The first wartime deaths from nuclear weaponry were vast in number and world-changing in scope. The first peacetime deaths from that same technology were far quieter incidents, free of violence but still illustrative of the awful power of the bomb.
The physicist Louis Slotin was part of the team that figured out how much nuclear material (plutonium and uranium) would be needed for the bombs used at the end of World War II. And as Richard L. Miller explained in his 1986 book Under the Cloud, Slotin wanted to see his work through to the end by accompanying the pilots who dropped the bomb, but he wasn’t given permission. Frustrated, he decided to go on vacation instead and leave his young assistant, Harry Daghlian, to continue his experiments while he was away.
On Aug. 21, 1945, Daghlian was stacking tungsten carbide bricks as a reflector around a plutonium core…
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