Via Boing Boing:
Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things
Sam Cohen might have remained relatively unknown, troubled by ethical lapses in government and the military but unable to do anything about them, if he had not visited Seoul in 1951, during the Korean war. In the aftermath of bombing sorties he witnessed scenes of intolerable devastation. Civilians wandered like zombies through the ruins of a city in which all services had ceased. Children were drinking water from gutters that were being used as sewers. “I’d seen countless pictures of Hiroshima by then,” Cohen recalls, “and what I saw in Seoul was precious little different. . . . The question I asked of myself was something like: If we’re going to go on fighting these damned fool wars in the future, shelling and bombing cities to smithereens and wrecking the lives of their surviving inhabitants, might there be some kind of nuclear weapon that could avoid all this?”
Here was a singularly odd idea: To re-engineer the most inhumane and destructive weapon of all time, so that it would _reduce_ human suffering. Cohen’s unique achievement was to prove that this could in fact be done.
His first requirement was that wars should be fought as they had been historically, confining their damage to military combatants while towns and cities remained undamaged and their civilian inhabitants remained unscathed. This concept seemed quaint in a new era where everyone and everything was at risk of being vaporized in a nuclear exchange, but Cohen saw no reason why nukes had to be massively destructive. Technology existed to make them so small, they could cause less damage than even some conventional weapons.
Ideally he wanted to reduce blast damage to zero, to eliminate the wholesale demolition of civilian housing, services, and amenities that he had witnessed in Seoul. He saw a way to achieve this if a fusion reaction released almost all of its energy as radiation. Moreover, if this radiation consisted of neutrons, which carry no charge, it would not poison the environment with residual radioactivity.
The bomb would still kill people–but this was the purpose of all weapons. _If_ wars were liable to recur (which Cohen thought was probable), soldiers were going to use weapons of some kind against each other, and everyone would benefit if the weapons minimized pain and suffering while ending the conflict as rapidly as possible.
Cohen came up with a design for a warhead about one-tenth as powerful as the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. If it was detonated at 3,000 feet above ground level, its blast effects would be negligible while its neutron radiation would be powerful enough to cause death within a circle about one mile in diameter. This was the battlefield weapon that came to be known as the neutron bomb.