So I just want to talk about a Wikipedia article that I think about all the time.
There was this guy named Louis Slotin, who worked on the Manhattan Project and then continued atomic research at Los Alamos. This story doesn’t end well for him. He particularly liked to demonstrate an “experiment” in near-criticality that involved opening and closing the two hemispheres of a beryllium shell around a solid core of plutonium. There was a safety protocol for this experiment; Slotin decided not to use it. Instead of the standard shims that kept the shell from closing and thereby causing the core to go supercritical, he liked to wiggle it open and closed with a screwdriver. While wearing cowboy boots.
Smarter people said that this was a dangerous practice; Richard Feynman’s remark led to them calling Slotin’s demo “tickling the dragon’s tail.” But saying things was all they did. And when Slotin’s screwdriver slipped one day, the immediate burst of radiation killed him, and only his body partially shielding the others in the room from the blast saved their lives. Some of them died of leukemia or the complications of thyroid failure, too young.
Slotin was considered a hero by the US government for quickly flipping the shell back open and ending the reaction, and for dying, I guess. I differ on this matter. Slotin wasn’t learning anything or gathering data that day; he was showing off, angling for stature, flirting with death for the dozenth time and finally succeeding in his overtures. Tickle the dragon’s tail long enough and the dragon is going to do something about it.
I wonder if the men in that room wanted to make history. I wonder if this was how. And I wish this particular point in history were more widely understood.
After the Slotin incident, which followed an earlier near-disaster when physicist Harry Daghlian died by dropping a tungsten carbide brick on that same plug of plutonium, the scientists at Los Alamos redesigned their protocols and stopped doing hands-on experiments. But they also changed the nickname of the plutonium from “Rufus” to “the demon core.” These trained physicists—these men—reviewed the fatal interaction between one of their colleagues and an inanimate object, and they could not find it in themselves to put the blame on him.
To pinch the tip of today’s allegory, the core was allowed to cool off, then divided up and incorporated into other sources. Plutonium has a very long half-life. Its atoms are either still in use or polluting our atmosphere. This is the law of conservation of one’s demons: they can be summoned but not destroyed.