The real life Doctor Manhattan

Watchmen novel coverI thought many of you might enjoy this little gem I came across while digesting my daily dose of science. It turns out that Dr. Manhattan of Watchmen seems to have a real life counterpart.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, Watchmen is a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Gibbons. It’s the only graphic novel to receive sci-fi’s most prestigious award, Hugo Award, and the only graphic novel to make the NY Time’s 100 best English-language novels. Those of you who’ve read it, read on for the real life Dr. Manhattan. For those of you who haven’t read it fetch yourselves a copy, enjoy some great sci-fi, and then come back to this post. If you don’t the writing style of this entry won’t make sense to you.

In the novel, Jon Osterman, scientist with a Ph.D. in atomic physics, accidentally gets locked inside a test chamber for removing “intrinsic fields” of objects (a made up concept). In a blue glow of fury, Osterman is torn to shreds and—as you know since you read the novel like I asked you to—later reconstructs himself to become the worlds only superhero. First appearing as a brilliantly illustrated walking nervous system.

Below is the depiction of the accident from the upcoming Watchmen film directed by Zack Snyder (Official site, IMDb, Wikipedia). Which will hopefully hit the theaters in March 2009 (Fox is currently suing Warner Brothers in an attempt to block its release due to copyright concerns. That won’t happen (fingers crossed)).

Jon Osterman's accident as depicted in the upcoming Watchmen film

It’s May 21, 1946, Louis Alexander Slotin, scientist with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry, is working on the Manhattan Project with his colleagues. Their experiment involves fission reaction, placing two half-spheres of beryllium around a plutonium core.

Picture of Louis Alexander Slotin

At 3:20 p.m. Slotin is grasping an upper beryllium hemisphere with his left hand while maintaining separation of the sphere with a screwdriver—a tool that was not part of the protocol. The screwdriver slips and the upper hemisphere fell, causing a critical reaction and a burst of hard radiation.
Beryllium spheres
Recreation of the accident.

His colleagues report seeing a “blue glow” as the air ionized and felt a wave of heat. Slotin retracted his hand in reaction and the upper hemisphere fell on the floor. He was exposed to a lethal dose of radiation, equivalent of being 1500 meters away from a detonation of an atomic bomb.

Nine days later, Slotin becomes the second victim in history to die of a criticality accident.

It’s March 6th, 2004, and the article for Doctor Louis A. Slotin is being created on Wikipedia.

It’s 2008, 4.5 years later, and I’m discovering the article. One hundred and fifteen minutes later I adapt it to publish on Think Artificial.

Links & References

  • Text adapted from Slotin’s page on Wikipedia

Important Notes

I don’t know if Slotin was really an inspiration for Alan Moore, but it doesn’t seem unlikely. And regardless, if there is a real life Doc, then it’s Slotin. Which brings me to another point: I didn’t find any online mention of this likeness — could it be that after all these years this hasn’t been discussed?

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4 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. I’m thinking Alan Moore did have Dr. Slotin in mind, or was at least aware of some of the accidents of the early research into atomic power. Slotin inspired a fictionalized treatment of the incident in the 1989 film “Fat Man and Little Boy,” where John Cusack recreates the criticality accident, but with the timeframe moved up to within the 1945 race to create the atomic bomb rather than almost a year after the war ended.

    Cusack’s character is supposedly a composite of Slotin and also Harry K. Daghlian, Jr., who died in September, 1945, 21 days after having a similar accident. Daghlian’s accident came closer to the actual time setting of the movie, but was still a few weeks after the a-bombings of Japan.

    Moore’s Dr. Manhattan seems to fictionally embody both these men’s stories and those of others who gave their lives pushing science’s envelope. And kind of resonates with this new Hadron Supercollider and the hysteria surrounding it. I’d love to read what Moore could come up with based on some of these wild theories!

  2. Hi Joel.
    Indeed, it sounds likely that he did have Slotin in mind.

    I hadn’t heard of the Cusack movie. Sounds good. I’ll pick it up a DVD and check it out. And yeah, it would be interesting to see what Moore could do with them, do you know if he’s still working on something?

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