Louis Slotin

General Physics, Subatomic Particles, Optics, Biophysics, Theoretical Physics

Nuclear scientist killed by radiation accident at Los Alamos, New Mexico in 1946.

The son of Yiddish-speaking parents who had escaped the pogroms of Czarist Russia, Slotin was an exceptional student who entered the University of Manitoba at the age of 16. Upon obtaining his doctorate, Slotin travelled to the University of Chicago, where he helped construct the first cyclotron (particle accelerator) in the Midwest. He contributed to a number of papers in radiobiology. His expertise drew the attention of scientists working for the US government, and Slotin was invited to join the select group working on the Manhattan Project, with the goal of beating the Nazis at building an atomic bomb.

Slotin, who specialized in triggering devices, worked beside other great scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi in Chicago, Oak Ridge, Tennessee and the desert town of Los Alamos until 1946. Then, one May day, things went terribly wrong.

Slotin was in Los Alamos demonstrating a procedure called a crit test. The test involved bringing together two hemispheres of plutonium and uranium as critically close as possible without starting a chain reaction. Its purpose was to observe the "blue glow" which verified that the plutonium core of an atomic bomb was the right size to sustain the chain reaction among atomic particles that would cause an explosion. Performing the test was risky and had been referred to as "tickling the dragon's tail."

Slotin had done this test many times before, often pushing the limits of safety to attain better data. But this time, his hand slipped at a crucial moment, the core "went critical," and Slotin received a dose of radiation that killed him after nine agonizing days. The other men in the room were also exposed, but they survived, largely because Slotin absorbed most of the radiation. Some thought him a hero, but others considered the accident to have been avoidable with proper respect for the hazardous material being used.

Slotin's body was flown back to Winnipeg. (Some accounts speak of a lead-lined coffin that was not to be opened under any circumstances under instructions from the U.S. military, but this is an urban myth.) A funeral held outside the Slotin family's home attracted more than 3,000 people.

In 1948, Slotin's colleagues at Los Alamos and the University of Chicago created the Louis A. Slotin Memorial Fund which provided for a lecture series by distinguished men of science as Robert Oppenheimer, scientific head of the Manhattan Project, and Nobel Laureates Luis W. Alvarez and Hans A. Bethe.

Slotin's story has been told in the play "Louis Slotin Sonata," written by Paul Mullin in 2001, and the documentary "Tickling the Dragon's Tail," released in 1999. The scene of the fatal accident also appeared in the 1989 Hollywood movie "Fat Man and Little Boy."

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