Humans are obsessed with balls. Nearly every sport involves them somehow. Name a sport, and I'll name the balls involved. Football? Balls. Tennis? Balls. Cycling? Ball bearings.
What if, somewhere in the world, there was a ball so deadly that simply being near it could kill. That's exactly what physicists, the people we assume are smarter than us, were playing with in 1945.
Rufus – The Demon is One of Three
Cast your mind back to a time before the threat of nuclear war. Conflict was settled between nations the old-fashioned way, by pouring the youth into a meat grinder and watching the blood ooze out.
Scientists were tasked with finding a new way. The Americans started working on something called the Manhattan Project. Unfortunately, they did not invent the Manhattan Cocktail. Instead, they came up with a bomb so deadly that it has recreated the world as a place living under constant threat of annihilation by an angry old man.
The Manhattan Project created three sub-critical plutonium cores to be used in bombs. First was the core used in the Trinity Test, the first ever nuclear explosion. Second was the core used in “Fat Man”, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Third was Rufus.
After the first two nuclear attacks on Japan, and over 200,000 civilian casualties, the country surrendered. Their surrender came just in time, too. Another bomb was planned, and at its heart would sit Rufus.
Weighing 14 pounds (6.35 kg), and with a diameter of 3.5 inches (8.89 cm), Rufus became the world's deadliest paperweight. The ball consisted of two hemispheres made of a plutonium-gallium alloy, coated in nickel, and separated by a ring meant to keep the core from going super-critical.
Rufus was scheduled to drop on Japan on 19 August 1945. Japanese Emperor Hirohito surrendered on 15 August 1945. Thus saving approximately 100,000 more civilians from nuclear obliteration.
Earning The Name – Demon Core
Rufus was kept at the Los Alamos Laboratory. They had to come up with a use for the orb of death, which was constantly leaking radiation. Apparently, Rufus was warm to the touch, but you wouldn't find me touching that thing.
The scientists decided to use Rufus for testing. You see, they didn't fully understand what they had made. During the Trinity Test, the same scientists who built the bomb had bets on what would happen. They foresaw happy months of play with Rufus. Rufus had other ideas.
Less than a week after Rufus' scheduled detonation, it would take its first life. Bombs, as it turns out, aren't your friend, nuclear bombs less so.
The tests were basically a game of chicken with a sub-critical nuclear core. Scientists would see how close they could get Rufus to going super-critical. Meaning a self-sustaining nuclear reaction.
Tickling the Dragon's Tail, as the scientists lovingly named the procedure, involved placing reflectors around the core to reflect neutron radiation back at the core. Each tungsten-carbide reflector brick brought the core closer to going critical.
One man, Harry Daghlian, went to the core one night after dinner. No reports of him being a bit sauced exist, but I'm going to assume that an external factor was involved in his breach of protocol. Maybe Rufus was calling to him?
Harry Daghlian, butter fingers, was arraying reflectors around the core while a single security guard sat 10 feet (3.05 m) away. One of the tungsten-carbide bricks used as reflectors slipped from Daghlian's fingers, and struck Rufus. This caused the core to go super-critical. Heat and blue light erupted from the core as radiation was released.
Although Daghlian quickly removed the brick from Rufus, the damage was already done. He received a fatal dose of radiation. Acute Radiation Syndrome occurs when you receive 70 rad of radiation over a short period. Harry took 200 rad that day.
When he removed the brick, he felt an odd tingling sensation as radiation tore through his hand. Soon the hand would blister over, and turn mushy, like butter, if you will.
Harry Daghlian's DNA was ripped apart, and his body lost the ability to form the cellular components of blood. He spent 25 days literally falling apart before he died in agony. Daghlian was 24 years old.
Private Robert J. Hemmerly received only 8 rad. He died of cancer at 62.
Rufus had tasted blood, but it wanted more. The core's destiny of death had been ripped away, and it would exact a heavy toll on its creators.
Safety procedures were reviewed following Daghlian's demise. Rufus was placed into a beryllium half-sphere, which would act as a reflector. Another beryllium half-sphere was designed to be placed over the top of the core. This would make Rufus go critical, if the half-spheres were allowed to fully enclose the plutonium core.
The top half-sphere was called the Tamper. It had a slot at the top to be used as a thumb hold.
Louis Slotin, one of the men responsible for building the first nuclear bomb, would become Rufus' second victim. Slotin was a bit irreverent in his approach to experimenting with the core. Protocol dictated the use of shims to ensure the separation of the beryllium half-spheres.
Slotin felt confident in his ability to control the reaction with nothing but a screwdriver. He performed his version of the experiment on several occasions. This prompted the famous physicist, Enrico Fermi, to predict that Louis Slotin would be dead within a year. Fermi was right.
Seven other scientists were in the room when Slotin demonstrated his technique to the man who was to replace him at the Los Alamos lab. Alvin C. Graves watched intently as Slotin lowered the beryllium tamper. Samuel A. Kline, a recent graduate, was close to Slotin as well. The other 5 scientists stood further away.
Louis Slotin lowered the tamper, with his screwdriver separating the two half-spheres. The screwdriver slipped, and the half-spheres fell together, sealing Rufus inside.
Slotin instinctively shielded the others from the core using his own body. The resulting dose of radiation wouldn't turn him into a superhero.
Observing scientist, Raemer Schreiber, wrote in his report of a bright blue flash and a wave of heat in the room. Schreiber wrote in his report:
“The blue flash was clearly visible in the room although it (the room) was well illuminated from the windows and possibly the overhead lights. . . . The total duration of the flash could not have been more than a few tenths of a second. Slotin reacted very quickly in flipping the tamper piece off. The time was about 3:00 p.m.”
Slotin absorbed 1000 rad in that instant. He reported a sour taste in his mouth and a burning sensation in his left hand. Shortly after running from the room, Slotin was seen throwing up.
He was taken to the Los Alamos Hospital, where his condition rapidly deteriorated. Trigger warning, it's about to get gnarly.
Slotin experienced severe diarrhea. His hands and forearms blistered, and the skin sloughed off. His body turned bright red, as if from severe sunburn. Eventually his intestines became paralyzed as most of his body started disintegrating. His body developed runaway gangrene. Louis Slotin's DNA was ripped to shreds and his body started to rot while he lingered in agony.
His body had to be buried in a casket lined by metal.
Rufus received a new name, the Demon Core.
Fate of the Demon
Hands-on experimentation with nuclear material was soon banned following the death of Slotin. The scientists had died a similar death to their victims in Japan. Fate has a strange sense of humor.
That detonation was cancelled, and the military was left wondering what to do with the Demon Core. No one wanted to handle it or experiment on it anymore. Their solution was to melt the Demon Core and use it to make the next generation of nuclear weapons.
Somewhere is a secret stockpile the Demon Core lies waiting to rain fresh death.