/TIL a Princeton University undergraduate designed an atomic bomb for his term paper. When American nuclear scientists said it would work, the FBI confiscated his paper and classified it. Few months later he was contacted by French and Pakistani officials who offered to buy his design. He got an "A".

TIL a Princeton University undergraduate designed an atomic bomb for his term paper. When American nuclear scientists said it would work, the FBI confiscated his paper and classified it. Few months later he was contacted by French and Pakistani officials who offered to buy his design. He got an "A".

The A-Bomb Kid

Ben Gillman
May 30, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241,
Stanford University, Winter 2019

Introduction


Fig. 1: President Truman signs the Atomic
Energy Act of 1946 into law. (Courtesy of the
DOE
Source:
Wikimedia
Commons
)

After World War 2, the U.S. government recognized the
need for tight control over nuclear energy. [1] There was a movement to
expand the knowledge about nuclear energy and use it for commercial
purposes, but in order for this to happen the materials for and
knowledge about bomb making needed to be tightly controlled. In 1946
President Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act, as seen in Fig. 1, to
begin this process and establish the Atomic Energy Commission. [1] The
act was revised in 1954 to further advance the commercial nuclear energy
industry, and more tightly control civilian access to nuclear materials
and information. [1]

The A-Bomb Kid

John Aristotle Phillips was an undergraduate physics
student at Princeton University in 1976. [2] He grew up in North Haven,
Connecticut, spent two years at the University of California, Berkeley,
and then transferred to Princeton. For a term paper in a class during
his junior year, Phillips sought to show that nuclear weapons could fall
into enemy hands much more easily than people thought. Using just
nuclear engineering textbooks and 2 publicly available government
documents, Phillips was able to design a nuclear bomb as a part of his
paper, and therefore show that any terrorist group or energy nation
would be able build a nuclear bomb without classified information. [2]
Phillips’s bomb design was assessed by nuclear physicist Frank Chilton
as very likely to work, and Phillips was quoted as saying, “Its very
simple. Any undergraduate physics major could have done what I did.”
[2]

Phillips’s work was concerning to the federal
government, who withheld page 20 of his paper, which is the method he
came up with for the type of high-explosive component needed to trigger
the nuclear blast. [2] The FBI also confiscated the mockup of the bomb he
had in his dorm room. Besides the government, Phillips also attracted a
lot of attention in the press, which gave him the moniker “The A-Bomb
Kid.” Phillips had not accessed any secret information in order to
design his bomb, but the government had the right to restrict the
information anyway because of the “born secret” doctrine of the Atomic
Energy Act. The born secret doctrine is a permanent gag order
established to restrict all public discussion of an entire subject
matter, in this case nuclear weapons. [3] There is currently nothing
like it anywhere else in American law, where discussion of publicly
obtained information is illegal.

Conclusion

John Aristotle Phillips gained a lot of attention for
his term paper that showed making a nuclear bomb wasn’t as difficult to
learn as previously thought. He attracted new scrutiny to the difficulty
of controlling nuclear information, even information that isn’t
ill-gotten. As the government today has to deal with the control of
secret technology besides nuclear weapons, maybe they should look to the
born secret doctrine as a way to combat the spread of information about
chemical weapons, gene editing diseases, or cyber attacks.

© Ben Gillman. The author warrants that the work
is the author’s own and that Stanford University provided no input other
than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants
permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form,
with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All
other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the
author.

References

[1] R. Gaertner
The
Atomic Energy Act
,” Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter
2016.

[2] R. Rein
A
Princeton Tiger Designs An Atomic Bomb in a Physics Class
,” People
Magazine, 25 Oct 76.

[3] H. Morland “Born Secret,” Cardozo Law Review
26, No. 4, 1401 (2005).