotin was rushed to the hospital, and died nine days later on 30 May, the victim of the second criticality accident in history, following the death of Harry Daghlian, who had been exposed to radiation by the same core that killed Slotin.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Slotin

  2. Unobtanium says:

    “Scientists searching for quasicrystals — so-called ‘impossible’ materials with unusual, non-repeating structures — have identified one in remnants of the world’s first nuclear bomb test.” https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01332-0
    “The previously unknown structure, made of iron, silicon, copper and calcium, probably formed from the fusion of vaporized desert sand and copper cables. Similar materials have been synthesized in the laboratory and identified in meteorites, but this one, described in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on 17 May, is the first example of a quasicrystal with this combination of elements.”
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS): “Accidental synthesis of a previously unknown quasicrystal in the first atomic bomb test” https://www.pnas.org/content/118/22/e2101350118

    • p/s says:

      “A taste of radioactive honey: The long-lived legacies of nuclear testing” https://thebulletin.org/2021/05/atomic-bomb-radiation-in-modern-us-honey-a-cautionary-tale/
      “Once you put a pollutant into the environment, you can’t anticipate how many decades later it’s going to remain in plants or the food supply,” said Jim Kaste, an earth scientist at The College of William and Mary. Kaste recently uncovered remnants of cesium 137, which has a half-life of about 30 years, in today’s US honey—results he published in March in a Nature Communications paper. Though levels of this radioactive isotope in honey do not pose a threat to humans, the finding offers a lesson about the persistence of human-made environmental pollutants.
      Nature Communications article: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-22081-8

  3. Addendum says:

    “Ed Westcott, a Singular Eye at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, Dies at 97 : He was the government’s official photographer at Oak Ridge, Tenn., a secret city where uranium was enriched for the bomb that fell on Hiroshima.” (NYT April 9, 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/09/obituaries/ed-westcott-97-dead.html
    See also “Picturing the Bomb: Photographs from the Secret World of the Manhattan Project”, Rachel Fermi and Esther Samra. Introduction by Richard Rhodes. 1995. https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-8109-3735-2

  4. Penkovsky says:

    “US soldiers accidentally leak nuclear secrets via study apps — report
    Online study aids used by US soldiers stationed at nuclear bases around Europe have been found to contain sensitive details. An investigation by Bellingcat uncovered the leak.” https://www.dw.com/en/us-soldiers-accidentally-leak-nuclear-secrets-via-study-apps-report/a-57710899
    “U.S. Military Personnel Spilled Nuclear Secrets in Online Flashcards : Details about passwords, secret codes, and nuclear missile location were uploaded by U.S. service members to flashcard websites.” https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7ebmd/us-military-personnel-spilled-nuclear-secrets-in-online-flashcards

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