Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

That Baffling Last Act

December 2nd, 2010 · 11 Comments

Perhaps I am bucking for a karmic penalty here, but let me take a brief moment to speak slightly ill of the dead. Neutron-bomb inventor Samuel T. Cohen, who passed away four days ago, was always a controversial figure, and not just because of his role in the atomic-weapons industry. As previously highlighted on Microkhan, Cohen was prone to making wildly exaggerated statements about his own genius and importance, and he obviously operated with a massive chip on his shoulder. But even Cohen opponents could not deny his technical brilliance—the Cold War-era RAND Corporation didn’t tap dummies for its inner circle.

Cohen may have longed to be regarded as an equal of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, but he did his legacy no favors in his waning years by constantly spouting off about a substance of dubious provenance: red mercury:

In recent years, Mr. Cohen prominently warned of a black market substance called red mercury, supposedly capable of compressing fusion materials to detonate a nuclear device as small as a baseball — ideal for terrorists. Most scientists call the substance mythical, and stories about it, many circulating on the Internet, are widely regarded as spurious.

Indeed, red mercury last made news two summers ago, when rumors swirled around Saudi Arabia that the substance was embedded in Singer sewing machines. Before that, it figured prominent in several smuggling hoaxes centered in the former Soviet Union. Cohen’s insistence on the veracity of the red mercury threat is akin to Freeman Dyson suddenly warning the world about the illicit admantium trade.

The question, then, is why a man of Cohen’s obvious intellectual prowess could be so easily duped by hokum. And I have to wonder whether his gullibility was simply a product of the aging process, which has been known to diminish critical thinking skills far more than ambition. Cohen wanted to stay relevant, and that meant finding a crusade that would set him in opposition to the establishment that had never embraced his life’s work. Unfortunately, Cohen settled on a cause of little worth, perhaps because the years had worn away his mental acuity. (He doesn’t appear to have embraced the red-mercury issue until his late 70s.)

This isn’t the first time that an accomplished, outspoken figure has tarnished their legacy by touting false theories in their golden years. Cohen’s tale reminds me of the final years of Pierre Salinger, the former White House official whose name is now synonymous with conspiratorial nuttiness. Sad stuff, but I do understand the impulse. No one wants to admit that their heyday is over, and so they grasp for ways to stay in the conversation. And that can lead to really poor decisions by otherwise brilliant folks.


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11 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Linus Pauling is a local example of that phenomenon. He was absolutely brilliant and made critical contributions to numerous fields of science, but his belief that astronomical doses of vitamin C have all sorts of health benefits is pretty dubious, though it’s been seized upon by a certain segment of the alternative medicine community.

  • Gramsci

    I believe Elaine Scarry, an absolutely brilliant English professor at Harvard, was also wrapped up in the TWA 800 theory-mongering. I don’t think it was because she was desperate to stay in the conversation. If anything, she risked collegial mockery by venturing upon that terrain (had she probed the hegemonic discourse of upright seats and tray tables and its role in global poverty that would have been different).

    I would submit that such people are “prey” to conspiracy because it closely resembles the material that has driven their intellectual pursuits– oblique, suggestive, requiring creative insight to overcome “commonsense” objections. We can’t have “outside the box” thinking and always have the results fit back inside. Elaine Scarry has written fantastic stuff on the Army Training Manual and torture, precisely because she wades past a great deal of institutional cant in order to expose jarring implications for what torture does to someone.
    I think all dispositions of thought have a tragic side– an aspect that both propels a thinker and spells doom.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: That’s a good one. Any sense of when he developed those ideas about Vitamin C? Was it late in life, or something he touted all along?

    @Gramsci: Great comment and observations re: the double-edged nature of genius. You’ve actually inspired me to go back and look at Scarry’s comments on Flight 800. I wonder if she ever retreated from her initial assertions.

  • Jordan

    It was definitely later in life. I’m guessing the fear of decrepitude and death had something to do with it.

