September 30, 2014
I’ve been called a cowboy by some timid souls
who do their work as though it were a job.
They say I take unnecessary risks.
I say the bantam champion of King’s
can be his own best judge of when to duck.
I come from savvy stock. My father proved
our fitness when the Czar’s Okhrana forged
their Protocols: he bobbed and weaved and fled
the pogroms in Белая Русь and bought
a house on Manitoba’s Inkster Street.
I learned from my Oтец never to let
a bunch of regulations collar me.
The leash is always held by someone else.
In Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the army built
the largest closed-roof building in the world
to filter handfuls of uranium
235, a rarish isotope,
from its abundant cousin, 38.
Off in a corner of that commonwealth
Wigner ran a prototype reactor
in a fifty-seven hundred gallon tank,
testing techniques to breed plutonium.
One Friday, after weeks of work, we’d reached
the final trial of an assembly
designed to gauge free neutron density,
but counters at the bottom of the tank
required realigning. Morgan planned
to drain and then refill the whole damn thing
for fifteen minutes’ tinkering. I said
he must be crazy, but he clung
to the procedures he’d been taught,
though they’d delay the run, and Wigner hoped
to have the weekend to decode the data.
I didn’t see the sense in waiting, so
when Morgan went to lunch, I stayed and stripped
to my BVDs. I will admit it was
tricky working underwater, but
I had those counters humming like a top
when he got back. But did he thank me? No.
He blew his stack and damned me for a fool,
although the radiation never topped
acceptable parameters. Call it
chutzpah or dumb bravado if you like,
I saw a job and did it. Period.
To hell with fear and excess caution, if
it interferes with what I know is right.
Louis Slotin, physicist
By John Canaday