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Act I, Section 6 of Louis Slotin Sonata:


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. . . (Philip Morrison enters. He walks with a cane, having suffered polio as a child.) . . . .

MORRISON: Hi.

SLOTIN: Hi.

MORRISON: How ya feeling?

SLOTIN: Okay.

(He holds up his hand.)

A little tingly A little sick to my stomach.

MORRISON: Yeah? ..Well uh... so obviously now it's a question of dosage.

SLOTIN: It's a question?

MORRISON: Look. Louie. I understand your temptation to plunge headlong into the worst-case scenario but we really don't know what we're dealing with here. Every case is different. There are countless variables we need to take into consideration. We have a lot of data to analyze before we want to draw any conclusions, dire or otherwise.

SLOTIN: You're a true scientist, Phil. No one's questioning your scientific method.

MORRISON: Okay. The lab was admittedly still pretty hot when I got down there. But we got some readings and we expect it to be cool enough tomorrow to try a dry run of the experiment to get a hands-on physical feel for what happened. I'm gonna need to go through it with you step by step so that I can re-enact it exactly, okay?

SLOTIN: You bet.

(The lights specify on Slotin in the bed.

Morrison exits into the darkness.)

I was giving Al Graves a tour of the lab.

(Lights up on the Crit Lab as Morrison enters through the main door, accompanied by Colonel A. W. Betts of the U.S. Army and two physicists dressed in civilian clothes.)

MORRISON: Lou was giving Alvin Graves a tour of the lab.

SLOTIN: I introduced him to some of the fellahs and we chatted and joked around for a couple minutes.

MORRISON: There was some small talk-- excuse me, Colonel Betts-- probably right around here.

(Slotin gets out of the bed.)

SLOTIN: Then Graves saw the critical assembly apparatus. He seemed intrigued by it.

BETTS: So Slotin and Graves moved toward it for a closer look.

(Slotin enters the scene.)

SLOTIN: We didn't "move toward it", I mean, not like that, not like it was some primitive tribal altar. We walked over. We're both accomplished scientists for Christ's sake.

We joked a little bit about Feynman calling it tickling the dragon's tail and then...

MORRISON: Then Slotin initiated the criticality test.

PHYSICIST 1: Hadn't this particular plutonium core already been tested?

SLOTIN: Yeah.

MORRISON: Yes.

SLOTIN: So?

PHYSICIST 1: So the experiment was unnecessary.

SLOTIN: Graves hadn't run this sort of crit test before. I wanted him to see how it was done.

MORRISON: Slotin was familiarizing Graves with this particular test assembly.

PHYSICIST 2: Isn't it true that this sort of test is no longer necessary?

SLOTIN: No.

MORRISON: It's an issue of some debate.

PHYSICIST 1: What about servo-mechanisms?

SLOTIN: What about them?

PHYSICIST 1: Didn't Slotin have a reputation as something of a cowboy?

SLOTIN: Catch that, Phil? They're already talking about me in the past tense.

MORRISON: I don't know what you mean by that.

SLOTIN: I am become dead.

PHYSICIST 2: I heard a story once about Slotin while he was assigned out at Oak Ridge. Apparently they were running some sort of assembly at the bottom of this large tank of water that was absorbing the radiation. Well, Slotin wanted to adjust or calibrate something on the assembly, and he asked the supervising physicist to drain the tank so he could get at it. Well, this was impossible, apparently: it would take at least 48 hours to shut down the reactor, drain the tank and allow the radiation to cool to a safe level. So Slotin comes back a few hours later, strips to his skivvies, puts on some swimming goggles, and dives to the bottom of the tank, makes his calibrations under water.

PHYSICIST 1: Cripes! Wasn't the water radioactive?

PHYSICIST 2: Mildly, yes.

SLOTIN: Very mildly.

PHYSICIST 1: And what about the rumor I heard that Slotin fought with the Republicans against Franco back in '37? Or that he flew with the RAF in '38 when he was in London?

PHYSICIST 2: I think it's safe to speculate that the originator of those rumors was Dr. Slotin himself.

SLOTIN: I never said I fought with the Republicans. I said I met some. I was on a walking tour of the Basque country.

MORISSON: Gentlemen. Do you think perhaps we could proceed with reviewing the critical assembly?

PHYSICIST 2: Of course, the critical assembly... well, what about design re-evaluations? I mean, from what I've seen from the schematics, merely by fixing the top shell in a stationary position and then manipulating the bottom shell instead, gravity itself would have provided some measure of a failsafe, with the assembly falling apart instead of together.

(Phil looks over at Louis. Louis merely shrugs.)

MORRISON: Be all that as it may, gentlemen, I believe our purpose here is to more accurately assess the circumstances as they happened-- for whatever reasons-- so that we may more accurately estimate the dosages received by the eight men present.

