Hollywood blockbuster movie oppenheimer is exploding in theaters to sold-out tickets and rave reviews, but a connection to Winnipeg has remained behind the curtain.
The film chronicles the life of Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who led the top-secret Manhattan Project, which ushered in the Atomic Age.
Oppenheimer was director of the Los Alamos laboratory where the work was done, but it was Louis Slotin, of Scotia Street in Winnipeg’s North End neighborhood, whose fingers assembled the plutonium core of the first atomic bomb, the trinity device.
“He passed away before I was born so I never met him in person, but my family always told me about him and I saw him as someone very brave and someone who should have been a hero,” said Israel Ludwig, whose mother was Sister from slotin.
Trinity was launched at a New Mexico desert test site on July 16, 1945. Its success led to the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being bombed a month later.
The exact number of deaths from the atomic bombings is unknown, but an estimated 120,000 people died instantly, while tens of thousands more died over the next few months from burns, radiation sickness, disease, and malnutrition, totaling estimated from 129,000 to 226,000.
Oppenheimer’s film includes a brief black-and-white clip of the Trinity montage, and in the center is Slotin, “although his name is not mentioned, no credit is given,” Ludwig said.
His bomb-making prowess earned Slotin the nickname “America’s Leading Gunsmith,” said journalist Martin Zeilig, who has written articles and made a documentary about Slotin.
“But you won’t find Louis Slotin mentioned in a lot of the Manhattan Project biographies. He was working with all these giants of science,” Zeilig said.
“When you’re in that rarefied atmosphere, it can be hard to get your name into the history books.
“That’s one of the main reasons for telling this story and educating a new generation about the role of this scientist from Winnipeg. He was an amazing guy. I’m actually getting really excited thinking about it.”
Born in the North End, the academically gifted Slotin entered the University of Manitoba at 16 and earned his master of science at 22. He earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry in England in 1936, when he was 25 years old.
He joined the University of Chicago and helped build the first cyclotron in the US Midwest before being recruited to the Manhattan Project as head of the team developing the plutonium core.
One year after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Slotin’s team had one core left. It was for a third atomic bomb, but Japan surrendered and the war ended.
The core was kept and used for nuclear fission studies.
Slotin no longer wanted to participate in projects destined for destruction and had given notice of his resignation, Ludwig said.
“I wanted to go back to the University of Chicago. I was interested in the use of radiation to fight cancer and I wanted to look at other uses … to help fight disease,” Ludwig said.
Just before 3:30 p.m. on May 21, 1946, Slotin was showing his colleagues how to bring the nucleus closer to a fission reaction, a procedure known as tickling the dragon’s tail.
It was about placing two half spheres of beryllium around the nucleus. As the halves closed around the core, the amount of fission intensified, bringing the materials to the brink of a nuclear chain reaction in what is called a criticality test.
Slotin used a screwdriver to maintain a gap between the halves. He had done this procedure several times before, but this time the screwdriver slipped. The two halves made contact and provoked an immediate critical reaction.
A flash of blue light and heat hit the room, according to the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Los Alamos Historical Society.
Slotin placed his body in front of the sphere, shielding his fellow scientists, and separated the two halves, stopping the chain reaction before it could reach the supercritical stage and trigger an explosion.
The exposure lasted about a second but was lethal for Slotin.
He was exposed to almost 1,000 rads of radiation, far more than the 400-450 considered a lethal dose, according to a 2016 article, Dr. Louis Slotin and the Invisible Killer, written by Zeilig for Canada’s History magazine.
Slotin was rushed to hospital and died nine days later. He was 35 years old.
His body was so burned by radiation, internally and externally, that one medical expert called it a “three-dimensional sunburn,” Zeilig’s article says.
The other seven people in the room received an estimated 90 to 166 rad exposure. They all survived.
“Without a moment’s hesitation, knowing the injury he would face, he dove in to stop the chain reaction. You can’t think of a greater sacrifice than sacrificing your own life to save others,” Ludwig said.
The plutonium orb, which had been jokingly called Rufus before the incident, became known as the demon’s core.
The US government declared Slotin a hero for his sacrifice, though some have debated that, saying his carelessness caused the accident.
“They already had mechanical procedures to do it, but he was a hands-on person and wanted to do it himself,” Zeilig said. “I mean that with love. He was a risk taker.”
He was also “this amazing mind,” a Jewish boy from the North End who contributed to a defining moment in the history of human civilization, Zeilig said.
And that’s how he wants people to think of Slotin: “That he played a key role in advancing that science and knowledge, for better or worse.”
Slotin’s funeral on June 2, 1946 was held at the family home, as was the Jewish tradition. Thousands gathered to pay their respects to him, said a Winnipeg Tribune article the next day.
There were so many people outside the house that “you couldn’t see the yard, you couldn’t see the street,” Ludwig said.
Before Slotin was buried in Winnipeg’s Shaarey Zedek Cemetery, the rabbi called him “one of Winnipeg’s most distinguished sons,” the Tribune article says.
After the accident, the Los Alamos laboratory finished all critical assembly hands-on work. Subsequent fissile core criticality tests were performed with remote-controlled machines.
The facility where it happened is now called the Slotin Building. It has been preserved by the Los Alamos National Laboratory and is part of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.
In Winnipeg, Dr. Louis Slotin Memorial Park sits at the foot of Luxton Avenue, overlooking the Red River.
The small space, with benches and a plaque, is half a block from Slotin’s former home in Scotia.