This is the opening section of my play Louis Slotin Sonata:
(The Critical Assemblies Lab, in Pajarito Canyon at the Los Alamos Facility. Tuesday, May 21, 1946.
Dr. Raemer Schreiber and his assistant, Theodore Perlman, work at an experiment bench upstage left.
Stage right is the main door next to which sits a young soldier in an Army uniform, Patrick Cleary, the lab's security guard.
Downstage center, is another lab bench, atop which sits the critical assembly apparatus. Working in and around this area, writing, taking measurements, tidying up, etc., are Marion Cieslicki, and Dwight Young.)
SLOTIN (as he enters through the main door): And last but not least... home sweet home.
(to the guard)
CLEARY: Dr. Slotin.
(Louis is followed in by Alvin Graves.)
GRAVES: So this is the infamous crit lab?
SLOTIN: The one and only-- where the real magic happens.
GRAVES: You gonna miss it?
SLOTIN: Oh, I'll miss it like I'd miss a canker.
Over there is Schreib and his assistant, Ted Perlman. They look pretty busy, so we won't bother them. They share our space here.
And over here, in my half of the lab-- or should I say your half?-- are Marion Cieslicki and Dwight Young. Fellahs, you remember Alvin Graves?
(Young stands, extends a hand to Graves.)
YOUNG: Surely. Good to see you again, Dr. Graves.
GRAVES: Oh, "Al" please.
YOUNG: Okay then. Good to see ya.
(Graves moves on to Cieslicki.)
CIESLICKI: How you doing, sir?
GRAVES: Just fine, just fine. Good to meet you.
CIESLICKI: Don't let ol' Louie fool ya. He's gonna miss this ol' place like nobody's business. Heck, some nights the guard over there has to make him leave at gunpoint.
SLOTIN: No, no, gentlemen, trust me. I have my fins, my facemask, my suntan ointment and my swimming trunks. I am off to the South Seas to watch the U. S. Navy explode an atomic bomb for absolutely no reason other than to see it go boom, and then... then I'm heading back to civilization, or what I can find of it at the University of Chicago.
GRAVES: Ah yes, back to work under the great Fermi.
SLOTIN: No, sir. With all proper genuflections to his holiness the Pope, I'm getting out of the physics racket. I'm looking at branching out into biology.
GRAVES: Moving down the food chain.
SLOTIN: Maybe so, maybe so. But I for one have seen as much as I'd care to of where the so-called purest science can take me. Over the last five years I have managed to climb to the dubious position of "chief bomb putter-together". Time to look into the life sciences.
(Pointing to the apparatus down stage.)
So this must be where you tickle the dragon's tail.
SLOTIN: You've been listening to Dick Feynman.
GRAVES: Come on, Louis, that's what everyone calls your crit test.
SLOTIN: True, true. But I didn't hear Feynman, or anyone else for that matter, come up with a better way to verify the precise core mass necessary for Fatman.
GRAVES: It's so simple, so exposed. There must be some way to put it on servomechanism and provide a fail-safe.
SLOTIN: Oh, I'm sure the Army'll get around to insisting something or other some day. Personally I prefer the human touch, the subtleties.
CIESLICKI: You shoulda heard what Fermi told him one time.
CIESLICKI (Italian accent): "You keepa doing that, you'lla be dead withina the year." Those were the Pope's exact words.
SLOTIN: Which just goes to show how he's fallible. I believe he said that over a year ago, didn't he?
CIESLICKI: I dunno.
SLOTIN: I rest my case.
CIESLICKI: All I know is whenever he hears Louie is up to his tricks, Fermi heads into the hills until the coast is clear.
SLOTIN: Fermi was also taking bets at Trinity on whether we'd ignite the atmosphere and destroy the world with the first shot. I think it's a kind of perverse amusement for him. Who can explain the Italians?
GRAVES: He's a great man.
SLOTIN: He's a bona fide goddamned genius, but then they used to be a dime a dozen round here.
GRAVES: So what are you saying, Louie: you're jumping ship like the rest of the smart rats? Making way for the second string?
SLOTIN: Not a bit. There's still the super-bomb to build. Edward Teller and the Army just won't be happy until they’ve measuring yields in megatons TNT instead of kilotons.