BETTS: Let me second that. I see no point in making Lou Slotin some kind of scapegoat here. Please proceed, Phil.

MORRISON: Thank you, Colonel. The shells Louie was using are still a bit hot from the accident, so I had the engineering guys mock up some similar ones out of aluminum--

SLOTIN: Atomic weight 27.

MORRISON: As opposed to beryllium.

SLOTIN: Atomic weight 9.

MORRISON: They're a bit heavier, but for the purposes of this demonstration they should suffice.

SLOTIN: I placed the Pu in the assembly.

MORRISON: Slotin placed the Pu--

BETTS: Pee yew?

MORRISON: Plutonium-- core in the bottom shell. Obviously I shall merely pretend to do that.

SLOTIN: Then I set the spacers.

(Morrison places the two wooden blocks on either side of the bottom shell.)

PHYSICIST 1: You're setting the spacers?

MORRISON: Correct. Slotin then set the safety spacers, two wooden blocks, on the rim of the bottom shell.

PHYSICIST 1: But then how--

MORRISON: Allow me to proceed if you would. Slotin then lowered the top shell onto the wooden spacers causing a low-level self-sustaining emission of neutrons.

SLOTIN: Not even close to critical, i.e. essentially meaningless.

MORRISON: Slotin then removed the wooden blocks. At this point he picked up an standard flat head screwdriver--

PHYSICSIST 2: A screwdriver?

SLOTIN: Standard flat head.

MORRISON: In his right hand while still holding the top shell in his left. He brought the top shell back to the apparatus, this time resting its left edge on the rim of the bottom shell itself, and then lowering the right edge to balance on the upturned edge of the screwdriver.

PHYSICIST 1: Holy ned!

MORRISON: Then--

SLOTIN: I gunned the throttle.

MORRISON: --With a twisting motion of his wrist, Slotin turned the screwdriver so that the blade edge rested flat creating the smallest possible gap between the two shells, measuring approximately--

PHYSICIST 2: Jesus, maybe a millimeter.

MORRISON: One millimeter.

SLOTIN: More or less.

MORRISON: With this configuration, the assembly had been brought to the very limit of its controlled criticality. Any increase in the population of neutrons could cause a prompt burst.

PHYSICIST 1: And then?

SLOTIN: And then?... Well, that's the question, isn't it?

MORRISON: Then, according to Slotin, the screwdriver slipped.

PHYSICIST 2: Slipped?

SLOTIN: Population BOOM!

PHYSICIST 1: Holy cripes!

SLOTIN: I am become dice.

(pause)

BETTS: And then what?

MORRISON: I'm sorry?

BETTS: And then what? What happened then?

SLOTIN: I suppose I panicked.

BETTS: What did he do?

MORRISON: Well, at that point Slotin flung the top shell off the assembly onto the floor.

BETTS: Stopping the reaction.

MORRISON: Well...

BETTS: He took the top shell and flung it on the floor.

MORRISON: Right.

BETTS: And he did that because...

SLOTIN: Who knows?

MORRISON: Um... he didn't elaborate. A reflex maybe?

BETTS: Reflex? No, no. More than a reflex. An instinct. An urge. A will.

MORRISON: I'm not following you.

BETTS: To stop the reaction.

MORRISON: Perhaps.

BETTS: And save the lives of the others.

MORRISON: Uh...

SLOTIN: Uh oh.

MORRISON: Well... the reaction was over.

BETTS: Over because he ended it.

SLOTIN: Oh, Phil.

BETTS: Don't you see what I'm getting at?

SLOTIN: Phil, don't you see what he's getting at?

MORRISON: Well, technically speaking--

BETTS: Unh-hunh.

MORRISON: The core had expanded due to its own thermal activity.

BETTS: Unh-hunh.

MORRISON: Thus halting the neutron flux automatically--

BETTS: Right.

MORRISON: Probably in less than a millionth of a second.

BETTS: Technically speaking, he saved the lives of every other man who was in this room.

SLOTIN: Oh god.

MORRISON: It would be difficult to say--

BETTS: All right, let me put it to you this way: what would've happened if he'd frozen, done nothing: if he hadn't flung that top shell from off the uh... assembly?

MORRISON: In my opinion?

BETTS: Absolutely.

MORRISON: Nothing.

SLOTIN: Absolutely nothing. Dice do not play God.

BETTS: But that is merely your opinion.

MORRISON: It's hard to say... without--

BETTS: If it's hard to say, why not say he saved their lives?

SLOTIN: Absolutely. Why not say anything?

(pause)

MORRISON: I don't know. Why not?

(Lights out on Slotin.

Lights out on the lab.

Special up on Nurse Dickie.) . . .

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