  • guido

    he would say you no more slightly allow an old man his fantasies in his senility years as the world treated his neutron bomb as senility in it’s earliness of non acceptance from the powers that pulled the strings of bureaucracy .only time will tell if the neutron bomb would have been the savior of the world :a bomb that would kill all living things and the victors would have to Waite for the rotting flesh be eaten by bugs carrion eaters Waite a little while and let others know that you would be the one to lay claim to all the intact infrastructure and would Waite gladly for the dead to rot to reclaim any and all assets that would remain unharmed and should another retort to try to steal the goods they will get neutralized by the neutron also that would only take one other to try then won;t ever happen unless there is a coalition formed then it would self destruct because the coalition would think it is invincible and only end up shooting each other
    the world would be a better place had any country actually used Mr Cohen neutron bomb. it would not have mattered what country it was that used it ALL the other countries that had one or some would have saw the human factor as a heave deterrent to ever use that technology again
    war is won when one nation defeats another nation and takes everything that the vanquished owned down to the children and women that survive which won’t be many with a neutron bomb as only the infrastructure is left intact

    honorable microkhan, one day you will pass that threshold of senility and death, if you have not already

    as you know, there are the dead and those that don’t know they are dead just as the senile are in the same situation,

  • scottstev

    Would Ramsey Clark be considered a good candidate? He late devolution into defending anyone horrendous that happened to be opposed to the US is certainly wacky. There is a principled case to be made for providing a vigorous defense, but I think Clark moved passed that into unthinking anti-Americanism.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: This prompted me to go back and read Clark’s bio. I see your point, but I think his transformation has been more gradual and complete than what I’m describing above. The pivot seems to have happened very early in the 1970s, when he became a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War (even going so far as to pull a Jane Fonda and visit Hanoi). Since then, as you note, he’s become totally dedicated to defending monstrous criminals. By contrast, talking about red mercury wasn’t Sam Cohen’s main gig–just a weirdo side project.

    What I’d like to know about Clark is what happened between 1968 and 1972 that sent him down the path he’s been on ever since. Was there a singe event that spurred his conversion?

  • scottstev

    @Brendan, point taken Ramsey’s was a gradual evolution of worldview. How about Peter Arnett ? I hate to keep coming up with conservative bogeymen, but this stuff was the mother’s milk I was raised on.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @scottstev: Arnett’s a good one, though I think the Iraq interview is a less serious aberration than the Operation Tailwind piece. I wonder if Arnett has any regrets about that episode, or still believes that the American military used sarin against its own soldiers.

  • Stephen C. Voss

    Does anyone know if Sam Cohen received “The Medal of Peace” from Pope John Paul II for his invention of the neutron bomb (I prefer to call it
    “High Energy Weapon”)? I’m beginning the research to find out. A priest representative of the Papal Nunciate in New York, referred to me by the Vatican Embassy in Washington, told me he doubts it, and it was either an award of a Papal fan club or one of the trinkets you get for having an audience with the Pope.

    Exploring his doubts (what’s the difference between a bullet and a neutron?) he said the neutron was “indiscriminate”. We discussed the fact that before the massive firebombings of European cities in WW II the residents were warned to leave.

    In the case of the Neutron High Energy Weapon (now dubbed here by me the NHEW, pronounced “new, or “knew”, or “nyou”)
    a military contingent could surround a quarter mile perimiter and tell everybody to leave, vetting the people as they left. Sort out the bad guys as they leave and the drop the little one after a decent interval Clear out the bodies and the residents could return to their homes and a normal life in a matter of days. Voila: a novel counter-insurgency strategy.

    Forget the “nuttiness” of Red Mercury, the Neutron HEW was certainly one of the most humane warfare inventions of all time. Reagan built 700. Colin Powell ordered them disassembled. The Neutron HEW could very well lead to slashing the world’s defense budgets and trade in weapons by 90% or more. Think what could be done for mankind with that money. Am I nutty about this?

    Looking for arguments to the contrary! Don’t want to venture out half-cocked. Maybe it doesn’t take a hundred thousand troops and all those casualties in Afghanistan. Mountain caves would be easy to clear. Who lives there?

    Email me or post it here, or both please.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Stephen C. Voss: Read this earlier post re: Cohen’s claims about the Vatican award. I’m pretty well convinced that it didn’t happen:


    Don’t think dropping an atomic weapon on Afghanistan is likely to solve our problems, regardless of whether or not we kill bin Laden in the process. Remember, our supposed goal there is to establish a stable democracy with moral legitimacy. Using nukes would completely undermine that enterprise.