Edward Teller

The Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller (born 1908)—sometimes called the "father" or the "architect" of the hydrogen bomb—was for decades on the forefront of the nuclear question and in the 1980s was an advocate of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as "Star Wars."

Born in Budapest, Hungary, on January 15, 1908, Edward Teller was the second child of Ilona Deutsch and Max Teller, a lawyer from Hungarian Monrovia. When he was twelve years old, Edward was introduced to one of his father's friends, Leopold Klug, a professor of mathematics at the University of Budapest. Klug gave Edward Teller a copy of Euler's Algebra. Later Teller wrote: "I never shall forget him [Klug]. I knew, after meeting Professor Klug, what I wanted to do when I grew up." As he recalled: "For as long as I could remember, I had wanted to do one thing: to play with ideas and find out how the world is put together." The first 18 years of his life were spent in Budapest. Before the end of high school, Teller had befriended Eugene P. Wigner (Nobel Laureate for Physics, 1963), John von Neumann (later the celebrated mathematician), and Leo Szilard (later the "father" of the atomic bomb).

Leaving Hungary because of anti-Semitism, Teller went to Germany to study chemistry and mathematics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology from 1926 to 1928. A lecture he heard by Herman Mark on the new science of molecular spectroscopy made a lasting impression on him: "He [Mark] made it clear that new ideas in physics had changed chemistry into an important part of the forefront of physics." After Karlsruhe, Teller went to the University of Munich in 1928. As a result of a streetcar accident in Munich on July 14, 1928, he lost most of his right foot. Reconstructive surgery enabled him to walk without a prosthetic, but he occasionally chose to use an artificial foot. From Munich, Teller went to the University of Leipzig from 1929 to 1930. There he obtained a Ph.D. in physical chemistry under Werner Heisenberg in 1930. His dissertation was on experiments in which he used quantum mechanics to calculate energy levels in an excited hydrogen molecule. From 1929 to 1931 he was a research associate at the University of Leipzig. He held a similar position at the University of Göttingen from 1931 to 1933.

Following Heisenberg's advice, he went in 1934—as a Rockefeller Fellow—to study under Niels Bohr at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. On February 26, 1934, a few weeks after starting his Copenhagen fellowship, Teller married Augusta Maria Harkanyi, having known her for many years. He then became a lecturer at the University of London (City College of London) in 1934-1935.

Becomes an American Citizen

In 1935 Teller came to the United States. He became professor of physics at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., from 1935 to 1946. While on leave during 1941-1942, he held a similar position at Columbia University in New York. At George Washington University Teller worked with George Gamow. Together they calculated the rules for one of the major forms of radioactivity, which became known as the Gamow-Teller selection rules for beta decay. He spent the summer of 1939 at Columbia University "doing a little lecturing to graduate students but primarily as the peacemaker on the Fermi-Szilard project." He moved to Columbia University in 1941 to work on the atomic bomb project. He wrote later: "My moral decision had been made in 1941. That was the year I joined the effort to produce an atomic bomb. That was the year I became an American citizen." Indeed, he and his wife were sworn in as naturalized citizens in March 1941. Their family soon grew to include as son in 1943 and a daughter in 1946.

The Manhattan Project

As a physicist, Teller worked from 1942 to 1946 for the Manhattan Engineering District (wartime Manhattan Project). Early in 1942 he worked with Fermi on fission problems at Columbia University. In 1942-1943 he was at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. In April 1943 he joined the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where he remained until 1946 when he left to teach at the University of Chicago until 1949 when he returned to Los Alamos to complete his work on the bomb. According to Teller: "In Los Alamos my metamorphosis was completed. In January 1939 I had been a pure theoretical physicist. Before the attack on Hiroshima I had started work in applied science. After the war, I tried to find my way back to the simpler life of a scientist and a teacher. I never succeeded."

Only three weeks separated the experimental explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, in southern New Mexico (July 16, 1945), and the bombing of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945). The bomb was "The result of our wartime work at Los Alamos." And as Teller recalls: "As the oldest member of our group (I was thirty-seven), I was invited to see the test from an observation area just 20 miles away." In his book The Legacy of Hiroshima (1962), Teller writes: "It was necessary and right to develop the atomic bomb. It was unnecessary and wrong to bomb Hiroshima without specific warning." He adds: "Soap and water do not wash away sin. Nuclear test bans cannot erase the memory of Hiroshima."

At the University of Chicago, Teller was professor of physics from February 1946 to 1952. On leave from the university, he returned in 1949 to Los Alamos on a full-time basis. He remained there until 1952 as assistant director of what is now called Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Looking backward, Teller says (1987): "In 1949 I advocated work on the hydrogen bomb, a weapon of attack….Iam now arguing for the development of the means to defend against those weapons."

On January 31, 1950, President Harry S. Truman made a statement on the hydrogen bomb, in which he declared: "…I have directed the Atomic Energy Commission to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or superbomb." J. Robert Oppenheimer and the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission had earlier expressed their opposition to the "Superbomb" or "Super." Apart from Teller, Ernest O. Lawrence and Luis W. Alvarez were among the principal supporters of the "Super." In fact, "Teller lobbied hard for the super in 1949, after the nation heard the news of the Soviet nuclear breakthrough."

