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Here be dragons (nuclearsecrecy.com)
86 points by danso on Dec 23, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 12 comments



The interesting thing to me was the the two supercritical experiments that led to imminent death were both with the same core, dubbed by the research team the "demon core."

Daghlian was experimenting with the plutonium core to determine exactly how close the core was to supercriticality by stacking bricks of tungsten carbide (a neutron reflector about twice the density of steel.) He slipped and one of the bricks fell directly onto the core. Daghlian said later he knew at that moment he was dead. He threw the brick off the core, but it was too late. The resulting neutron burst killed him a few weeks later.

Interestingly, this same core also caused the death of a second professor, Loius Slotin. Slotin was attempting to perform the same task, determining the point of supercriticality, but using a different approach.

In this case a beryllium sphere(!), another neutron reflector, cut into two hemispheres were slowly lowered together, and the resulting neutron levels were measured.

Slotin was famously reckless, and in his insanity, he developed the apparatus such that the only thing keeping the two hemispheres from completely joining and producing an immediate reaction was a flat head screwdriver he slowly twisted. Enrico Fermi said several times "He's already dead. It's only a matter of whether others die with him."

Sure enough, one day Slotin slipped, the core went briefly supercritical, and the massive dose of radiation killed him.

A superstition developed around the core, and although it was originally slated for wartime testing, the team left it on the shelf until after the war, when it was eventually detonated in a test at Bikini Atoll.


It's kind of interesting to see the direct physical effect of a beam of neutrons, which is just radiation, versus an invisible field of cancer causing radiation. Total exposure might be the same, but if of sufficient density, ie, a quick bursty beam, you get a zombie hand..and well, probably blood poisoning, etc etc. Definitely interesting from a epidemiological standpoint, too bad no studies were ever done.


You got to realize too that this was during the war and our boys were facing danger immediately on the front line so the ones who went to Los Alamos felt obligated to take some physical danger.

At that point in time, health problems in nuke workers could have as much to do with chemical exposure, i.e. uranium is toxic in the same way as lead, but with 1/3 the dose.


Do you have some sources for your first claim?

It seems like an irrational thing to do, putting a valuable scientist in danger doesn't advance the war effort.


> It seems like an irrational thing to do, putting a valuable scientist in danger doesn't advance the war effort.

Nobody claimed it was rational, and just because they were scientists doesn't make them immune to "patriotically" endangering themselves "for the war effort."


His attitude bugs me too because it reflects the classist tenor of our times.

In WWII and even Vietnam you had sons (and even a few daughters) of the elite who were either drafted or volunteered -- this is not often the case anymore.

On the other hand, the modern U.S. military spends around $1 million to train a warfighter to the base level where they are sent into real combat. That's much more than PhD training costs.


Though fiction and overly dramatic I can recommend the show Manhattan (as mentioned in the caption). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3231564/

Most of all it reminds of Vikings. Not entirely accurate, but accurate enough that you get a feeling of the circumstances.


Neat little side fact, the author of this blog has actually been doing consulting for that show :D He's even got several blog posts about it


I had never heard of this show, after looking at the reviews, it might be my christmas binge watch. Hope to see a Feynman cameo at some point!


John Coster-Mullen is in the comments, too! Very cool. (Background: https://www.reddit.com/comments/gey2l/iam_john_costermullen_...)


The show is one of my favorite of all time.


Yeah, I like it a lot, but I still wonder about its accuracy.




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