Yes, the FBI Might Confiscate Your Paper on How to Build a Nuclear Bomb

And you wouldn't be the first.
Brad Bergan
A big nuclear explosion.KREMLL / iStock

It turns out, you can know too much, after all.

A student at Princeton University gathered notes from the U.S. Government Printing Office, combined it with what he could find in his university library, and drafted a schematic for creating a nuclear bomb capable of, according to a local report, turning one-quarter of Manhattan into glass.

And when word got out about the "A-Bomb Kid", the FBI was not happy about it. So we don't recommend following suit.

A DIY nuclear bomb one-third the yield of Hiroshima

John Aristotle Phillips (yes that's his middle name) was a 21-year-old undergraduate, studying mechanical sciences and aerospace, and was described as "underachieving" by his peers before jumping on his A-Bomb project, according to an IFL Science! report. And Phillips went even further, actually developing his beach ball-sized explosive for multiple months. Reportedly, he was doing it to prove how easy building a bomb would be for terrorists, attempting to raise public awareness of the dangers inherent to the surprising simplicity of building a nuclear bomb. And he actually pulled it off, with the nuclear scientist Frank Chilton admitting that Phillips' design was "pretty much guaranteed to work". Hooray?

Phillips had bragging rights at the time; other students had tried to build a nuclear device and failed, primarily with the design of the initial conventional explosive that causes the chain fission (or fusion, depending on the type of bomb) reaction. But Phillips simply phoned it in, placing a call to DuPont, and asking him how they did it, since Phillips thought the nuclear reaction could be triggered with more quotidian explosive materials, like TNT. And make no mistake: his DIY bomb would have worked, but it would have been roughly one-third the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima near the end of World War II.

Nuclear weapons are generally bad

Of course, building the finished product would require one essential ingredient: uranium, or plutonium, which would need to be enriched in a way you can't really expect from your Amazon Prime subscription. Instead of a seamless delivery to his front door, Phillips got a visit from the CIA and FBI. And he got an A grade, like a champ. Weeks after submitting his paper, Phillips checked out his physics department to see if his paper was still there, and it wasn't. This was clearly a time before the internet. Instead of his ace paper, Phillips got a talk from his department chairman, and realized that the information he scored from DuPont might've been classified. Uh-oh.

And it turned out that the FBI had confiscated his thesis, in addition to the mockup bomb he'd built in his room. After this ordeal, Phillips was a born-again anti-nuclear-proliferation activist, and later ran for a seat in Congress, multiple times. Which goes to show that sometimes, really good ideas are actually terrible ones. But those terrible ideas can, with a little elbow grease, rhetoric, and awareness of the political context, become your ticket to a higher life, with the potential to have a shot at Capitol Hill. It happens all the time.

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