The first full-scale thermonuclear explosion—of "Mike"—occurred on November 1, 1952. The islet of the Eniwetok chain, Elugelab, in the South Pacific, where it took place, was wiped off the face of the earth. Teller was not on hand for this first explosion. He had left Los Alamos exactly one year before, on November 1, 1951. While in California on November 1, 1952, he "attended the first hydrogen bomb explosion by watching the sensitive seismograph at the University of California in Berkeley." A bomb of ten megatons, "Mike" was about a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

To whom should go the credit of the development of the H-bomb? Teller has been called its "father" or "architect." As stated by Teller himself in a 1955 issue of Science, "Hundreds of ideas and thousands of technical skills are required for success. The hydrogen bomb is an achievement of this kind." A capital contribution was made by Stanislaw Ulam, the Polish-born mathematician: he "formulated the original design idea that Teller adapted and made into a workable bomb" (Pringle and Spigelman). Teller also remarked in Science, "In the whole development [of the H-bomb] I claim credit in one respect only: I believed, and persisted in believing, in the possibility and the necessity of developing the thermonuclear bomb."

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer is the title given to the official transcript of the hearing before the Personnel Security Board in Washington, DC, April 12, 1954-May 6, 1954. After Teller's testimony at this security hearing, and the subsequent withdrawal of Oppenheimer's security clearance, "Oppenheimer was widely seen as a scientific martyr and Teller as his persecutor" (Broad). Teller was "Scorned by scientific colleagues" (Broad). As Teller remarked in 1987, "As a result of acting on my beliefs, I lost what I wished to retain: friendly fellowship with many of my fellow scientists." To this day, in spite of the passing of time, the scientific community remains divided on the Teller-Oppenheimer controversy. Later, after hearing testimony from former Prisoners of War that they were to be killed when the planned invasion of Japan began, Teller said that, "for the first time, I had a real impression which almost amounts to a moral justification for using the atomic bomb." By stopping the war with the bomb most of those POW's were saved.

Other Positions and Awards

Teller was a consultant at the Livermore Branch of the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California from 1952 to 1953. He became associate director at what is now called Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (after Ernest O. Lawrence) from 1954 to 1958; he was later director (1958-1960) and again associate director (1960-1975), and finally consultant and associate director emeritus (after 1975). At the University of California at Berkeley, he became professor of physics (1953-1960), professor of physics-at-large (1960-1970), university professor (1970-1975), and professor emeritus (after 1975). After 1975 Teller was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. Among his other positions, Teller was a member of the White House Science Council from 1982 to 1986.

After 1954 more than 20 honorary degrees were bestowed upon him. He was a recipient of numerous awards, among which were the Enrico Fermi Award for 1962 (given by President John F. Kennedy and handed over for the late president by President Lyndon B. Johnson), and the National Medal of Science for 1982 (given by President Ronald Reagan) for his research on stellar energy, fusion reaction, molecular physics, and nuclear safety. Among other awards Teller received are the Priestly Memorial Award (1957), the Einstein Award (1959), the General Donovan Memorial Award (1959), the Robins Award (1963), the Leslie R. Groves Gold Medal (1974), the Harvey Prize (1975), the Sylvanus Thayer Award (1986), the Presidential Citizen Medal (1989), and the Order of Banner with Rubies of the Republic of Hungary.

The Star Wars Project

On March 23, 1983, President Reagan announced "a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles." The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) became better known as "Star Wars." Teller was a strong advocate of the project—he met with the president in September 1982 to brief him on it. This controversial issue divided both the scientific and political worlds. Eventually, the plan was determined to be flawed: the satellites cost more that anticipated; the computer technology for the systems was complicated and unreliable; and the nuclear powered lasers were rejected.

Further Reading on Edward Teller

Alone or in collaboration, Teller published more than a dozen books from 1939 to 1987. Here is a selective list: Better A Shield Than a Sword. Perspectives on Defense and Technology (1987); The Pursuit of Simplicity (1980); Energy From Heaven and Earth (1979); with Wilson K. Talley, Gary H. Higgins, and Gerald W. Johnson, The Constructive Uses of Nuclear Explosives (1968); with Allen Brown, The Legacy of Hiroshima (1962). Among Teller's many articles, "The Work of Many People, " Science 121 (February 1955) should be singled out.

An objective biography of Teller exists: Stanley A. Blumberg and Gwinn Owens, Energy and Conflict: The Life and Times of Edward Teller (1976). On the atomic bomb, the H-bomb, and Teller, read, in particular: Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986); Peter Wyden, Day One. Before Hiroshima and After (1985); Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion, July 16, 1945 (1984); Robert C. Williams and Philip L. Cantelon, editors, The American Atom: A Documentary History of Nuclear Policies From the Discovery of Fission to the Present. 1939-1984 (1984); and Herbert F. York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb (1976).

For the public debate on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or "Star Wars" see Franklin A. Long, Donald Hafner, and Jeffrey Boutwell, editors, Weapons in Space (1986), and Steven E. Miller and Stephen Van Evera, editors, The Star Wars Controversy. An International Security Reader (1986).

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