Seniors, here’s a thesis idea: how to build an operable atomic bomb.
Although it was a junior term paper and not his senior thesis, John Aristotle Phillips ’78 did just that.
A less than lackluster student and Tiger mascot, the physics major came across the paper idea as he was trying to think of ways he could not fail out of his seminar about nuclear disarmament. Over the course of a few weeks, Phillips consulted only publicly available material, like physics textbooks and government releases.
He even figured a simplistic way around the hardest and most complex part of making an atomic bomb– the detonation trigger. The final result: a 40-page guide to building an atomic weapon “more sophisticated than the Hiroshima bomb”. A little scary isn’t it?
It seems people at the time thought it was too, because the story went viral (in the newspaper-y, pre-internet sort of way) and people from California to Maine starting talking about the “A-Bomb Kid.” A 2003 article about Phillips describes the chaos like this:
“I remember telling him I would give him an A for it,” Dyson [Phillip’s professor] e-mails me, “but advised him to burn it as soon as the grade was registered.” Phillips was spared the trouble of procuring matches: The U.S. government kept his term paper and classified it. Soon Phillips was pursued by hack journalists and trench-coaters alike: The Pakistani embassy tried to get a copy; agents trailed him; the FBI and CIA got involved. Everything exploded.”
An alumnus who graduated eight years before Phillips, remembers the story first hand:
“Nobody around at the time will ever forget him. The perfect poster wonk for the Cold War, he brought out the combined confusion and frustration of the post-Vietnam era via the bold and breathtakingly insightful act of … submitting his term paper.”
And in case you were curious, Phillips did end up getting an A in the class.
So seniors, as you continue (or, for you bad procrastinators, begin) writing your senior theses, try to beat out the A-Bomb Kid for the wackiest thesis ever.