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Edward Teller, (1908 - 2003)


Edward Teller, (1908 - 2003) Of all the scientists who worked on the U.S. nuclear weapons program none have led more controversial a career than Edward Teller. Described by one Nobel Prize winner in physics as "one of the most thoughtful statesmen of science," and by another as "a danger to all that's important," Teller was recognized by most of his colleagues as being one of the most imaginative and creative physicists alive. But at the same time, his single-minded pursuit of the hydrogen bomb, and his autocratic style alienated many of the scientists he worked with.

The man who would one day be known as the father of the hydrogen bomb in the U.S. was born into a Jewish family on January 15, 1908 in Budapest, Hungary. He grew up during a particularly turbulent time in Hungarian history. Following a briefly successful communist regime in 1919, the country was ruled by a virulently anti-semitic fascist dictator, Nicholas Horthy.

The political upheavals meant the young Teller was only too happy to leave his homeland in 1926 to study in Germany. In 1930 he got his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Leipzig. Although he accepted a research post in 1931 following his graduation, Teller realized that Hitler's rise to power meant that he should leave Germany as soon as he could. Many years later he told his biographer that "the hope of making an academic career in Germany for a Jew existed before Hitler came and vanished the day he arrived."

In 1935 Teller emigrated to the United States to take up a teaching position at George Washington University. His first years in the U.S. marked a new phase of his career: His postdoctoral research had been in quantum mechanics; at George Washington University, he would begin a very productive collaboration with Russian emigré George Gamow in nuclear physics. At the outbreak of the Second World War, scientists became aware that the nucleus of a uranium atom could be split releasing enormous amounts of energy. It began to seem feasible that this energy could be used to create a weapon of unprecedented power. Teller was among the first scientists recruited to work on the Manhattan Project that was working to develop such a bomb.

It was Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi who first got Teller thinking about an H-bomb. In September 1941, before the United States had even built an A-bomb, he suggested to Teller that an atomic bomb might heat a mass of deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) sufficiently to ignite a thermonuclear reaction. In the summer of 1942, when Teller joined a group of distinguished physicists who were brainstorming about a design for the atomic bomb, he diverted much of the discussion to the feasibility of a superbomb. Teller travelled to California with his old friend Hans Bethe who remembers that even on the way out to Berkeley Teller was already thinking about the super: "Teller told me that the fission bomb [atomic bomb] was all well and good and, essentially, was now a sure thing.. He said that what we really should think about was the possibility of...the hydrogen bomb."

Shortly after Teller arrived at the newly established weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, his obsession with the H-bomb caused tensions with other scientists, particularly Bethe. Bethe remembers that "he declined to take charge of the group which would perform the detailed calculation on the implosion and since the theoretical division was very shorthanded it was necessary to bring in new scientists to do the work that Teller declined to do."

Teller left Los Alamos at the end of the war, returning to the University of Chicago. But when the Soviet Union conducted its first test of an atomic device in August 1949, he did his best to drum up support for a crash program to build a hydrogen bomb. Teller argued that a superbomb was essential to the very survival of the U.S., "If the Russians demonstrate a super before we possess one, our situation will be hopeless." Truman eventually agreed, calling for a hydrogen bomb program at the end of January 1950.

During the course of 1950, Teller was frustrated with the progress of the program. When his initial concept for the bomb didn't appear to work, he insisted that the problem was caused by a shortage of theoreticians at Los Alamos and a lack of imagination. These accusations served to further distance him from the other scientists. When he and mathematician Stanislaw Ulam finally came up with an H-bomb design that would work, Teller was not chosen to head the project. He left Los Alamos and soon joined the newly established Lawrence Livermore laboratory, a rival weapons lab in California.

It was Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance hearings in 1954 that was the occasion for the final rift between Teller and many of his scientific colleagues. Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, had come under scrutiny because of his affiliation with left-leaning political organizations in the 1930s and also because of his consistent opposition to the hydrogen bomb. At Oppenheimer's hearings, Teller testified that "I feel I would prefer to see the vital interests of this country in hands that I understand better and therefore trust more." The testimony enraged many in the scientific community, who felt it was a terrible betrayal of the hardworking and loyal Oppenheimer.

Teller has continued to be a tireless advocate of a strong defense policy, calling for the development of advanced thermonuclear weapons and continued nuclear testing. During the Vietnam War his proposals so incensed radical protestors that some of them actually labeled him a "war criminal." In the 1980s, he was a vigorous proponent of a proposed new defense system that came to be known as the Strategic Defense Initiative or more popularly as Star Wars.
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