The Cowboy: Louis Slotin, Physicist

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.