Posts Tagged ‘John Coster-Mullen’

Visions

Visualizing fissile materials

Friday, November 14th, 2014

I’ve had some very favorable interactions with the people at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University over the years, so I’m happy to announce that four of the faculty have collaborated on a book about the control of fissile material stockpiles. Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, by Harold Feiveson, Alex Glaser, Zia Mian, and Frank von Hippel, was recently published by MIT Press. Glaser, who does some pretty far-out work at the Nuclear Futures Lab (among other things, he has been working on really unusual ways to verify weapons disarmament without giving away information about the bombs themselves — a really tricky intersection of policy, technical work, and secrecy), asked me if I would help them design the cover, knowing that I like to both dabble in graphic arts as well as bomb-related things. Here is what we came up with, in both its rendered and final form:

Unmaking the Bomb cover and render

The “exploded” bomb here is obvious a riff on the Fat Man bomb, simplified for aesthetic/functional purposes, and was created by me using the 3-D design program Blender. (The rest of the cover, i.e. the typography, was designed by the art people at MIT Press.) The idea behind the image was to highlight the fact that the fissile material, the nuclear core of the bomb, made up a very small piece of the overall contraption, but that its importance was absolutely paramount. This is why the non-nuclear parts of the bomb are rendered as a sort of grayish/white “putty,” and the core itself as a metallic black, levitating above.

The original idea, proposed by Glaser, was to do sort of a modern version of a drawing that appears in Chuck Hansen’s U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History (Aerofax: 1988). Hansen’s image is a thing of beauty and wonder:

1988 - Chuck Hansen - Fat Man

I first saw this diagram when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, working on a project relating to nuclear weapons — one of my first exposures to this kind of stuff. I had checked out pretty much every book on the subject that was in the Berkeley library system, which meant I found lots of unexpected, un-searched-for things serendipitously amongst the stacks. (This is something that I think has been lost, or at least not replicated, with increased reliance on digital sources.) I saw this diagram and thought, “Wow! That’s a lot of information about an atomic bomb! I wonder how he got all of that, and how much of it is real and how much is made up?” I don’t want to say this diagram is what made me want to study nuclear secrecy — origins and interests are always more complicated than that, and a close friend of mine recently reminded me that even in elementary school I used to talk about how nuclear bombs were made, armed with the beautiful-but-highly-inaccurate drawings from Macaulay’s The Way Things Work), but it did play a role.

Eventually I did track down a lot of information about this particular diagram. I found Hansen’s own original sketch of it (in his papers at the National Security Archive) that he gave to the artist/draftsman who drew the piece, Mike Wagnon:

Chuck Hansen Fat Man sketch

I also tracked down Wagnon, some years back now. He told me how he drew it. The original drawing was made many times larger than it was going to be in the book — it was four feet long! After being finished, it was reduced down to the size on the page in the book, so that it just looked like it was packed with fine detail. He also confirmed for me what I had come to suspect, that the diagrams in Hansen’s book, as Wagnon put it to me in 2004, “advertise an accuracy they do not have.” A lot of it was just deduced and guessed, but when you draw it like an engineering diagram, people assuming you know what you’re doing.1

Looking at it now, I can see also sorts of really serious errors that show the limits of Hansen’s knowledge about Fat Man in 1988. An obvious one is that it is missing the aluminum pusher which sits in between the tamper and the high explosives. There are other issues relating to the most sensitive parts of the core, things that John Coster-Mullen has spent several decades now working out the details of. Hansen, in his later Swords of Armageddon, corrected many of these errors, but he never made a diagram that good again. As an aside, Wagnon’s version of Little Boy — which we also now know, because of Coster-Mullen, has many things wrong — was the source of the “blueprint” for the bomb in the 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy:

At top, Wagnon's diagram of Little Boy from Hansen's 1988 U.S. Nuclear Weapons. At bottom, a screenshot from the 1989 film, Fat Man and Little Boy, shows Oppenheimer pondering essentially the same image.

At top, Wagnon’s diagram of Little Boy from Hansen’s 1988 U.S. Nuclear Weapons. At bottom, a screenshot from the 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy shows Oppenheimer pondering essentially the same image.

