The A-Bomb Kid

Don't try this at home: The end of the world as we know it is just a term paper away

Ah, yes—the morning I saw a mushroom cloud. It was 1986. I was crossing my high school's courtyard at dawn, when every student stopped as one: There it was, an atmospheric freak, forming like an Old Testament prophecy over the cooling tower of the town's nuclear reactor. The slant of the sun rendered the cloud a perfect and horrifyingly beautiful red.

It was only steam. But we were all silent, all thinking the same thing. Then one boy broke the silence.

"Oh," he said. "Oh shit."

Christmas Island, 1962
photo: Michael Light/100 Suns/Knopf
Christmas Island, 1962

I knew, as my classmates did not, where to find a hiding place. In fact, we were standing on top of one. Months before, I'd noticed the rusting tin sign proclaiming FALLOUT SHELTER bolted next to a disused entrance of our school library. I asked the librarian about it one day.

"That?" She laughed. "Ask Mr. Taylor."

Taylor was your archetypal science teacher—awkward, thick glasses, utterly devoted to his subject. Imagine a ganglier Ben Stein. He was genuinely pleased to give me a tour of the shelter, and led me into the basement to a blast-proof door, and pointed into utter darkness: a vast warren burrowed out under our school's quad.

"It was built because of the Cuban missile crisis," he explained. "It had food, water, blankets. We also had some games—Scrabble, things like that."

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Scrabble? For 500 teenagers? I imagined a rapid descent into anarchy—a low-ceilinged Lord of the Flies. In any case, the school hadn't maintained the shelter in decades; it was used for storage now. When I asked why, Taylor muttered something about détente and SALT treaties. Then something about the school budget.

We were gonna fry.

My fascinated dread began in 1978, when I was nine. Leafing through a waiting room copy of Book Digest, I came across the following proposition: "Suppose an average—or below-average in my case—physics student at a university could design a working atomic bomb on paper."

The premise was not fanciful. The author had done it. In 1977, John Aristotle Phillips found worldwide fame as the Princeton junior who designed a working Nagasaki-class weapon the size of a beach ball. In fact, after calling DuPont and asking for a good detonator for imploding, ahem, a dense sphere of metal—"God, how obvious," he scoffed to himself. "Why don't you just say you want to implode Pu-239?"—he actually improved on the original model.

Phillips was no Lex Luthor. He was the mascot who ran around in the Tiger outfit at Princeton games, a duty he acquired after being fired as cowbell player in the marching band. His academic prospects were none too bright. "If I flunk another course," he admitted, "I'll be bounced out of the Big U right on my ass."

So Phillips proposed a Term Paper to End All Term Papers: "How to Build Your Own Atomic Bomb." His instructor was Freeman Dyson, famed colleague of bomb-meisters Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman. But Dyson carefully avoided giving his student extra help. Phillips gathered declassified documents at the National Technical Information Service—"Oh, you want to build a bomb too?" a librarian asked him dryly—and many sleepless nights of calculations later, he pulled it off. Phillips did this while camped out with a broken typewriter in the campus Ivy Club. For extra surrealism, the club members who observed his mysterious work included fellow student Parker Stevenson. Yes, the Hardy Boys' star Parker Stevenson.

So how good was his design?

"I remember telling him I would give him an A for it," Dyson e-mails me, "but advised him to burn it as soon as the grade was registered." Phillips was spared the trouble of procuring matches: The U.S. government kept his term paper and classified it. Soon Phillips was pursued by hack journalists and trench-coaters alike: The Pakistani embassy tried to get a copy; agents trailed him; the FBI and CIA got involved. Everything exploded.

It's been 25 years since Phillips and his college roommate David Michaelis co-authored Mushroom: The Story of the A-Bomb Kid. They were 22 and 20, respectively, and their book is a wonderfully cocky piece of Young Americana—a hybrid of Tom Wolfe and Tom Brown. On one page we see Phillips having nightmares about a nuclear holocaust; on another we find him and his Princeton classmates at a football game, hooting derisively at the Colgate University marching band during its goody-goody tribute to the Daughters of the American Revolution: "BORING! . . . BORING! . . . HIGH SCHOOL! . . . HIGH SCHOOL! . . . "

But above all, we see how Phillips became famous. Not the bomb: the media. The authors describe the creation of celebrity, or what they term "Whoopee": airbrushed photos, misquotes, TV crews barging in. Phillips poses for cameras; he sits on news panels with a surprisingly grumpy Isaac Asimov. Inevitably, there is a TV movie. Following the cretinous inbred logic of Hollywood, a Universal executive proposes "a combination of Love Story and Paper Chase."

The authors watch the Whoopee with amused disbelief until it goes haywire: Phillips demands the lead in his own TV movie, and in a truly great moment in New Journalism, he and Michaelis bicker over Mushroom royalties right before your eyes, even as you read it. The book implodes gloriously: It doesn't even need a DuPont detonator.

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