GRAVES: Do you think it's even possible?
SLOTIN: Doesn't matter what I think, lowly bomb-putter-together. It's what Teller thinks that counts. And what the Army wants to hear. But, yes I do think it's possible. I'm a Trinity convert.
GRAVES: Yeah, well. I suppose we'll see.
SLOTIN: Yeah, I suppose we will.
(Graves gazes back at the critical assembly.)
SLOTIN (to Graves): You want to see it?
SLOTIN: The crit test.
GRAVES: Oh... well...
SLOTIN: Why don't I run it through for you now?
GRAVES: Oh, I wouldn't want you to trouble yourself on my account.
SLOTIN: Nothing to it, really.
(Slotin steps forward to the apparatus bench, rolls up his sleeves and begins making preparations.)
Where's Kline? He wanted to see this, too.
CIESLICKI: I think he's making some coffee in the kitchen
SLOTIN: Call him in here, will ya?
(Cieslicki goes to a door upstage center left.)
CIESLICKI (hollering through the door): Hey Kline, Louie wants to show ya something.
(Cieslicki crosses back down and joins Young in switching on a bank of radiation monitors and calibrating them for the experiment.
Allan Kline enters from upstage and crosses down to Slotin.)
KLINE: Hey, boss.
SLOTIN: Ah, Allan. Meet Alvin Graves.
(Graves and Kline shake hands.)
KLINE: How do you do?
GRAVES: Nice to meet ya.
SLOTIN: Since I am not long for the world of crit assemblies, and since you two are the newest cowpokes down here in Pajarito Canyon, I thought I'd give Dick Feynman's dragon's tail one last tickle, for your amusement, and perhaps, edification.
KLINE: Oh... okay. Great.
SLOTIN: Dr. Graves and I were both at the Chicago Pile oh so many years ago--
GRAVES: Just three, Louis-- three and a half. Fall of '42.
SLOTIN: Right, well, three and half then, the infamous fall of '42 when we witnessed the Pope first turn water into wine.
GRAVES: I'd say we helped some, too.
SLOTIN: Oh, come on, Al, we where mere altar boys in the presence of his Holiness.
Schreib, Ted, would you like to join the party?
SCHREIBER: No thank you, Louis. I think we've seen you perform the crit test far too many times already.
SLOTIN: Suit yourself. Dwight, how's that neutron detector that was all fritzy on Thursday?
YOUNG: I swapped it out. New one seems to be working just fine.
SLOTIN: Anyway... those were the days, hunh? We really didn’t know our nuts from our noses then, hunh?
GRAVES: Yeah, it was something to see.
(Slotin opens a case and removes two halves of a shiny metal sphere. He holds them up in either hand.)
SLOTIN: And this... is Rufus.
SLOTIN: Every plutonium core gets a name. And this one has quite a personality to boot.
GRAVES: Is this the one...
SLOTIN: That killed Daghlian?... Yes, as a matter of fact it is... but never fear. Final revenge will be ours. Rufus is what we're blowing over Bikini next month. Here.
(He hands one of the hemispheres to Graves. Then turns to offer Alan Kline the other.)
KLINE: Oh... Thanks.
(Kline tentatively takes the other half.)
GRAVES: It's amazing, hunh?
KLINE: It's warm. Like uh... like a live rabbit or something.
SLOTIN: Yup. Kinda spooky, hunh? Just alpha emissions, though. They can't make it past the thickness of your first layer of dead skin. It's the neutrons that'll kill ya.
(Slotin takes the hemispheres and carries them to the assembly. Setting one half on the bench, he fits the other into the metal half-shell of the apparatus.)
GRAVES: That half-shell it's resting in-- some sort of moderating alloy?
SLOTIN: Beryllium. We've done quite a bit of fine-tuning and retrofitting since Harry Daghlian's accident.
SLOTIN: All those bricks of tungsten carbide, it was like a little kid's set of building blocks. Too many ways of going wrong.
(Slotin places the upper hemisphere of plutonium on top of the one resting in the shell, to complete the core. The Geiger counters and indicator lights begin to click and flash relatively slowly, and steadily-- say about 90 beats a minute.)
SLOTIN: And with that, we have a critical core mass, without, of course, criticality. Now comes the fun stuff.
