A collection of poems in the voices of the scientists, spouses,
laborers, locals, and military personnel involved in the Manhattan
Project. The first volume, now nearing completion, covers the years
leading up to the Manhattan Project, the design and construction of
the first nuclear weapons, and the Trinity test. A second volume,
partially drafted, will include preparations at the Tinian airbase in
the Pacific, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the aftermath.
An extended selection of these poems is available from At Length
Louis Slotin Assembles the Plutonium
Implosion Core for the Trinity Test, July 1945
At first, the actual assembly was about
as riveting as watching someone bake
a birthday cake or write a book. I did
the whole thing sitting down. And yet
the smallest details of the scene
seem luminous in memory. The tabletop
was masked with long brown sheets of butcher paper
strewn with the gadget's odds and ends.
They gleamed like gold- and nickel-plated
grapefruit halves. It felt as though I moved
in thickened light. Each gesture slow, precise,
painstaking, and intense.
My focus narrowed to the metal parts
arrayed before me. One by one,
I moved them into place. A small sphere
of beryllium was first, cupped like an egg
between two hemispheres of hollowed-out
plutonium, womb-shaped, as warm as flesh
from random fissions. Then the curved leaves of
plum-colored tamper. Each part knew its place.
Between my hands, I felt a world take shape.
The Geiger counter clicked. My palms grew slick.
I felt my fingers slowly growing numb,
gripping the heavy chunks, more dense than gold.
I shifted my grip abruptly.
Everybody jumped. My back ached.
Were my fingers freezing or on fire?
I tried to blink away the sparks
from my exhausted retinas. I leaned
close to the sphere, but suddenly it shrank
to a speck far out of reach. Or had it swelled
to planet size? Huge, jagged mountains thrust
toward me, and yet so small it seemed
a single pinpoint stabbed my fingertips.
I felt myself begin to fall. I closed
my eyes. My stomach lurched.
The taste of rotten lemons stained my tongue.
Surely, somehow, the core went critical.
A blue glow filled the air: The radiation
ionized the aqueous humor of my eyes.
Now I would die.
Then Serber spoke. "Louis,
are you all right?" He touched my shoulder. My eyes
were wet. I opened them. In my clenched hands
was the completed core. It seemed that I
was not among the ones about to die.
Published in The Cincinnati Review
Volume 2, Number 2 (Winter 2005)
and Poetry Daily, January 11, 2006
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