Building the Bomb on a Budget

by Mark O'Donnell [from Quest/80 magazine, April 1980?]


To paraphrase the very smart Albert Einstein, "Things cannot be made simpler than they are." This inconvenient truth has curbed many a would-be nuclear potentate whose intellect was incommensurate with his appetite. Even though the hydrogen bomb plans promised in the Progressive were widely anticipated by disgruntled would-haves everywhere, the instructions for fusion offered in those pages were too complicated for the average basement and the intellect that works there. Truth, sadly, does not have falsehood's luxury of absolute clarity.

Aptitude and achievement need no longer be related, however. At the expense of a few frills like a speedometer or a reusable canister, you can build a simple but sincere fission bomb at home for a fraction of what it would cost to have a full-fledged fusion bomb catered.

First, wash your hands. A little stray grime or margarine in your hairs-breadth mechanisms and you may find yourself festooning several square miles of nearby woodland. Next, put the dog in the playroom to keep him from getting underfoot later. Now, let's review the basic building blocks of the universe.

All matter is composed of atoms, particles so small that they cannot be purchased individually. Look at your hand: what you're seeing is trillions of atoms traveling in what is called "hand formation". You will see a similar effect on your other hand and, to a lesser extent, on your feet.

Some matter is not quite as blessed with perimeters as you. Gases, for instance, often seem invisible--at least the good ones do--and yet they fully qualify as matter and even get the official newsletter. The important thing to remember is that matter can be neither created nor destroyed, though it can get very discouraged. Sometimes it can look destroyed (the "smithereens" effect), but it has merely been redistributed from here to kingdom come.

A nuclear bomb simulates destruction better than anything else going. Its enormous energy is released by tampering with atoms. This process is so complicated that many people become artists to avoid thinking about it. The stars in the sky, for example, are all huge, continually exploding natural hydrogen bombs, a fact songwriters never mention.

Whatever you do, don't confuse fusion with fission. They often get each other's mail, with complicated results. Fusion, also called the "caramel corn" or "Princeton alumni" syndrome, occurs when atoms of a light element are heated to the point at which they fuse into a single larger element. Hydrogen (a particularly airy one), for example, produces helium, anticlimactically enough. Conversely, fission occurs when a jumbo atom like uranium (which, to give it credit, moves very gracefully for its size) is split into smaller atoms that can then be fenced without raising police suspicion. Usually, however, the heat and energy released cause more atom-splitting and whizzing neutrons, starting an uncontrollable chain reaction that makes for world power and preferred seating at better restaurants.

Now then, check on the dog to make sure it isn't tearing up the pillows. Wash your hands again if you touched the dog, and return to work. To start with, be sure you have strong overhead light to avoid eyestrain on the detail work. Now clear away any stray tools and be on the lookout for Uranium 235, which may be hard to get if you don't have connections. Uranium 235 is an isotope of ordinary uranium, which means that it looks and acts like it's normal, but after a while you wake up and realize you've been living with a stranger. What's worse, U235 (as friends call it) cannot be coaxed from its constant, and for our purposes worthless, companion, U238, by any chemical means, and that includes alcohol. Physical means must be utilized, if you get my drift.

Shaken vigorously enough, your kitchen sieve can be used to "sift" the two strains apart. The method for this is offered in the new, revised, splotchproof edition of The Joy of Atomic Diffusion.

By and by, you will have a sizable mass of fissionable material. This is called your atomic "pile", or "mound". Keep it loosely packed--pressure, be forewarned, is just the sort of thing that elevates a bomb from uncritical to critical mass. Some people claim that "critical mass" refers to Luther's first Protestant service (these punsters should figure high on your hit list once the bomb is finished), but in fact critical mass is the bingo point that gets your mushroom-shaped show on the road. A juicer or hamburger press, with certain modifications such as dynamite, can be used to induce critical mass.

Pat the atomic mound into a generous, hollow sphere and frost it with conventional high explosives before canning. The bomb's outer case may look drab and metallic, so feel free to enliven it with colorful decals and graffiti like "Here Comes the Cavalry" or "From Kate Smith with Love". Bear in mind, of course, that your nuclear bomb will perforce be an experience for all ages, so moderate your decorations for family viewing.

There you have it. If money talks, an atomic bomb sings opera. You'll probably want to save your handiwork for a while before using it, or shop for a surplus B-52 to go with it. However, while you bask in the glow of your accomplishment (and any stray uranium), try to bear your new influence graciously. Keep yourself well-groomed, chew with your mouth closed, and express interest in your visitors' favorite sports and hobbies. No one likes a "show-off" nuclear power, and while it's true that you can now make anyone you want dance with you, yours won't be true popularity until the neighbors say, "Vernon, if anyone had to have the bomb, I'm glad it was you. Here's my weekly cash tribute."


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