On Friday, October 2, 2009, Virginia Commonwealth University hosted a reading of Paul Mullin's Louis Slotin Sonata in conjunction with its first-annual E-Festival. The two-day festival, sponsored by VCU's Science, Technology, and Society Program, explored issues related to energy, the environment, and community engagement. It concluded with a staged reading of the Sonata produced by the Carpenter Science Theater at the Grace Street Theatre in Richmond, VA.Image
David Clark as Louis Slotin
The Louis Slotin Sonata explores the last nine days of Manhattan Project scientist Louis Slotin's life. Slotin received a fatal dose of radiation while working at Los Alamos in 1946. He was demonstrating an experiment known as "tickling the dragon's tail," which involved measuring radiation as two subcritical beryllium-coated halves of a sphere holding plutonium at its core were gradually brought closer together without ever touching. Slotin was using a screwdriver as a lever to minimize the distance between the halves. Seven other individuals were in the room when, at 3:20pm on May 21, 1946, Slotin's screwdriver slipped, the halves dropped together, and the plutonium core went supercritical. According to playwright Paul Mullin, it took only milliseconds for Slotin to become "a walking dead man." Despite heroic attempts to save his life, Slotin passed away on May 30, 1946, after what author Martin Zeilig describes as an "agonizing sequence of radiation-induced traumas."
In the Sonata, Mullin depicts Slotin making "his own unique way to redemption" as he rapidly succumbs to radiation poisoning. The play won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Outstanding World Premiere.
The building where the accident happened still stands but is no longer in use. The Atomic Heritage Foundation is working with the Los Alamos National Laboratory to preserve this as a memorial to Slotin and his legacy, a new era of health and safety procedures inaugurated by his untimely death.
The reading on Friday night also featured a panel discussion with Mullin, Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cynthia Kelly and Princeton historian Michael Gordin, moderated by lawyer and bioethicist Elizabeth Blue.
For more information on the Louis Slotin Sonata and playwright Paul Mullin, click here.