Building an H-Bomb for Dummies

Last month a Swedish man, Richard Handl, was arrested while trying to build a nuclear reactor in his kitchen.  Here’s the fascinating BBC interview, in which Our Hero talks about his brush with surely the highest possible accolade in the Darwin Awards.  Even though Health and Safety jobsworths ruined the experiment, he just blows away his nearest competitor in The One Who Lived To Tell The Tale category, Lawnchair Larry.  Would it surprise you to know that Mr Handl is unemployed, with way too much time on his hands?  I can’t think of a better argument for full employment, so we can nip this sort of thing in the bud.

Handl is really quite proud of himself, judging by his blog, Richard’s Reactor.  Clearly this European has thrown down the gauntlet to America’s best and brightest, who must surely avenge the honour of Lawnchair Larry.  As a dual UK/US citizen, I feel obliged to give them a helping hand to go one better.  Here is a full-proof method for constructing an H-Bomb in the comfort of your own home, from an article published in 1979.  This is my original blog post from 2009.

Go for it, guys! Fuck, yeah!

How to Build an H-Bomb

Making and owning an H-bomb is the kind of challenge real Americans seek.  Who wants to be a passive victim of nuclear war when, with a little effort, you can be an active participant?  Bomb shelters are for losers.  Who wants to huddle together underground eating canned Spam?  Winners want to push the button themselves. Making your own H-bomb is a big step in nuclear assertiveness training — it’s called Taking Charge.  We’re sure you’ll enjoy the risks and the heady thrill of playing nuclear chicken.

Now then, just to be sure, and I apologize to those of you who spotted it right away, this is satire.  SA-TIRE.  But you can’t be too careful these days.  Barbara Ehrenreich was one of the co-authors.  Her blog tells how Binyam Mohamed was tortured in Pakistan, before getting banged up in Guantanamo, on the basis of having read this article.

Anyway, back in 1979, Seven Days magazine published How to Build an H-Bomb.  It became something of a cause celebre among those who care about freedom of expression, and later achieved cult status on the internet.  A sort of Great White Whale, much spoken of but rarely sighted.  When I came across it a while ago, I swore to publicize the article if ever I had a blog.

Obviously the political context has changed dramatically in terms of the actors, and the text shows its age, but has anything else really changed?  Take this quote:

Not that Seven Days supports nuclear terrorism.  We don’t.  We would prefer to die slowly from familiar poisons like low-level radiation, microwaves, DDT, DBCP, aflatoxins, PBBs, PBCs, or food dyes, rather than unexpectedly, say as hostage to a Latvian nationalist brandishing a homemade bomb.  In our view the real terrorists are the governments, American, Soviet, French, Chinese, and British, that are hoarding H-bombs for their own use, and worse still, those governments (U.S., French and German) that are eagerly peddling advanced nuclear technology to countries like South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina so that they can make their own bombs.

Some of the names have changed.  Not much else.

Again, here’s how you know it’s satire:

The heart of the successful H-Bomb is the successful A-Bomb.  Once you’ve got your A-Bombs made the rest is frosting on the cake.

If you find yourself dozing off while you’re working, or if you begin to glow in the dark, it might be wise to take a blood count.

To avoid ingesting plutonium orally follow this simple rule: never make an A-bomb on an empty stomach.

Here’s the article, How to Build an H-Bomb.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margins of Error

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, by Kathryn Schulz (Portobello Books, 2010)

This is an audacious book, dealing with that most common (and most frequently denied) state of mind, the experience of being wrong.  As a reporter, and a fine, eloquent writer, Kathryn Schulz brings the discipline of her craft to bear on a complex subject.  Where an expert might offer too narrow of an academic focus, or a philosopher chunter nebulously, Schulz employs the 5 Ws and the H to make sense of wrongness.

The Who, What, Why, Where and When are contemporary and historical examples of flat-out, incontrovertible wrongness, including some telling interviews and a few self-deprecating references to her own errors.  The How is comprised of the various theories of wrongness propounded by the philosophical, evolutionary, physiological, cognitive and social disciplines.  Taken together, they shed a revealing light both on the subject and how we humans like to think of it.

Kathryn Schulz

The analysis is based on “Two Models of Wrongness” in the second chapter.  Concerned mostly with theory, I found it less than riveting in places, but it does enhance and underpin both the argument and enjoyment of the rest of the book.

Briefly put, the pessimistic model says that mistakes or errors are deviations from a perceived Immutable Truth, and are therefore correspondingly heinous and shameful.  You can see that this might play well with religious and political fundamentalists of all stripes.  The optimistic model says that error is the driving force in both evolution and social and personal growth.  Only by trial and error do we progress as a species or create better, happier societies and individuals.

Being Wrong comes down firmly on the side of the optimistic model, ending with the indispensable role of error in science, art and humour.  Rather than being a polemic, however, it brings together a great deal of supporting evidence for this view, while being fully aware of the siren allure of certainty.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  It made me think deeply about some of my own bedrock convictions.  Coincidentally, I read it during the controversy over the shootings in Tuscon, and it tempered some of my knee-jerk reactions to that tragic event.

Also coincidentally, the Guardian just published an article in Comment Is Free about the importance of uncertainty and failure in science.  Well worth reading.

I can’t do better than close with a quote from Tristan Tzara, founder of Dada:

Let us try for once not to be right.