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The Nuclear Death of a Nuclear Scientist

By Barrie Zwicker

 

"PERHAPS IT IS MERCIFUL that minds can be immunized against dread. But in the circumstances it is also dangerous. And so it seems well, from time to time, to recall such events as may serve to keep comprehension fresh and exquisite. Among these events may be counted the last days of Dr. Louis A. Slotin, physicist and biochemist who was born in Winnipeg in 1910 and who died in the secret atomic city of Los Alamos at the age of 35."

These are the words of writer Barbara Moon, from an article which appeared in the October 1961 issue of Maclean's and won the President's Medal as the top magazine piece in Canada that year.

Courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory (Dr. Louis A. Slotin)

Dr. Louis A. Slotin

The article is at least as significant and timely today as it was then. Because there remains ignorance of, or denial of, the intimate effects on the human body of the burst of radiation emitted in the eighth nanosecond of a nuclear bomb detonation, we reprint edited excerpts from "The Nuclear Death of a Nuclear Scientist."

*    *    *    *

HE WAS A STUDIOUS, self-possessed, bespectacled little boy. At The University of Manitoba he grew into a brilliant student of chemistry, with a particular knack for designing the swift, imaginative experiment that would test a theory, and for improvising the necessary apparatus. He also grew into a seemly youth, reserved and quiet but with a quizzical air that lent him poise, and also what a friend later called "a romantic and elaborate view of himself and the world." He earned his doctorate at The University of London and at the same time turned himself into a crack bantamweight boxer.

*    *    *

By the age of 30, in the laboratory with his colleagues, he was a leader. At lunch with them he would neglect his food while he talked, reaching among the flatware with his finely shaped, expressive hands, smoothing out a paper napkin, covering it with diagrams . . .

*    *    *

In 1944 he was recruited to Los Alamos . . . After a time there he became, in effect, chief armorer of the United States.

*    *    *

Courtest Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory and townstire. Snow-filled Valley Grande appears upper centre.

In the glove compartment of his cream Dodge convertible Slotin kept something that looked like a hydroelectric bill. It was the receipt made out by the U.S. Army when it took delivery from him of the epochal A-bomb core, the first one, tested at Alamogordo. For Slotin's job, along with some others, was to run final tests on the active core of each precious A-bomb to make sure it would produce the explicit nuclear burst it was supposed to.

*    *    *

TUESDAY, May 21, 1946
The day was clear and sunny, like most days at Los Alamos. At noon (Slotin) lunched on chili con carne at the Technical Area PX with his friend and colleague Philip Morrison, a brilliant young theoretical physicist with a bright impudent face and a crippled leg.

*    *    *

It was around 3 o'clock . . . in a bare, white-painted room, unfurnished except for the sparse, unimposing equipment of critical assembly tests. They watched as Slotin set up the experiment on the centre table.

*    *    *

The assembly was a nickel-plated core of plutonium, weighing about 13 pounds, in the form of two hemispheres which, when put together, rather resembled a gray metallic curling stone. They were the active guts of one of the three A-bombs due to be shipped to Bikini for Operation Crossroads.

The plutonium rested in a half-shell of beryllium, a metal that can bounce escaping neutrons back into the mass of an active metal so they are conserved for the fission process . . . (and) there was a matching upper half-shell of beryllium.

The technique of this experiment consisted of lowering this upper shell until it almost met the lower shell . . . A slow, controlled chain reaction would start. But . . . if the two half-shells came to within an eighth of an inch of each other — thus making a critical surplus of neutrons available simultaneously — a fast, uncontrolled reaction called a "prompt burst" would ensue.

*    *    *

. . . this time the assembly didn't perform according to Hoyle. So Slotin improvised. What Slotin did was to remove two tiny safety devices — spacers — that served to block the upper beryllium hemisphere from closing absolutely on the lower one. Instead he lowered one side (of the upper shell) onto the blade of a screwdriver . . .

*    *    *

At exactly 3:20 Graves heard a click as the screwdriver blade escaped the crack and the beryllium shell came down on the rest of the assembly. In the same moment a blue glow surrounded the assembly; those in the room felt a quick flux of heat. That was all.

*    *    *

. . . Slotin . . . (dropped) the beryllium shell onto the floor. It was still 3:20 and he had just been killed.

*    *    *

Slotin had vomited once, in the ambulance on the way to the Los Alamos hospital. By 6:30 p.m. his left hand was fat and reddened.

*    *    *

That night Morrison, who had seen the aftermath of Hiroshima, consulted workmen in the special machine shop attached to the lab and together they began to invent a contrivance with a book-rack to stretch across a hospital bed, strings to clip to every page of a book, a ratchet system to turn the pages and a switch to invoke the ratchet. The switch was placed so it could be operated by the reader's elbow. It was a reading-machine — for someone who was not going to have hands to use.

*    *    *

WEDNESDAY, May 22
By the afternoon, 24 hours after the accident, Slotin's left hand was distended till the skin looked as though it would burst; the right hand, too, was swollen. By Wednesday night the first of the huge, tightly swollen blisters had formed . . .

*    *    *

FRIDAY, May 24
By now morphine and ice packs could no longer control the pain in Slotin's dying hands. He was getting daily blood transfusions — friends lined up from the clinic door to the street to give blood. Morrison was coming whenever he could to read aloud to Slotin . . . Wives of colleagues brought sheaves of garden gladioli.

*    *    *

SATURDAY, May 25
When Slotin's parents arrived, he was still in the phase of apparent latency and was sitting up to greet them. . . . Slotin made light of his condition. But (his mother), who touched his hair, exclaimed: "It's stiff and dry, like wire."

*    *    *

SUNDAY, May 26
Annamae Dickie, the nurse in charge of the blood studies, did her routine count of white cells in the blood and burst into tears. The count had plummeted. The white cells — the lifesavers in the blood — had stopped reproducing themselves and were dying. Slotin was still coherent and alert.

*    *    *

MONDAY, May 27
"The fifth and sixth days (Sunday and Monday) were evidently very hard ones," Morrison wrote in a letter describing the course of Slotin's illness to their colleagues in the field.

Slotin passed quickly into a toxic state; his temperature and pulse rate rose rapidly; his abdomen became stiff and distended; his gastrointestinal system broke down completely; all his skin turned to a deep angry puce. His body was dissolving into protoplasmic debris.

*    *    *

TUESDAY, May 28
The platelets in the blood, which govern its healthy clotting, suffered a fateful drop. "This was a sure sign of the onset of the hemorrhagic phase," wrote Morrison.

*    *    *

WEDNESDAY, May 29
Slotin was already having periods of mental confusion and by Wednesday was in delirium. His lips turned blue and he was placed in an oxygen tent. By nightfall he had passed into coma.

*    *    *

THURSDAY, May 30
At 11 a.m. — the ninth day after the accident — Louis Slotin died.

Courtesy Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada
Dr. Louis A. Slotin died in the townsite hospital at Los Alamos.

 

Pubslished in SOURCES Summer 83

 



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