On the Trail of Red Mercury
The most elusive substance in pop culture also purports to be one of the most destructive.
Today's story is going to take us on about as wide ranging a journey as we've ever had: from ancient Egypt to the labs of the Manhattan Project to the caves of Afghanistan. We're tracking down the most elusive substance in pop culture: red mercury. Some say it's the most powerful explosive ever designed, some say it's a miracle health product, some say it doesn't exist at all. I will give this spoiler: the one thing we can say for certain about red mercury is that the truth about it is far, far stranger than the fiction. So buckle up for a wild ride.
Before we get into what red mercury is, let's be clear on what it isn't. The term would most obviously seem to apply to cinnabar (mercury sulfide), the bright red mineral ore that's mined to get mercury. But it's definitely not this. The term itself has been around since at least the late 1970s — there doesn't seem to be any verifiable specific origin of the term — and ever since, it's been claimed to be just about anything. It's even associated with ancient Egypt, with some people believing that it was the name of a powerful elixir placed in the mouths of mummies. Others describe it as a substance used to summon Arabian spirits called jinn. Some believe it is sourced from bat guano, and this has been used as a starting point for a whole YouTube subculture of hoax videos showing red substances exhibiting all kinds of vampire-like powers.
But those YouTube videos are about as close as anyone's ever gotten to it. Nobody's ever seen it, touched it, or possessed a sample of it — at least, not a sample that's ever passed scrutiny. But red mercury is not just a modern Internet hoax, and it's not just an urban legend. It has been discussed at the highest levels of government and the military on both sides of the cold war, and it is its reputation as a unique weapons component that has given red mercury a life of its own. It has been speculated that red mercury could be a code name for a compound that has nothing to do with mercury, so discussions of what the actual element mercury can or cannot do are of little use in evaluating the legend.
Belief in the reality of red mercury has a darker side, too. According to Landmine Action, a London-based nonprofit, belief in red mercury has spread to the poor populations of some African countries like Angola and Namibia, where decades of civil war have left the landscape dotted with land mines:
As reports of red mercury have been coming out of international black markets for illegal arms since the late 1970s, officials have had their hands somewhat forced in having to pay attention to it — even though they know it's not real. Most of these cases are probably just con artists selling a fake product to unsophisticated buyers, but even this spectral presence in the news is enough to continue fueling the fire of belief among today's alternative science proponents and conspiracy theorists.
There is one principle reason why many such people today still insist on the reality of red mercury, and that reason is found in the person of Samuel T. Cohen. Cohen, who died in 2010, was one of the original Manhattan Project physicists who created the atomic bombs that ended World War II. Cohen is sometimes nicknamed the "father of the neutron bomb", an undeveloped type of low-yield tactical battlefield nuke optimized for maximum lethal neutron emission but minimum destructive force. Cohen's experience and knowledge of what nuclear devices can and can't do was matched by very few people in the world. In the 1990s when he was in his seventies, Cohen became a vocal claimant that red mercury was a real substance. This endorsement from a universally acknowledged expert in the field is what — more than anything else — has been driving belief in red mercury for three decades.
Cohen asserted that red mercury was of a class of compounds called ballotechnics — substances which convert shockwaves to extreme heat. When you make a thermonuclear bomb, it's necessary to subject a thermonuclear core (called the secondary) to the intense heat and pressure we can only get from an atomic bomb (called the primary). Atomic bombs are big and complicated. But with high-enough yield ballotechnic material, those same conditions could be created simply, theoretically allowing thermonuclear bombs that you could hold in the palm of your hand. This would be a so-called "pure-fusion" device: a wave of lethal neutrons from the fusion bomb, but no infrastructure-destroying blast from a fission bomb. In a 2003 editorial, Cohen wrote:
Despite Cohen's impeccable credentials, pretty much every other physicist on the planet has said "No way" to his scientific claims for what the alleged compound could do. The actual energy released by even a perfect ballotechnic would be several orders of magnitude too weak to trigger fusion.
One school of thought is that red mercury may have began as a propaganda campaign by the Soviet Union during the cold war, to frighten the Americans into thinking that they could deliver pocket-sized nukes anywhere in the world at any time without detection. This is a reasonable theory, and it's a certainty that the Soviets were, at a minimum, perfectly happy that particular rumor was out there.
Today, post cold war, it's possible that an updated version of this campaign exists, only this time it's American intelligence leveraging belief in red mercury to entrap terrorists trying to get their hands on a nuke. Whether it's a deliberate campaign or not, it's working. In 2011, an American explosives task force in Afghanistan was given two canisters of red mercury obtained from European special forces. Specialists from the United States went to Bagram Air Base where the canisters were examined. One contained ordinary mercury, the other was empty.
Even more frightening is that actual terrorists are actively engaged in trying to get their hands on it. Inspired by a 2013 news report from Turkey that three men had been arrested with a "red mercury rocket warhead", an arms buyer for the Islamic State codenamed "The Crocodile" placed an order for red mercury with a price cap of $4 million. The dealer he ordered it from tried for more than a year to find some. If you want to identify and entrap terrorists, hanging out a sign for red mercury might not be the worst idea.
For his part, Samuel Cohen was very clear that he believed a formal disinformation campaign existed around red mercury, only he believed it was the other way around; the Americans knew it was real, but they claimed that it wasn't. Cohen blamed his former colleagues at Los Alamos for leading this campaign:
However, Cohen's conspiracy theory fails to pass skeptical scrutiny. There is absolutely no benefit in trying to suppress the existence of a material that is already possessed by both sides in a conflict; indeed, in order to effectively use it or defend against it, people would need to be trained and procedures developed. This is to say nothing of the logistical improbability of operating a suppression conspiracy that would span both the American and Russian governments and militaries, plus the manufacturing contractors, materials scientists worldwide, professors and their staffs at universities worldwide, and branches of both militaries that would be armed with these weapons. Most illogically of all, if the world governments were indeed successfully and cooperatively executing this suppression campaign, why would they have allowed Cohen to freely speak and write about it for three decades?
This suggests a tantalizing possibility: Was Cohen himself part of an American disinformation campaign by the intelligence community that promoted the reality of red mercury to entrap terrorists? Nowhere in any literature could I find any discussion of this possibility, and certainly nothing like a confession by him or any evidence of it. But this scenario does fit a number of the facts. Although Cohen suffered quite a bit of professional ridicule for his red mercury beliefs, he was also a peacenik; and may well have considered his own personal reputation a worthwhile trade for the capture of terrorists. In addition, Cohen's expertise on nukes was sufficient that he should have known the claims he was making did not pass scientific muster. Yet, those few qualified to contradict his science also knew that he had worked in programs shrouded in the utmost secrecy. If you were running such an entrapment campaign for the CIA, you could hardly hope for a better plant than Sam Cohen.
I asked my friend Dr. Vince Houghton about this possibility. Vince is the curator and historian at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC. His thoughts?
This sentiment was broadly shared by many in Cohen's professional community. In regards to his constant talk about far-out suppression conspiracies, nonproliferation analyst Jeffrey Lewis told The New York Times Magazine:
And yet today's true believers in red mercury always cite Cohen as proof. All articles and essays on the substance mention Cohen, and most make no mention of the fact that his claims were in any way controversial. As not only an advocate for red mercury, but an effective one at that, Cohen simply works.
Thus, red mercury will remain indelibly printed in the book of urban legends. Nothing feeds a rumor like a dash of fact, and this particular one is so self-perpetuating that it will continue to produce factual news. At least the true science shows that we don't have to worry too much about pocket neutron bombs.
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