(Slotin picks up the top half of the beryllium shell by hooking his thumb into a hole at the top.)
As you know, this lovely beryllium alloy shell I'm holding reflects neutrons. Thus, the closer I bring this shell to the core--
(Slotin moves the shell back and forth a few inches above the core. The indicators momentarily quicken with each pass.)
The more neutrons are reflected back into the plutonium, kicking loose, in turn, still more neutrons thus increasing the population exponentially.
(He pauses. Then moves the top half-shell back away from the core and sets it on the bench.)
Wait. We'll do it the Army way first, employing the latest in safety technology.
(Slotin picks up from the bench two l x l x 2 inch wood blocks and holds them up for all to see.)
Custom made Pajarito Laboratory Criticality Contraption Safety Spacer Prototypes 1 and 2.
(Slotin sets the blocks on opposite sides of the bottom shell's rim, then places the top half-shell again over the core. The Geiger count quickens. Slotin places an edge of the top shell on one of the wooden spacers, and then slowly turns the shell so that the other edge lowers toward the opposite spacer. Finally Slotin simply lets the shell rest on the two spacers. The clicks accelerate into a steady insistent chatter, at least 300 clicks a minute. Slotin pulls his hand away completely. And turns away from the apparatus to address his audience.)
And that's it.... That's the crit test.... Only that's not the crit test. Not by a long shot. The data we are currently receiving from the experiment is completely useless for determining the appropriate mass and configuration for a bomb core. To do that, we have to take the core a lot closer to critical, to the brink, actually; otherwise, how would we know? Correct?
(Slotin transfers the top-shell back to the bench and then removes the two wooden spacers. He then picks up the top shell again, with his left hand, while with his right he holds up for his audience a standard flat head screw-driver.)
A special U.S. Army issue manual screw insertion and removal implement.
(Slotin puts one edge of the top shell directly on the lip of the bottom shell. Then he lowers the top shell to the upturned screwdriver blade. The clicks of the Geiger counters blur into a droning hum, the indicator lights flicker like a strobe.)
Now granted, the experimenter should be aware that if the top shell is allowed to close completely, the core will go super-critical and there will be a prompt burst of radiation. Daghlian said he saw a blue glow when he dropped the brick that sent his pile critical.
GRAVES: A blue glow?
SLOTIN: That’s what he said.
GRAVES: Cherenkov radiation?
GRAVES: Perhaps due to some sort of intense ionization of the air in the room? Sweet jeez, that had to be a huge dose.
SLOTIN: About 800 rem, enough cause a blue glow in water maybe, or even extremely humid air, but this was Los Alamos in August.
GRAVES: So his imagination.
GRAVES: Or what?
SLOTIN: The fluid in his eyeballs.
GRAVES: Sweet Jeez.
SLOTIN: Mr. Kline, why are the words “prompt burst” and “explosion” not synonymous in this scenario?
KLINE: Um... 'cause the core expands with the heat of the burst, the uh... thermal expansion moves the Pu atoms further apart, decreasing the number of neutron collisions and bringing the core to a sub-critical state.
CIESLICKI: Nagasaki without the mess.
(Uncomfortable beat as everyone looks over at Cieslicki.)
SLOTIN: Thank you, Cieslicki, for that... interesting analogy. At any rate, the experimenter can bring the apparatus even closer to criticality by rotating the screwdriver, kinda like revving a motorcycle throttle.
(Slotin rotates the screwdriver, just as he describes it, twisting the shaft to turn the head flat and bring the top shell within a blade's width of closing. The indicators go wild. Then Slotin twists the screwdriver back on its edge again. He repeats this action a few times until the two halves of the shell close with a CLICK.
A bright blue glow fills the room for an instant. Slotin quickly yanks off the top shell and then shakes it from his thumb, letting it clatter to the floor.
He turns to look at the men behind him, who all stare back at him-- frozen, stunned.
Suddenly, Cleary bolts out the main door. In an instant, Cieslicki, Kline, and Young run out the same way, while Perlman and Schreiber evacuate through a door on the upstage left.
Slotin and Graves turn to each other. Slotin shakes his head. They exit, at a normal pace, through the main door.
Blackout.) . . . .