Act I, Section 6 of Louis Slotin Sonata:
. . . (Philip Morrison enters. He walks with a cane,
having suffered polio as a child.) . . . .
MORRISON: How ya feeling?
(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
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
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
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
PHYSICIST 2: Isn't it true that this sort of test is no longer
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
SLOTIN: Catch that, Phil? They're already talking about me in the past
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
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!
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.
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.
BETTS: He took the top shell and flung it on the floor.
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
MORRISON: I'm not following you.
BETTS: To stop the reaction.
BETTS: And save the lives of the others.
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--
MORRISON: The core had expanded due to its own thermal activity.
MORRISON: Thus halting the neutron flux automatically--
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?
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?
MORRISON: I don't know. Why not?
(Lights out on Slotin.
Lights out on the lab.
Special up on Nurse Dickie.) . . .