The Secret Life of Louis Slotin
1910 - 1946

by Brigitt Martin
Reprinted with permission from the Alumni Journal of the University of Manitoba
Volume 59, No. 3, December 1999


There have been few research projects shrouded in more mystery than the Manhattan Project was in the 1940's.   Dr. Louis Slotin (University of Manitoba B.Sc. 1932 and M.Sc. 1933, Ph.D. King's College, London University, 1936) was one of a select group of elite scientists invited to Los Alamos to work on the Project aimed at outrunning the Nazis' bid to create an atomic bomb.

Slotin, who specialized in triggering devices, worked quietly beside other great scientists like Oppenheimer, Teller and Fermi in Chicago, Oak Ridge, Tennessee and the desert town of Los Alamos until 1946.   Then in 1946, Slotin died a hero's death and was buried in a lead coffin in Winnipeg following a lab accident. (This is inaccurate - see below)

This is how the story goes: Slotin and the others were gathered in a laboratory performing an experiment known as "tickling the dragon's tail."   The experiment involved creating the beginning of a fission reaction by bringing together two metal hemispheres of highly reactive, beryllium-coated plutonium.   The trick was to bring the hemispheres close enough together without allowing them to touch.   But on one fateful day - May 21 1946 - after successfully "tickling the dragon's tail" dozens of times before, the hemispheres touched, generating a vast flux of radiation.

Slotin's reaction was to use his hands to separate the hemispheres.   His body shielded the others from the neutrons that emanated from the plutonium.   While the results proved fatal to him nine days later, he is credited with having saved the other seven scientists from an agonizing death.

"Slotin's personal sacrifice undoubtedly saved those who were in the room with him.   For himself, there was no hope of recovery, something he must have known at once," said Robin Connor, a professor of physics at the University of Manitoba

For further reading, see Louis Slotin And The Invisible Killer, and A Tribute to my Uncle, Dr. Louis Slotin.

These links have some very interesting additional information, photographs, and personal recollections.   Note, however, that some inaccurate statements have slipped into these documents (including the lead article above):

  1. "a blue glow and a wave of heat swept through the room."
  2. "They [regularly] pushed the hemispheres together till they were close enough to produce the beginning of a chain reaction, which they detected by the blue glow set up in the air around the hemispheres by Cerenkov radiation (ionisation of the air itself).   Then they pushed the hemispheres apart with the screwdrivers. "
  3. "Instantly a blue glow, stronger than the spring sunshine, filled the laboratory.   There was a wave of unbearable heat.   Some present experienced a dry, prickly sensation on their tongues - a sign of excessive radiation."
  4. "Then in 1946, Slotin died a hero's death and was buried in a lead coffin in Winnipeg"

Dr. M. Attas, Dr. D. Chen, J. Franta, Dr. A. Dion and others helped clarify some of these points.   Drs. Attas and Chen are experts on Cerenkov radiation, having developed a Cerenkov Viewing Device (CVD) for use in non-proliferation verification work.

The above corrections to this web information are no reflection on Dr. Slotin's career, scientific achievements, or untimely demise.   Indeed, they are presented in the spirit of scientific inquiry and with a wish to maintain, as much as possible, the historical accuracy of his biography.

Other tid-bits on Dr. Slotin's life include being one of the fifty one witnesses of the start-up of "Chicago Pile 1", the first man-made reactor, on December 2 1942.

[Canadian Nuclear Society home page]