Thursday, January 15, 2009

Weapons-Grade Geekdom

A Likely-Inaccurate Model of Fat Man (

Ever try making those Airfix Spitfire models* when you were a kid? Even with all the bits nicely stamped and stuck on those interconnected square plastic branches, the net result never quite seemed to come out looking like the picture on the box. Partly, that's because you always ended-up with this collection of leftover bits that somehow never seemed to fit anywhere, and partly because what did result looked like it had been painted by an arthritic, color-blind monkey with the attention span of, well, a monkey.

Spare a thought then for this guy. He decided to build a complete, one-to-one scale replica of the first atomic bomb. Yes, like the one used at Hiroshima in 1945. Yes, the one still covered by the official secrets act*. Oh, and he's a truck driver from the Mid-West, not some furloughed rocket scientist with privileged access to information denied to yer average Joe six-pack.

Over the course of 10 painstaking years of research, John Coster-Mullen was able to back-calculate all manner of key dimensions, shapes and forms as he wrestled with the precise mechanics of not just how the bomb must have looked, but more importantly how it must have worked. To get there, he variously interviewed retied scientists and machinists; scrutinised archive materials and photographs; visited museums where pieces of the original might be housed; and generally bugged the living daylights out of anyone and everyone who might provide even the merest clue as to the size, weight, design or purpose of the next piece in this quite astonishing puzzle. To cite but one example of quite how obsessive Mr. Coster-Mullen actually is, there's a photograph somewhere of a box containing the plutonium core of the weapon being carried past a car in New Mexico in 1945. Once he had figured out the make and model of the car in the background, Coster-Mullen then hunted down an exact vehicular match in order to measure, to the millimetre, the precise height of the doors, figuring out that this would reveal the size of the box and hence set an upper limit on how big the thing inside could be. All that just to prove that other estimates of the length of what's inside were wrong! Please, read the article, I can't even begin to do this guy justice merely with a few extracts.

John, Silicon Valley salutes you as one of their own. Clearly, the passion that drove you do do this rages no less fiercely in Wisconsin than it does in garages the length and breadth of Santa Clara county. While you toiled on recreating an atomic weapon, geeks here were crafting Google, Yahoo!, eBay and They made millions, while you did it purely for the intellectual challenge. In fact, let me restate things: Silicon Valley should worship you as a new god. At least our garage-dwelling brethren could argue that there was a chance of fame, fortune and hot babes at the end of their journeys (and particularly in the case of benefit number three this would be their only path to such riches) whereas your passion, burning just as bright but with a flame far more pure, was most unlikely to bring you any of those three gifts. And nothing - but nothing - earns you more street cred than that, at least round these here zip codes. Therefore, I hearby induct you into the SV Hall of Ultimate Geekdom. It's not a complex process, in fact I need only speak the sacred words, passed down from generation (X) to generation (Y), to reflect your joining at the highest level of membership.

"Dude. Awesome."


(*Insert American equivalents where appropriate!)

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