The A-Bomb Kid

Ben Gillman
May 30, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2019


Fig. 1: President Truman signs the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 into law. (Courtesy of the DOE Source: Wikimedia Commons)

After World War 2, the U.S. government recognized the need for tight control over nuclear energy. [1] There was a movement to expand the knowledge about nuclear energy and use it for commercial purposes, but in order for this to happen the materials for and knowledge about bomb making needed to be tightly controlled. In 1946 President Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act, as seen in Fig. 1, to begin this process and establish the Atomic Energy Commission. [1] The act was revised in 1954 to further advance the commercial nuclear energy industry, and more tightly control civilian access to nuclear materials and information. [1]

The A-Bomb Kid

John Aristotle Phillips was an undergraduate physics student at Princeton University in 1976. [2] He grew up in North Haven, Connecticut, spent two years at the University of California, Berkeley, and then transferred to Princeton. For a term paper in a class during his junior year, Phillips sought to show that nuclear weapons could fall into enemy hands much more easily than people thought. Using just nuclear engineering textbooks and 2 publicly available government documents, Phillips was able to design a nuclear bomb as a part of his paper, and therefore show that any terrorist group or energy nation would be able build a nuclear bomb without classified information. [2] Phillips's bomb design was assessed by nuclear physicist Frank Chilton as very likely to work, and Phillips was quoted as saying, "Its very simple. Any undergraduate physics major could have done what I did." [2]

Phillips's work was concerning to the federal government, who withheld page 20 of his paper, which is the method he came up with for the type of high-explosive component needed to trigger the nuclear blast. [2] The FBI also confiscated the mockup of the bomb he had in his dorm room. Besides the government, Phillips also attracted a lot of attention in the press, which gave him the moniker "The A-Bomb Kid." Phillips had not accessed any secret information in order to design his bomb, but the government had the right to restrict the information anyway because of the "born secret" doctrine of the Atomic Energy Act. The born secret doctrine is a permanent gag order established to restrict all public discussion of an entire subject matter, in this case nuclear weapons. [3] There is currently nothing like it anywhere else in American law, where discussion of publicly obtained information is illegal.


John Aristotle Phillips gained a lot of attention for his term paper that showed making a nuclear bomb wasn't as difficult to learn as previously thought. He attracted new scrutiny to the difficulty of controlling nuclear information, even information that isn't ill-gotten. As the government today has to deal with the control of secret technology besides nuclear weapons, maybe they should look to the born secret doctrine as a way to combat the spread of information about chemical weapons, gene editing diseases, or cyber attacks.

© Ben Gillman. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. Gaertner "The Atomic Energy Act," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[2] R. Rein "A Princeton Tiger Designs An Atomic Bomb in a Physics Class," People Magazine, 25 Oct 76.

[3] H. Morland "Born Secret," Cardozo Law Review 26, No. 4, 1401 (2005).