On a rainy afternoon a few years ago, I spent some time at my favorite DFW-area coffee shop, Buon Giorno, while waiting for my flight to somewhere. I ended up spending an hour conversing with a total stranger—a grey-haired retired consultant who shared a love of books and a similarly broad range of interests. He recommended a couple good books, including this one, which I eventually found in a used book store.
This is the self-reported story of John Aristotle Phillips, who achieved national fame by designing an atomic bomb as his Junior physics project at Princeton University during the height of the Cold War. Phillips had deep philosophical concerns with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the relatively weak safeguards around fissionable materials. Although he was a below-average physics student, he set out to design a working atomic bomb using only declassified materials and the basic knowledge available to him as an undergraduate physics student. He succeeded in this task, and the popular attention his effort got helped to achieve one of his primary aims: improving protections measures around nuclear materials.
This book is about more than just designing an atomic bomb. It is also a rollicking ride through the life of an enterprising Ivy League university student during the Seventies, and an insightful representation of the nature of sudden mass popularity and its effects on life and relationships.
I would rate this a solid 3.5/5. Although not a literary classic or an important philosophical work, Phillips and co-author Michaelis produce a fun retelling of an important footnote in the history of nuclear weapons non-proliferation as well as a great almost-too-good-to-be-true story of a college kid in the 1970’s caught up in his own fame and popularity.