Louis Slotin Biography

Louis Slotin was a Canadian nuclear physicist who played an important role in Manhattan Project during World War II. Check out this biography to know about his childhood, family life, achievements and death.

Quick Facts

Birthday: December 1, 1910

Nationality: Canadian

Famous: Physicists Canadian Men

Died At Age: 35

Sun Sign: Sagittarius

Also Known As: Louis Alexander Slotin

Born Country: Canada

Born in: Winnipeg, Canada

Famous as: Physicist

Family:

father: Israel

mother: Sonia Slotin

siblings: Sam

Died on: May 30, 1946

place of death: Los Alamos

More Facts

education: King's College London, St John's High School, University of Manitoba

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Louis Slotin was a Canadian nuclear physicist who played an important role in Manhattan Project during World War II. The Manhattan Project led to the production of the first nuclear weapons. Slotin died tragically after being exposed to radiation. He was born to Jewish immigrant parents in Winnipeg. A brilliant student throughout his academic life, he won many medals including a prize for his Ph.D. thesis. For a few years, Slotin worked at the University of Chicago. There he was part of the team that designed a cyclotron. He also contributed to the field of biochemistry by demonstrating how plant cells used carbon dioxide. He was soon picked up for the Manhattan Project where he gained a reputation for his ability to put together bombs. He was also known for being a master in handling dangerous radioactive material. During a demonstration of an experiment, an accident caused two radioactive materials to come in contact with each other setting off a chain reaction. Though the contact was brief it was lethal. Slotin had been standing too close to the radioactive material and the best medical care could not save him from the effects of radioactivity. After his death, the radioactive plutonium core that he was handling came to be known as ‘demon core’.

Childhood & Early Life
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Career
  • After completing his Ph.D., Louis Slotin worked in Dublin, Ireland for six months as a special investigator for the ‘Great Southern Railway’. His job was to test the Drumm alkaline battery.
  • In 1937, Slotin joined the University of Chicago as a research associate. This was his first exposure to the field of nuclear chemistry. At the University, he helped to build a cyclotron. He did not get paid much and initially had to depend on his father to support him.
  • Slotin worked with the renowned biochemist, Earl Evans, from 1939 to 1940. They used the cyclotron to produce radiocarbons - carbon 14 and carbon 11. Using Carbon 11 they were able to demonstrate how plant cells used carbon dioxide for carbohydrate metabolism.
  • In 1942, Slotin started working at ‘University of Chicago’s’ Metallurgical laboratory. There he worked with Enrico Fermi, the man who had created the world’s first nuclear reactor. While working at the lab he co-authored many papers on radiobiology and helped create the first particle accelerator.
  • Around this time work on the ‘Manhattan Project’ was going on and because of Slotin’s expertise in the field the United States government invited him to join it.
  • Louis Slotin worked with scientists like Enrico Fermi and Oppenheimer in the secret Manhattan project whose aim was to make a nuclear bomb to be used in World War II.
  • While working on the ‘Manhattan Project’, Slotin came to be known for his skills at assembling bombs. He was probably the only expert in the world who could handle high quantities of radioactive materials. He was also part of the team which assembled the first atomic bomb.
  • After bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a third bomb had been planned but it was no longer required when Japan surrendered. The plutonium core to be used for the third bomb was reallocated for a series of postwar tests at Bikini Atoll. Slotin himself was to be present at the tests.
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The Accident
  • On May 21, 1946, eight men were at the ‘Omega Site’ a secret laboratory situated at the Pajarito Canyon, about four miles from the main site of the Los Alamos Laboratory. Slotin was demonstrating to them how to conduct a criticality test.
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  • Slotin was performing an extremely dangerous manoeuvre nicknamed “tickling the dragon’s tail”. He was going to lower a half shell of beryllium over a plutonium core. It was critical that the upper half come close enough to the lower half to initiate a weak and short-lived fission reaction but not touch it.
  • Slotin was holding a long screwdriver (wedged between the two halves) to keep the two halves from touching each other. Wedge like structures called shims which kept the two spheres separate had been removed by him.
  • Slotin held the beryllium dome with his left hand and the screwdriver in his right hand. This was an exercise he had done many times before. On that fateful day, however, the screwdriver slipped and the top half of beryllium dropped on the plutonium and it went supercritical.
  • Slotin reacted instantly by removing the top half but the damage was already done. The few seconds contact had set off the radioactive particles and everyone present in the room had been exposed. Slotin who had been the closest to the core had the highest degree of exposure.
  • People evacuated the lab and called the for the ambulance. Slotin tried to assess how much damage was caused by making a sketch of everyone’s position in the room. He also tried using a radiation detector on various items in the room.
  • The extent of the effect of the radiation wasn’t clear immediately. Everyone was taken to the Los Alamos hospital. Slotin threw up on his way to the hospital and a few times later day but seemed fine otherwise.
  • Slowly however his left hand which had been closest to the core became painful, blue and developed blisters. It was wrapped up in an ice pack to reduce the pain and swelling.
  • It was estimated that Slotin had received 2100 rem of neutrons, gamma rays and x-rays and his hand had received 15000 rem of low energy X-rays which was far above the fatal dose.
  • Slotin informed his parents who arrived at the Los Alamos hospital. His white-blood cell count started dropping from the fifth day after the accident. From this point onwards Slotin’s condition deteriorated rapidly. He was kept in an oxygen tent. He went into a coma and died nine days after the accident.
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  • After Slotin’s death criticality tests were stopped. It had always been known that such hands-on tests were gravely dangerous and Enrico Fermi himself had warned Slotin that he would die within a year if he continued working on such tests. Later, such tests were conducted using remote controls.
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Legacy
  • From 1948 to 1962 ’The Louis A. Slotin Memorial’ fund organised lectures on physics by distinguished scientists. The fund was created in 1948 by Slotin’s colleagues at Los Alamos and the ‘University of Chicago’.
  • In 2002 an asteroid was named after Slotin. It was called Slotin 12423.
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Family & Personal Life
  • After the World War II, Slotin had planned to return to the ‘University of Chicago’. He was no longer happy with his work at Los Alamos and wanted to teach and do research in biophysics and radiobiology.
  • While initial reports of eye-witnesses hailed Slotin as a hero for reacting quickly and saving the lives of others. Raemer E. Schreiber who had been in the room made a public statement many years later saying that Slotin had not followed proper safety procedures.
  • Exactly nine months before Slotin’s accident his friend physicist Harry Daghlian had been involved in a similar accident. Slotin had been beside his friend as he lay dying at the hospital and was well aware of what lay ahead. His first words after the accident were “Well, that does it”.
  • Slotin’s father had been shocked to hear that his son was involved in making the Hiroshima bomb. His niece Beth Shore has said that Slotin had never been happy working on the atomic bomb.
  • Louis Slotin died on 30, May 1946, at the age of 35. His body was wrapped in a sealed casket and taken to Winnipeg. He was buried at the ‘Shaarey Zedek Cemetery’.
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Trivia
  • Louis Slotin had trained as a boxer in Winnipeg and had won the King’s College amateur boxing championship. He had also volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War but had never actually fought in the war.
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Louis Slotin

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