The atomic-bomb core that escaped World War II
Before two deadly nuclear mishaps, scientists used to risk “tickling the tail of a sleeping dragon.”
By Julian G. West for The Atlantic
In 1946, shortly after the end of World War II, the physicist Louis Slotin stood in front of a low table at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, concentrating intensely on the object in front of him. His left thumb was hooked into a hole on the top of a heavy beryllium dome, fingers bracing the side as he carefully cantilevered it on its leftmost edge. In his right hand he held a flathead screwdriver, its head wedged under the right edge of the dome to keep it from closing completely. Through the gap on the right side you could just barely catch a metallic gleam, a glimpse of the 14-pound plutonium sphere that was slated to become one of the United States’ next nuclear weapons.
Slotin began slowly lowering the dome, using the screwdriver gingerly to control the opening. He had performed this feat many times before, but this time was different…