Tickling the tail of the COVID-19 dragon

Recreation of the Manhattan Project experiment at Los Alamos that led to the death of Louis Slotin in May 1946.

In trying to come up with a metaphor that captures the ill-considered approach used by many Republican governors to address the COVID-19 pandemic that is impacting their states, I have decided on this one: tickling the dragon’s tail. Allow me to elaborate on where the expression comes from and why I think it is an apt metaphor for the dangerous way republicans in this country have gone about reopening their economies.

The origin story for tickling the dragon’s tail begins with World War II’s Manhattan Project. There were many technical challenges that Allied scientists faced at the time in their efforts to develop the atom bomb.

Probably the most visible among these was acquiring enough fissile material — enriched uranium or plutonium — to serve as a core for the kind of explosive device they had in mind. Entire cities such as Oakridge, Tennessee, were constructed to accomplish this particular goal.

But even with adequate amounts of nuclear material in hand, it was no mean feat to configure a quantity of it so that it would detonate properly when the time came to cause a bomb to explode. In the case of plutonium, this meant somehow compressing a sphere of the radioactive metal the size of a small grapefruit so that it achieved what is called a critical configuration. In such circumstances, the plutonium nuclei in the sphere begin to split apart and, in the process, emit neutrons which would in turn split other plutonium nuclei, leading to an explosive runaway chain reaction.

This problem of achieving criticality came with its own set of hurdles, too. Notably, the the plutonium core had to compressed and kept in place for a tiny fraction of a section and be held in place by the uniform detonation of a blanket of conventional explosives that enveloped it. In addition, some way had to be found to contain the neutrons that were escaping the plutonium core through so that they could be redirected inward to continue to contribute in the nuclear chain reaction already underway there.

The solution to this problem corralling wayward neutrons was to surround the plutonium core with a sphere of neutron-reflective material, namely beryllium. This component was referred to as a tamper. As with many of the technical obstacles, determining the exact parameters of the tamper meant venturing into unexplored territory. Experimental measurements had to be made that would confirm then nuclear weapons design theories that then existed only on the drawing board.

You can imagine that testing an assembly consisting of a highly radioactive plutonium sphere and half of the neutron-reflecting tamper as it was being lowered into place to stimulate a chain reaction was dangerous work. And, although there was no chance that a nuclear explosion could occur — the powerful compression of the tamper and its core driven by conventional explosives were necessary for that to happen — an deadly amount of radiation would nonetheless be generated if the beryllium tamper simply came into contact with the plutonium sphere beneath it.

So dangerous was this precarious work that it acquired a nickname of its own; it was called “tickling the dragon’s tail.”

Of course there were protocols in place to prevent the occurrence of this deadly release of nuclear radiation. Shims were to be used keep the tamper and the plutonium core separated by an acceptable distance. In spite of these precautions, these flirtations with criticality failed on two occasions. And the dragon, once awakened, lashed out with immediate and ultimately lethal effect.

The better documented of these two failures occurred on May 21, 1946. (In the runup to the Cold War the the fruits of the Manhattan Project were by then being turned to new national security purposes.) This accident involved a young Canadian physicist named Louis Slotin. If anyone in the world was an expert at handling plutonium cores, it was Slotkin. He had being doing this kind of delicate work with plutonium since the first atomic bomb was tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico the summer of the previous year. Slotin was confident in his skills in this regard, maybe too much so.

So, instead of relying on available shims to keep the tamper and the plutonium core safely separated, Slotin improvised briefly and used a screwdriver that he had handy as a makeshift separator. Tragically, the screwdriver slipped, the beryllium tamper contacted the plutonium core, there was a burst of blinding blue light, and nine days later Louis Slotin was dead, felled by a dose of lethal neutron radiation, the magnitude of which has never been visited upon any other human being since.

This brings me back to my initial claim that tickling the dragon’s tail is an apt characterization of red state reopenings. There are three ways I think that this metaphor succeeds. First, it suggests undertaking a dangerous experiment in which there is absolutely no margin of error. Second, once things go wrong, if they do, the tragic outcome is hopelessly irrevocable. And third, the result of a even the smallest mistake leads to a rapid catastrophic outcome.

Some Republican governors, following President Trump’s lead, have chosen to disregard or discount public health safety protocols and return their states to some approximation of open-for-business. They are confident, without any basis in experience, that they can manage the COVID-19 pandemic in their states and improvise as necessary to keep things from spinning out of control. As it turns out, they can’t. And, as a result, many more people have become ill with COVID-19, some of whom will die.

To a large extent, Louis Slotin’s fatal mistake while tickling his plutonium core was understandable. He had refined his skills in wartime circumstances during which safety was sometimes sacrificed for expediency. In addition, systems and equipment for handling nuclear materials were still being developed, so safeguards like the ones we have in place today had yet to be invented.

Republican political leaders have no such excuses. They know full well what the best public health recommendations are about managing the COVID-19. They also know full well the consequences of what will happen to tens of thousand of their own citizens should they mess up.

Instead, they insist on pursuing a dangerous experiment with the health and well-being of their citizens that involves tickling the tail of the COVID-19 dragon, a dangerous experiment, one which leaves no margin of error and one which will result in irrevocable, catastrophic results if it fails.

The data coming in from red state health departments over the past two weeks indicates that the dragon of coronavirus contagion has recklessly been aroused and is now claiming its due in illness and human life.

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Marc Merlin

My interests include science, politics, philosophy, and film. I am the Executive Director of the Atlanta Science Tavern a grassroots, public science forum.