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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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).