TOPICS > Science

Nuclear Architect Edward Teller

September 10, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: Before his death yesterday at the age of 95, Edward Teller was one of the most influential and controversial physicists in history. After fleeing Germany in the 1930s and coming to America, he became deeply concerned about Germany’s interest in nuclear fission. Those fears would lead him to work on the Manhattan Project that resulted in a usable atomic bomb, and later on, to push for the creation of the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s. In his later years, he helped inspire President Reagan to propose a missile defense system nicknamed “Star Wars.” In a 1995 film, he spoke about how his attitude was influenced by president Franklin Roosevelt, when he spoke to a conference of scientists.

EDWARD TELLER: He made the remarkable speech how the world is really endangered by Hitler, among other things, and that the climax, he said, “you scientists are blamed for the weapons to be used. But I tell you, that if you now won’t work on weapons, the freedom of the world will be lost.” Of the 2,000 scientists there, I felt he was talking to me. But in that 20-minute talk, my mind was made up. I continued to like better to work on pure science, but this had to be done. As long as it had to be done and I could contribute, I did and was never sorry for having done it.

RAY SUAREZ: We get more on Edward Teller and his legacy from Richard Rhodes. He is the author of the books “The Atomic Bomb” and “Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb.” Richard Rhodes, from that snippet of an interview with Edward Teller it sounds like after that speech from FDR, he never looked back for the rest of his long life in looking for ways to use these weapons and refine them and improve them.

RICHARD RHODES: You know, it’s sad to realize that that voice is gone, that very distinctive voice with its Hungarian accent. Teller had an interesting time after the end of the Second World War, when the United States had a monopoly in nuclear weapons. He actually came out for world government in the years right after 1945. But that all changed in ’49 when the Soviets tested an atomic bomb. Then it became a matter of great urgency to dr. Teller that we have a new, unique weapon which he thought might be the thermonuclear weapon that he had been working on since the early 1940s.

RAY SUAREZ: In the 20th century, many scientists who have come up with tremendous advances in their fields are little known, not public figures, certainly not outspoken public figures. Was teller unique in the way he married a very, very forceful public posture with his work as a scientist?

RICHARD RHODES: You know, that came later on in his career. When he was busy promoting the hydrogen bomb in the wake of the soviet test in ’49, he really was not a well-known person at all. But as he became the spokesman… as he became political, perhaps I should say, as he became the spokesman for the hawk position in nuclear weapons development, I think he became more visible and then his very charismatic personality shone forth in a very different way from his nemesis, Robert Oppenheimer, but also with equal distinction.

RAY SUAREZ: You refer to Robert Oppenheimer, one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project, as his nemesis. After the Second World War, did the leading nuclear scientists of the day start to break apart in their view of what they had created and the future of nuclear weaponry?

RICHARD RHODES: Again, I think there was a remarkable amount of unanimity among the atomic scientists until the Soviets tested a bomb. Then suddenly there was a sharp division. Understand, we had had a kind of balance of power because the Soviets had a military on the ground in Europe of several million men after the war. And we had the bomb. But when they got the bomb, that balance of forces was suddenly and dramatically disrupted. Then it became a question of what do you do?

And the scientists behind Robert Oppenheimer thought that the right thing to do was to build as quickly as possible more atomic bombs. We knew how to do that. We had the factories for that. Teller saw the possibility of what had been his vision, this huge new megaton-range weapon and convinced… helped convince Harry Truman to announce to the world in 1950 that we would do that, we would try to build that. We didn’t know how to build that at that time. So we told the world we were going to do something that we couldn’t yet do. I think that was an act of great insecurity rather than security. Nevertheless in the course of a couple years we were able to make that breakthrough– teller was able to make that breakthrough.

RAY SUAREZ: Teller was also an advocate of basing weapons in space as a defensive shield against incoming nuclear weapons and also an advocate of the use of nuclear power in the future. His influence seems to have stretched over, what, seven decades?

RICHARD RHODES: Yes, indeed. He was a remarkable, charismatic scientist who became a scientist/politician and he had great influence.

RAY SUAREZ: What about him as a man? There are many people, even people who later became estranged from him, were enemies in his later life who talked about what a remarkable person he was away from the lab.

RICHARD RHODES: Teller was always extraordinary charming. He had that Hungarian, if you will, charm. He played the piano. He loved his wife. He was loyal to his friends. At the same time he was a man who had a very deep fear, and I think sadly that his fear drove his political interests and decisions in a way that perhaps was not the best thing for the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: In his life he worked with many of the giants of physics, Fermi, Isenberg, Neals Bohr. As a scientist, was he one of their peers, one of their equals?

RICHARD RHODES: You know, I’ve asked that question to many people who would be in a position, scientists who would be in a position to know. The same question might have been asked of Robert Oppenheimer, two men who surely should have had Nobel Prizes in their field, but neither one of whom did. Teller seems to have worked around the edges of physics, to have been somewhat scattered. So was Oppenheimer. Whether that’s because their work with weapons distracted them, I don’t know. But he certainly had the capability and was certainly an extraordinary leader as well as a scientist and so was Oppenheimer.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Rhodes, thanks a lot for being with us.