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

"I approached it like it was a buddy film," muses David Michaelis from his Washington, D.C., office. "Like it was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Michaelis is a biographer now, following his acclaimed N.C. Wyeth study with one on Charles Schulz. While Peanuts sounds as far away as you can get from plutonium, he remembers Mushroom fondly. "It was the easiest thing I've ever written," he says. "It was the first time I realized that this was what I wanted to do with my life—write books."

Mushroom had a rough start. Their publisher cranked out a large printing and planned mugs and T-shirts emblazoned Whoopee; but arriving at the Today show upon the release, the authors found their publicist frantic. "We look around, and the greenroom's filled with bishops and cardinals, looking very solemn," Michaelis recalls. "It turned out the pope had died."

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

The book never went into another printing, but Phillips became a star anti-nuclear activist nonetheless. He lectured college campuses and made the TV rounds, showing up on Mike Douglas alongside Pam Dawber and Jim Backus. He even campaigned twice as a Democrat for a Connecticut seat in the House. After his second loss in 1982, he told The New York Times: "If this was my last election ever, it would be one thing. But I think I'll be in many more." He was right.

"I consider myself a very private person," Phillips says when I call, for he has much to stay private from: The news cycle has grown faster, the outlets more numerous. "The Whoopee, as we called it, has intensified."

After Mushroom, Phillips became an inventor, creating a motorcycle air bag and a "novelty calculator"; with his brother, Dean, he marketed Copilot, a talking equivalent of car engine warning lights. For two decades they've run Aristotle International, a San Francisco producer of such software as Constituent Service 4.1 Solution. They maintain massive voter databases: For lists of donors, Phillips is your man. His clients range from Dubya and Trent Lott to Joseph Lieberman and Hillary Clinton. So Phillips speaks very carefully to journalists now.

"I think the point's been made," he cautions, when I imagine a student writing his paper today. "There's a point of diminishing returns in terms of scaring people."

Which is probably true. But it certainly made an impression on me.

"I get that [response] from people who were 10 years younger than I was at the time," he agrees. "Twelve-, 11-year-olds. And always boys. They are the ones who seem to remember. . . . People of your age group seem to remember it more than my age group."

Perhaps it was the childhood shock that nuclear destruction seemed inevitable and unwinnable, that the bomb's "secret" wasn't a secret at all. Indeed, in 1979 The Progressive explained the H-bomb, after a court battle in which the U.S. government tried to censor reporter Howard Morland. The government's case fell apart after it was revealed that anyone could garner most H-bomb "secrets" from Encyclopedia Americana.

Keeping the lid on mid-20th-century bomb technology is rather like classifying the secret of color television. The real remaining hurdle is obtaining plutonium, and Phillips fingered the export of "peaceful" nuclear power plants as a virtual license to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium. Despite vehement industry denials, time proved him correct. "I would never have thought that we'd have gone 25 years without a terrorist getting a nuclear device," Phillips admits today. "I'm surprised it hasn't happened. I still do expect it." He's in formidable company. Even in 1947, one physicist foresaw how, without careful diplomacy and monitoring, our secrecy laws and crummy fallout shelters served little purpose.

"There is no secret," Einstein wrote, "—and there is no defense."

Paul Collins is a contributor to New Scientist magazine and the author of the forthcoming neurology travelogue-memoir Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism (Bloomsbury, 2004).

« Previous Page
New York Concert Tickets