Did You Know? Sexism and the Atomic Bomb.

February 10, 2009 § 4 Comments

Sexism, as many of you know, doesn’t just hurt women. It destroys and hinders all kinds of great discoveries – personal, political, and everything in between.

Take this example from a great New Yorker article that ran December ’08:

After Little Boy and Fat Man (our country’s first atomic bombs) were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, our government worked really hard to keep the inner workings and dimensions of those weapons a secret.

Researchers who believed that such information should be made public, such as 61-year-old John Coster-Mullen, worked tirelessly for years trying to discover and publish all of the measurements and mechanics of these early nuclear weapons. 

John Coster-Mullen was not a scientist. In fact, he didn’t have a college degree at all. He worked as a commercial photographer for a part of his life and later on he took up work as a truck driver. But through the careful analysis of public records, national archives, old pictures, and museum recreations of the bomb, he managed to create one of the most comprehensive and accurate reports in existence about nuclear technology. 

One of Coster-Mullen’s biggest breakthroughs came when he considered what the scientific community referred to as the “sex” of the bombs. New Yorker journalist David Samuels writes: 

In the standard historical accounts, the way that the bomb’s gun mechanism worked was by shooting a cylindrical “male” uranium projectile into a concave, stationary uranium target. This act of atomic coitus created a mass sufficient to produce a critical reaction. But no matter how many times Coster-Mullen did the math, the numbers never quite worked out…The source of error, Coster-Mullen realized, was an assumption that every (male) researcher who studied the subject had made about the relation between projectile and target. These scholars had apparently been unable to conceive of an arrangement other than a “missionary position” bomb…But Coster-Mullen realized that a female-superior arrangement – in which a hollow projectile slammed down on top of a stationary cylinder of highly enriched uranium – yielded the correct size and mass. 

In short, an “uneducated” truck driver solved a HUGE scientific mystery because he could see past all of the sexist and heteronormative bullshit that is, unfortunately, so entrenched in scientific thinking. 

So props to you, John Coster-Mullen, for using your street smarts and feminist ideals to beat out all those lab coats who were trying to figure out the exact same mystery.

Another cool thing about Coster-Mullen: Born John Mullen, he changed his name to Coster-Mullen after marrying his wife, Mary Coster. Rock on. 


§ 4 Responses to Did You Know? Sexism and the Atomic Bomb.

  • AL says:

    great piece. you should read “The Mis-measure of Man” by Stephen Jay Gould. it explores sexism in early science.

  • Qubit says:

    I kept help but think that the scientists who made the bomb probably inspired by the American government deliberately gave the wrong information to make it more difficult to reconstruct. To give a basic idea of the science behind the technique without giving a clear enough view to build one seems logical to me.

  • zooeyibz says:

    Huh? If I understand this aright he merely figured out, after the fact, the method the Los Alamos scientists used to trigger the bomb. Okay, so he’s a bit clever, but that doesn’t make him a feminist hero. Who really gives a shit how they loaded the gun that murdered an entire population of innocent civilians?

    Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a moral and historic disgrace. To celebrate any part of that saga is a travesty. The only thing that ever need be said about the atomic bombs were that they were evil.

  • gingerlady says:

    I know that nothing positive came from our attacks on Japan, but to say that historic disgraces should not be studied is just wrong, in my opinion. The destructive forces of nuclear weapons SHOULD be discussed precisely because of their terrible abilities. Their secrets shouldn’t be celebrated, but that wasn’t the point of my post. I just wanted to point out an instance of sexism in the scientific community. Coster-Mullen (as far as I know) is no feminist hero, but his story can give us some great insights into feminism’s transformative and awesome powers.

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