Anyway, I am getting off the thread a bit. Unmaking the Bomb, aside from having an awesome cover, is about fissile materials: enriched uranium and separated plutonium, both of which can be readily used in the production of nuclear weapons. The authors outline a series of steps that could be taken to reduce the amount of fissile materials in the world, which they see as a bad thing both for non-proliferation (since a country with stockpiles of fissile materials can basically become a nuclear power in a matter of weeks), disarmament (since having lots of fissile materials means nuclear states could scale up their nuclear programs very quickly if they chose to), and anti-terrorism (the more fissile materials abound, the more opportunities for theft or diversion by terrorist groups).

The Princeton crew is also quite active in administering the International Panel on Fissile Materials, which produces regular reports on the quantities of fissile materials in the world. Numbers are, as always, hard for me to visualize, so I have been experimenting with ways of visualizing them effectively. This is a visualization I cooked up this week, and I think it is mostly effective at conveying the basic issues regarding fissile materials, which is that the stockpiles of them are extremely large with respect to the amounts necessary to make weapons:

world fissile material stockpiles

Click the image to enlarge it. The small blue-ish blocks represent the approximate volume of 50 kg of highly-enriched uranium (which is on order for what you’d need for a simple gun-type bomb, like Little Boy), and the small silver-ish blocks are the same for 5 kg of separated plutonium (on order for use in a first-generation implosion weapon). One can play with the numbers there a bit but the rough quantities work out the same. Each of the “big” stacks contain 1,000 smaller blocks. All references to “tons” are metric tons (1,000 kg). The “person” shown is “Susan” from Google SketchUp. The overall scene, however, is rendered in Blender, using volumes computed by WolframAlpha.

I made this visualization after a few in which I rendered the stockpiles as single cubes. The cubes were quite large but didn’t quite convey the sense of scale — it was too hard for my brain, anyway, to make sense of how little material you needed for a bomb and put that into conversation with the size of the cube. Rendering it in terms of bomb-sized materials does the trick a bit better, I think, and helps emphasize the overall political argument that the Unmaking the Bomb authors are trying to get across: you can make a lot of bombs with the materials that the world possesses. If you want the run-down on which countries have these materials (spoiler: it’s not just the ones with nuclear weapons), check out the IPFM’s most recent report, with graphs on pages 11 and 18.

To return to the original thread: the bomb model I used for the cover of Unmaking the Bomb is one I’ve been playing with for a while now. As one might imagine, when I was learning to use Blender, the first thing I thought to try and model was Fat Man and Little Boy, because they are subjects dear to my heart and they present interesting geometric challenges. They are not so free-form and difficult as rendering something organic (like a human being, which is hard), but they are also not simply combinations of Archimedean solids. One of my goals for this academic year is to develop a scaled, 3D-printed model of the Fat Man bomb, with all of the little internal pieces you’d expect, based on the work of John Coster-Mullen. I’ve never done 3D-printing before, but some of my new colleagues in the Visual Arts and Technology program here at the Stevens Institute of Technology are experienced in the genre, and have agreed to help me learn it. (To learn a new technology, one always needs a project, I find. And I find my projects always involve nuclear weapons.)

For a little preview of what the 3D model might end up looking like, I expanded upon the model I developed for the Unmaking the Bomb cover when I helped put together the Unmaking the Bomb website. Specifically, I put together a little Javascript application that I am calling The Visual Atomic Bomb, which lives on the Unmaking the Bomb website:

The Visual Atomic Bomb screenshot

I can’t guarantee it will work with old browsers (it requires a lot of Javascript and transparent PNGs), but please, give it a shot! By hovering your mouse over the various layer names, it will highlight them, and you can click the various buttons (“hide,” “show,” “open,” “close,” “collapse,” “expand,” and so on) to toggle how the various pieces are displayed. It is not truly 3D, as you will quickly see — it uses pre-rendered layers, because 3D is still a tricky thing to pull off in web browsers — but it is maybe the next best thing. It has more detail than the one on the cover of the book, but you can filter a lot of it on and off. Again, the point is to emphasize the centrality of the fissile material, but to also show all of the apparatus that is needed to make the thing actually explode.

I like to think that Chuck Hansen, were he alive today, would appreciate my attempt to take his original diagrammatic representation into a new era. And I like to think that this kind of visualization can help people, especially non-scientists (among which I count myself), wrap their heads around the tricky technical aspects of a controversial and problematic technology.

