How to Be A Dumbass Nuclear Physicist

If you were to personify intelligence you could say it looks like a white lab coat clad scientist without receiving the smallest dispute. Except from me that is. Although scientists are undeniably smart, many of their discoveries end up being a confluence of happy or stupid mistakes while researching other things. Life-saving penicillin? Fleming forgot to wash his petri dishes resulting in a bacteria-killing mold growing on them. X-Rays? He passed electricity through a gas under low pressure and noticed a screen on the other side of the room glowing. Microwaves were discovered when engineer Percy Spencer stood to close to a magnetron and a chocolate bar melted in his pocket. Of course, those discoveries actually helped humanity, the one that I’m going to talk was less than let’s say noble.

The Manhattan project was the research project that developed the catastrophic nuclear weapon technology that in a twisted karmic way, killed many of the people involved in the research (although not nearly as many people that died when it was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). One of the cores used during experimentation was slightly more deadly to the researchers than the others. In fact, it was considered cursed and given the ominous moniker The Demon Core, and this is its story.

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The Demon Core

First let’s have a little “nuclear fission for dummies”, basically when a nucleus of a material such as uranium or plutonium (specific isotopes of the aforementioned metals though) breaks apart, it releases neutrons, the neutrons slam into adjacent atoms splitting them up creating a sustained chain reaction. The energy that is expelled during this chain reaction is so tremendously powerful that it can create temperatures at ground zero of 20 Million Degrees Fahrenheit (11 Million degrees C and compared to the 15 million degrees of the sun’s core). It vaporizes surrounding material that results in rapid expansion (see devastating explosions) and releases multiple types of deadly thermal radiation.

This release of thermal radiation is arguably the most devastating part of the explosion. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, peoples’ and objects’ “shadows” were “photographed” etched into standing structures due to this radiation; if that isn’t clear click on the link for terrifying examples (they are not gruesome but profoundly haunting). The radiation released also has long-term effects causing cancers, birth defects and radiation poisoning to anyone that was exposed to it.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the diminutive 6.2 kg piece of plutonium that can cause such unfathomable destruction. The demon core as it became known at the Los Alamos test facility that created the most destructive weapon humanity has ever known was a core identical to the one used in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. The terrifying fact was that it was intended for a third bomb that would be used against Japan and had even been scheduled to be dropped on August 19th, because apparently President Truman first wanted to see the results of the two other bombs…luckily for humanity, Japan preemptively surrendered on August 15th, 1945. I do not want to know what shame we would have to shoulder if that third bomb was dropped.

So for the purpose of this article I want you to imagine a balloon that is on the verge of exploding, any small breath or slightly sharp implement can make it explode. That’s basically the state the Demon Core was perpetually in. The slightest disruption of its resting state could result in a chain reaction and a nuclear explosion. This actually almost happened twice at the Los Alamos facility, with the same core.

The first incident was when scientist Harry K. Daghlian, Jr. was stacking neutron reflective tungsten carbide bricks around the Demon Core dropping one of these bricks on the core that started the chain reaction that could result in a nuclear explosion. Daghlian managed to knock away the brick, avoiding a full out chain reaction but even so the radiation released was enough to kill him in just 25 days. He was an accomplished scientist at the time of the accident and was working on his doctoral degree. Hopefully, this meant that he died doing what he loved.

The Second Incident

Louis Slotin was basically Chemistry’s answer to Hemmingway, he was anti-air gunner in the war, had been in Spain during its Civil War (some say he even fought in it) and had trained as a Royal Air Force Pilot. He was exceptionally gifted in early life too, gaining entrance to the University of Manitoba at the young age of 16, and he did extensive research on creating Plutonium (possibly why he was chosen for the Manhattan project). During an experiment in which Slotin had to manually, I emphasize manually, bring the core material to critical mass and measure the results…critical mass if you haven’t been paying attention is what happens right before a nuclear explosion, somewhere bad happened.

Well, Slotin was placing a neutron reflective hemisphere over the Demon Core with seven other science folks watching. But, instead of using the shims that the procedure required, Slotin was using a flat-headed screwdriver…yes, you read that correctly a scientist, a breath’s distance away from radioactive material that he was trying to force to the lip of creating a nuclear explosion was using a screwdriver. Slotin accidently dropped the hemisphere he was using, resulting in a release of radiation that killed him 9 days later. Although the other scientist that were exposed didn’t die immediately, it did significantly shorten their life, and they all died of ailments related to exposure to radiation.


Shortly after the last experiment that resulted in the death and exposure of the scientist the core was used in the first post-WWII nuclear experiment and was detonated at the Bikini Atoll in 1946 under the codename Operation Crossroads. The bomb casing was given the nickname Gilda and decorated with the image of Rita Hayworth from the eponymous movie. The test sought to see the damage two nuclear weapons would have on warships.

Although circumstantial and relatively absurd there is even a theory connecting the children’s cartoon Sponge Bob Squarepants with the Bikini Atoll nuclear test. According to Nickelodeon, Bikini Bottom (the location of the cartoon and titular character) is located below the Bikini Atoll, which is where the two bombs were detonated in 1946. One of the bombs, however, was detonated underwater. According to the theorists this resulted in the eradiation and mutation of the cartoons cast, thus the reason they are anthropomorphized. This could also explain the erroneous Pineapple growing out of the sea floor that Spongebob lives in…

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Do you know of any other sloppy scientists that killed themselves while conducting their research? Let me know in the comment section below.




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