The good old college days. When you look back at your own college life as a teen, you were either the kid who loved studying, getting all those A’s, or that party jock varsity kid enjoying all the free-flowing booze. There’s a lot of in-betweens to those categories—the invisibles, those music-loving band kids, those who didn’t really care about studying, those who were making something out of themselves, and then you have an unassuming John Aristotle Phillips.
Well, who the heck is John Aristotle Phillips? He’s that Princeton graduate who just happened to design a functioning atomic bomb in his dorm room in 1976.
Unassuming John Aristotle Phillips
John was pretty much your normal college kid who had his ups and downs. In 1976, World War II wasn’t a distant memory, and pretty much were still in the talks in the physics realm, a field Phillips was studying at Princeton. Especially with former President Truman signing the Atomic Energy Act in 1946, a law that would be revised in 1954, the whole nuclear bomb topic would float around for decades to come—in fact, until today.
Growing up with a Yale-tenured mechanical engineering professor as a father, you can say that he was not a newcomer to the whole numbers and physics game. However, the New Haven native wasn’t really the stellar student of his time. In fact, he was an underachieving student who was also the school mascot who entertained the crowds as the Princeton Tiger at sporting events. He also helped a pizza business within the campus to thrive, a pizza joint that earned $1,000 a week.
Designing A Nuclear Bomb In His Dorm Room
Hoping to stay in school, he wanted to impress his professor with his term paper in his junior year. What better way to get an A than designing a nuclear bomb with 1/4 the power of the Nagasaki bomb?
And so, the months of intensive research began. Phillips wanted to prove to his professor that making a nuclear bomb can be relatively easy and cheap so that the public and the authorities could be awakened to the idea that terrorists can make a nuclear bomb with readily available materials.
“I wanted it to be simple, inexpensive, and easy to build,” said Phillips, 21, the son of a Yale engineering professor. “The idea was not to use any classified information. I wanted to do it with what was available to the public,” said the then 21-year-old college junior.
When he passed his 40-page term paper, his professor was quite shocked. The 21-year-old Phillips had designed a $152,000 nuclear bomb, where $2,000 was for the actual shell of the weapon and $150,000 was theoretically to be used to buy Plutonium, the core component of a nuclear bomb that enables it to explode.
His design was said to be crude. However, his professor said that it was more complex and sophisticated than the Hiroshima bomb, which indicates that if he lived during World War II, he might have been the guy who actually worked on the project. Of course, that’s stretching it since he used more advanced information available to him. However, it’s still a feat considering he only used his own nuclear engineering textbook and two unclassified government documents.
Sources say the bomb is the size of a beachball that weighs 125 pounds, others say it’s the size of a U-haul trailer, but nobody really knows for sure now since his term paper is now classified information. His professor said it was a good paper and would earn him an “A” but that the paper would have to be destroyed. Somehow that never happened and instead, someone notified the government.
Yup, that’s right. The FBI paid him a visit, questioned the young gentleman, and confiscated his paper together with the mock-up he built. That was how impressive the design was. It was deemed a security threat for the United States as they soon realized that it was possible to make a relatively cheap nuclear bomb. If the information were to be accessed by terrorists, who knows how history would’ve panned out. It might have also ticked off taxpayers to find out that nukes each costing millions could be made for a fraction of the cost.
In fact, he got so famous for the design that he got named “The A-Bomb Kid” when his story was published by media outlets in 1977. Shortly after, France and Pakistan made him offers for his term paper. However, he decided to move on from his nuclear pursuits, where he made a much safer living(so to speak) designing crash-protection system for motorcyclists.
Where Is The Atomic Bomb Designer Now?
Today, Phillips is a political data miner, becoming the CEO of Aristotle, Inc. in 1983. He pursued this career as he did try to enter politics in 1980 and 1982. He ran for the United States House of Representatives for the Democrats, pursuing the congressional seat of Connecticut’s 4th district.
His experience from his election campaign, mainly from the voters’ list he obtained from the state, led him to establish his company. His company basically gets citizens’ information such as income, church attendance, and other similar data and sells it to politicians who want to micro-target a particular population or demographic. He also does consulting work for political action committees.
As to whether such a bomb could be made today, the answer is yes and also no. The mechanical design of building a nuke is not a problem today, the basic principles are well known and available, but getting the materials, that is another thing. It’s not like there is a Fissionable Products Aisle at Home Depot you can go to or order it from Amazon,(maybe in Pakistan?). This is the critical component in making an actual atomic bomb, enriched Uranium or Plutonium and the government tries to be pretty tidy with this stuff and who gets hold of it. Someone could design a laser that uses a 1,000-carat diamond to focus the beam, the problem is getting hold of that 1,000-carat diamond, you know?