Notes
  1. I wrote a very, very, very long paper* in graduate school about the relationship between visual tropes and claims to power through secrecy with relation to the drawing of nuclear weapons. I have never quite edited it into a publishable shape and I fear that it would be very hard to do anything with given the fact that you really need to reproduce the diagrams to see the argument, and navigating through the copyright permissions would probably take a year in and of itself (academic presses are really averse to the idea of relying on “fair use“), and funds that nobody has offered up! But maybe someday I will find some way to use it other than as a source for anecdotes for the blog. *OK, I’ll own up to it: it was 93 pages long (but only 62 pages of text!) when I turned it in to the professor. I was told I should either turn it into a long article or a short book. []
Visions

Installing the Bomb

Friday, January 20th, 2012

Old bomb casings are just that perfect outdoor arrangement for your museum about war. And hey, let’s be honest: we’ve got quite a few of them left over from the Cold War. Might as well use them for something!

Today’s photo of the week is the installation of a Fat Man casing at the Los Alamos Science Museum:1

I love this photo for it’s wonderful contrast of tone, and the man-meets-bomb aspect. It also highlights how physically large the Fat Man bomb was, something that can get lost when you see photos of it in isolation. I’m not sure if the bomb is literally whitewashed here, or if that’s just how it looks in a black and white photo, but that’s a nice aspect, too.

Some more thoughts on atomic bomb casings and their public history follow after the jump.

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Notes
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Still Pictures Branch, 454-RF-30. []
Meditations

You Don’t Know Fat Man

Monday, November 28th, 2011

Everybody knows “Fat Man,” right? The atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki has been described in some detail in the last few decades. It, just like the “Trinity” “gadget,” was an implosion design bomb that used explosives lenses to compress its plutonium core.

A novel solution to the threat of "dirty bombs"? A "Fat Man" display casing being driven through a Los Alamos car wash. Vouched as legitimate (not Photoshopped) to me over e-mail by a scientist at Los Alamos who claims to have spoken to the truck's driver. The car wash appears to me (via Google Street View) to be the one attached to a "Shamrock" gas station at 1239 Trinity Drive.

Since the implosion concept was first declassified in 1951 as part of the Rosenberg trial,1 there has been a steady stream of information about the “Fat Man” and “Trinity” bomb designs. The most detailed ones on offer today come from Carey Sublette and John Coster-Mullen, two nuclear weapons design speculators who’ve pinned down a relentlessly detailed, fine-grained vision of what those two nearly-identical weapons were supposed to be:

Carey Sublette and John Coster-Mullen's version of the Gadget/Fat Man bombs.

And yet, after all this time, is there still more to know? More details? How wonkish can you get? Here’s my play for bomb-secret-speculator immortality: there was a very specific, small difference between the cores of the Trinity “gadget” and the “Fat Man” devices. (And the crowd goes, oooo.)

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Notes
  1. On the declassification of implosion, see Roger M. Anders, “The Rosenberg case revisited: The Greenglass testimony and the protection of atomic secrets,” American Historical Review 83, no. 2 (April 1978), 388-400. []
Visions

Posing with the Plutonium

Friday, November 25th, 2011

Everybody loves those moments when you feel yourself to be “part of history in the making.” I’m sympathetic with that. It’s exciting when you feel like you’re becoming part of a great movement, or something that people will look back on in wonder. No surprise today that, with the profusion of cell-phone cameras, you can’t go within five feet of anything “historical” without someone snapping their own grainy photo of it. It’s not that they think their cell phone photo of the Mona Lisa is going to be somehow a replacement of it — it’s some kind of act of documentation, some sort of “I was here” motion, in an age where getting accurate reproductions of famous things has become a trivial as typing their names into a search bar. But despite its obvious presence in modernity, the compulsion to self-document seems to be pretty old:

But I digress a bit. Today’s set of images is a grouping of self-documentation that I find fascinating. In the late summer of 1945, a group of scientists and technicians from Los Alamos went to the island of Tinian to prepare for the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. The first atomic bombs were big, clunky, ad hoc engineering creations and took a lot of work to put together, so the level of scientific talent was pretty high. Just to illustrate this, it’s worth noting that one of the people who assembled the final bombs was Luis Alvarez, who would later win a Nobel Prize in Physics:

