Oppenheimer built the bomb
But now he’s dead (dead)
Einstein was very very smart
But not enough not to be dead (dead)
So don’t go into science
You’ll end up dead.
– “Don’t Go Into Politics,” by the Arrogant Worms
People in every field are standing on the shoulders of giants, from music to politics to science, and for the most part, those giants are, in fact, dead.
Many of the scientific giants are also forgotten, and I don’t just mean those who lived hundreds of years ago, but some of those who lived fairly recently. In many cases these dead scientists died naturally. In some cases, however, they became martyrs of a sort, some through inadequate scientific knowledge, some through inadequate safety precautions and some through mistakes.
I’m not exactly sure where Louis Slotin and Henry Daghlian fit on this continuum. Both men were scientists at the Los Alamos in the mid-1940s, and both were killed by the same sphere of plutonium, which afterwards was nicknamed the “demon core.”
Criticality accidents were to blame in both cases. Now I’m not a physicist, but essentially, criticality is what happens when there’s too much of a fissile material (here, plutonium) in one place. When it happens, there’s an increase in the nuclear chain reactions that results in a surge of neutron radiation, which is deadly. (More information here.)
Daghlian died, essentially, because he dropped a brick at the wrong time. Slotin, on the other hand, died because his screwdriver slipped.
In a more meaningful sense, both men died because they were performing scientific experiments with painfully inadequate safety measures. They should have known better, too–Slotin was even warned by Enrico Fermi that he’d be dead in a year if he kept doing the experiments in question.
But their deaths were still tragic.
Slotin did manage to save some of his fellow scientists from a similar fate, and has been hailed as hero for his quick thinking and quick action in the face of his own death. Many people don’t realize that he had spent time in the hospital with Daghlian during the 25 days it took Slotin’s colleague to die of radiation poisoning. Slotin himself died after nine days.
After that, criticality experiments at Los Alamos were done remotely.
The demon core was detonated on July 1, 1946, less than two months after the criticality accident that cost Slotin his life.
The criticality experiments had increased its efficiency, along with killing two scientists and shortening the lifespans of the others who had been in the room.
Don’t forget them.