Autobiography of Plastic

I’ve decided to blog this book as I write it. So yo, here’s chapter one.

Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1950: Two men stand in a sparse office—a metal desk and two chairs—arguing over pages of hastily written calculations. Veterans of the effort to develop the atomic bomb, physicist Edward Teller and mathematician Stan Ulam have labored for months over its successor, a so-called “super” bomb that would eclipse the a-bomb in explosive force.

The two differ widely in looks and aspect. Teller is dark and volatile; Ulam cool and elegant. But both men are feeling the pressure: The Soviet Union took the U.S. by surprise the previous August with the explosion of Joe I, its first atomic weapon. Anxious to regain the upper hand in the nuclear arms race, President Truman launched a crash program at Los Alamos to develop a fusion super bomb.

The work has not gone well. The design for a fusion bomb, dreamed up by Teller even before the atomic bombs came to life, has proven a failure. Mathematical models generated by ENIAC, the world’s first computer, confirm the picture emerging from weeks of arduous hand calculations: Teller’s design will fizzle, failing to ignite a thermonuclear reaction—the kind that powers the sun—for the first time on planet Earth.

Calculations, discussions and arguments continue over several months, the pressure steadily building. Then, in early 1951, Ulam makes a breakthrough: He envisions a completely new design for a thermonuclear bomb, involving two nuclear devices instead of one. What would come to be known as the “Teller-Ulam configuration,” a two-stage thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb, remains the standard for nuclear weapons, each one capable of flattening a city.

The key to making this new design work: Plastic. The Los Alamos scientists determined they could use a fission explosion (basically an atomic bomb) to heat a layer of dense plastic foam surrounding thermonuclear material. The explosion would heat the plastic to a million degrees in an instant, generating enough heat and pressure to spark a fusion reaction.

The polyethylene the scientists hit upon was a relatively new material, produced on an industrial basis for the first time during World War II to insulate wires in radar sets. Americans in the 1950s would come to know it in the form of shrink wrap and hula hoops.

The result of the Teller-Ulam design, just over a year later, was Mike–the world’s first thermonuclear device. Tested at Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific on November 1, 1952, Mike exploded with the force of a thousand Hiroshima bombs.


Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 767-778.

______, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 301-323, 382-408, 415-424, 456-479, 482-512.

Neal Cohen, “Sixty Years of Trying to Control the Bomb,” Talk of the Nation (National Public Radio, 2005), particularly the reference by former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Sig Hecker to two-stage thermonuclear weapons as the main part of the U.S. and Russian arsenals.

History of polyethylene:

Popular Mechanics July 1949 issue on polyethylene