Physicist and future Nobel Prize winner Luis Alvarez posing with a mysterious box on Tinian

The scientists heavily documented the Tinian mission. John Coster-Mullen has used a lot of these now-declassified photos to pretty extreme ends in figuring out exactly what they were doing in assembling these bombs. But my favorite set of photos are these ones the Tinian scientists took of themselves in front of Quonset hut with a funny little box in their hands:1

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Notes
  1. The original source for these are the TR- series of photographs from Los Alamos National Laboratory. These particular files were provided to me by John Coster-Mullen as part of a much larger set of TR- series photos. []
Meditations

The Mysterious Design of Little Boy

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

On August 11, 1945 — just two days after the bombing of Nagasaki — the U.S. government issued a technical history of the Manhattan Project, written by Princeton physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth.1 The Smyth Report, as it came to be known (its official title was unpleasantly long), was meant to serve as the authoritative guide for what could be publicly said by Manhattan Project participants about the atomic bomb.

One of the areas that the Report was most sheepish about is how the actual charges of the atomic bombs — now called the “physics packages” — are designed. Implosion, the method used on the Trinity “Gadget” and the Nagasaki bomb (“Fat Man”), was ignored completely (and not declassified until 1951). Even the simple “gun-type” design used in the Hiroshima bomb, “Little Boy,” was treated only obliquely:

Since estimates had been made of the speed that would bring together subcritical masses of U-235 rapidly enough to avoid predetonation, a good deal of thought had been given to practical methods of doing this. The obvious method of very rapidly assembling an atomic bomb was to shoot one part as a projectile in a gun against a second part as a target.2

In the early days, most people assumed that meant shooting two halves of a critical mass together, or, in more “real-looking” depictions, such as this very early one from the Austrian physicist Hans Thirring’s Die Geschichte der Atombombe (1946), a small “projectile” being shot into a dense “target”:

“One of the possible constructions of the atomic bomb.” Click to see the full page.

On Thirring’s diagram,3 a “Phantasie” of “Details der Bombenkonstruktion” (you have to love the German here) based on the description in the Smyth Report, you can see that there is a projectile (P) which gets shot down an artillery barrel (R) by conventional explosives into the target (S), which is a larger amount of fissile material embedded in a tamper (T). The role of the tamper (which is discussed in the Smyth Report) is to reflect neutrons and hold together the fissioning mass a few milliseconds longer than it might otherwise be inclined. This allows for more fission reactions and more of an explosion.

So this is more or less how we’ve been talking about gun-type designs since 1945… until very recently. John Coster-Mullen, a trucker/photographer/bomb geek (and a friend of mine), dubbed “Atomic John,” by the New Yorker in 2008, found, through some painstaking research, that this old story was wrong on one important detail.

The actual “Little Boy” bomb was not a small “projectile” being shot into the larger “target.” It’s a large “projectile” being shot into a smaller “target.” That is, as John puts it, “Little Boy” was in fact a “girl”:

A Little Boy diagram from Wikipedia based on John Coster-Mullen’s description.

Now half of you are saying “so what,” the other half are saying “I already know this, I’m an atomic wonk,” and the two of you who are not in that category (and are left out of the halves by rounding errors) are saying, “Cooooool.

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Notes
  1. The paranoid pedant in me wants to point out that the date, August 11, is correct for the distribution date, whereas it is often quoted as August 12. In order to avoid any one newspaper getting the “scoop,” the government requested that none report on it until the morning of the 12th, however. So either date is technically fine. Don’t you feel better, knowing that? []
  2. See §12.19, “Method of Assembly,” in Chapter 12, “The Work on the Atomic Bomb.” []
  3. Those who are very into this bomb thing may recognize that this is the same image as the supposed “Nazi nuke” that made the rounds in 2005. Needless to say I am not super impressed with the claims that this was an actually working bomb and not just a visualization based on Thirring’s book, which itself was clearly based on the Smyth Report. The fact that the “Nazi nuke” refers to the fissile material as “Plutonium,” a name given to it in secret by Americans and only released after the bomb project was made project, makes it patently clear this is very much a postwar construction. []