Louis Slotin (Dec 1, 1910 - May 30, 1946) was a Canadian chemist and physicist, who died as a result of a criticality accident at Los Alamos.

He was educated at the University of Manitoba, and at the University of London, where he received his PhD. He joined the Manhattan Project after visiting the University of Chicago in 1942, moving from Chicago, to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and then to Los Alamos, New Mexico. He was part of the team that assembled the core of the Trinity device, and continued working at the Lab after the war ended.

On May 21, 1946, he was teaching several colleagues how to assemble the core of an atomic bomb in a workshop in Los Alamos. Two halves of a beryllium neutron reflector surrounding a plutonium sphere were placed above each other on a work bench, separated by a screwdriver. At some point, the screwdriver slipped, and the two halves of the reflector fell together, initiating a chain reaction in the plutonium. The assembly released a wave of heat, and the scientists observed the blue glow of Cherenkov radiation around it. Slotin was standing right next to the assembly, and knocked it apart to save his colleagues and prevent a meltdown. None of the other scientists in the room were adversely affected, but Slotin received a fatal dose, equivalent to being exposed to a nuclear blast at a distance of less than one mile. He died nine days later of acute radiation sickness. His body was returned to Canada, and was buried in his hometown of Winnipeg.

As a result of this accident and others, the Atomic Energy Commission developed procedures to assemble nuclear weapons components with remote controlled, isolated machinery.

Accident details from www.fas.org.

Slotin's story was first fictionalized by Dexter Masters in the 1955 novel The Accident. It's an extremely oblique retelling, probably because of Cold War security concerns, though first-hand witness Philip Morrison says he dictated details of what happened to Masters within weeks of the events. Since then the tale has been told more accurately, albeit with more artistic embellishment, by playwright Paul Mullin in his script Louis Slotin Sonata, which traces the brilliant scientists last nine days using the sonata allegro form, recapitulating and expanding the theme of the fatal wrist slip by which Slotin inadvertently took his own life.

Some interesting details not heretofore mentioned:

To follow is an excerpt from Louis Slotin Sonata, used with the author's permission. It is a small part of the scene where Slotin's father, Israel, tries in vain to make the Los Alamos officials understand his culture and his loss. The light switch example is said to have actually been used by the real Israel Slotin.

ISRAEL SLOTIN: An autopsy?... This is forbidden.

MORRISON: I understand. Louie... knew you would feel this way.

ISRAEL SLOTIN: You understand? ..What do you understand, Phil? "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him." The Bible says it twice right there. "Male and female he created them.... And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good." That was the sixth day.

I know some time we Jews seem crazy to you: refusing foods you consider delicacies, putting forks in flowerpots, wearing hats indoors. But we have our reasons. We believe simply that a man is God's image, and that image should not be... disfigured or disturbed in life or in death. We do not embalm. We do not cremate. We do not delay proper burial. Simple. It's really not so crazy.

MORRISON: No. No, it's not.


ISRAEL SLOTIN: So... My son spoke to you?


ISRAEL SLOTIN: Ah, he knew better than to ask such a thing himself.

HEMPELMANN: Mr. Slotin, we don't want--

ISRAEL SLOTIN: Dr. Hempelmann... shhh.... Have some whiskey.


My son, such a brilliant boy. Always working. Always studying, thinking, tinkering, figuring. Did you know that when Louie's high school pals would come over, he'd have his little brother Sammy play bridge with them while he went and studied. He liked to sit and read in the gazebo I built in the backyard.

When he got his Ph.D. degree in London, of course I told everyone I knew. "My son's a doctor," I said. And they'd say, "Oh, a doctor?! So what kind of doctor is he?" And I would reach out for a light switch on the wall and turn it on and off. And I would say, "Do you know where the light went?... No?... You don't know. I don't know. But my son Louis, he knows. That's the kind of doctor he is."

A scientist. So smart. So much smarter than any of us. Too smart maybe. Ah, who knows?

But he wants this thing... so you say.

MORRISON: Mr. Slotin... He--

ISRAEL SLOTIN: You said he wants it. Right?


ISRAEL SLOTIN: But it's my decision.



ISRAEL SLOTIN: Good thing you're a scientist, Phil. You'd make a lousy businessman. One thing I'll say for us Jews. We know how to prevaricate. You know what this means? Prevaricate? What am I saying? Of course you know what it means: you're a learned man.

Now Jesus, there was a Jew. Needless to say, and I mean no offense, but I don't think he was the son of God any more than I am, but... he was a Jew for sure. He talked like a Jew... lotsa times. I know. Believe it or not, I've read the stories. Like when somebody tried to trick him up about paying taxes to the Romans he took a look at the coin with Caesar's face on it and said, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and render unto God that which is God's." It's a very Jewish solution.

You say my son would want this, because he was a scientist, I imagine, and what is this but more science. Right? I say... true enough. My son gave himself to this world... this world of science and bombs and accidents and autopsies. I say render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's. So do your autopsy. Do it quickly. But I don't want you to touch the face or any part of the head. Is this understood?



HEMPELMANN: All right. Thank you, Mr. Slotin.

ISRAEL SLOTIN: Don't thank me.

Drink your whiskey. I'm going to bed.

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