Teller (January 15, 1908 September 9, 2003) was
a Hungarian-born American theoretical physicist, known
colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb",
even though he claimed he did not care for the title.
Teller made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular
physics, spectroscopy (the JahnTeller and RennerTeller
effects), and surface physics. His extension of Fermi's
theory of beta decay (in the form of the so-called GamowTeller
transitions) provided an important stepping stone in the
applications of this theory. The JahnTeller effect
and the BET theory have retained their original formulation
and are still mainstays in physics and chemistry. Teller
also made contributions to ThomasFermi theory, the
precursor of density functional theory, a standard modern
tool in the quantum mechanical treatment of complex molecules.
In 1953, along with Nicholas Metropolis and Marshall Rosenbluth,
Teller co-authored a paper which is a standard starting
point for the applications of the Monte Carlo method to
emigrated to the United States in the 1930s, and was an
early member of the Manhattan Project charged with developing
the first atomic bombs. During this time he made a serious
push to develop the first fusion-based weapons as well,
but these were deferred until after World War II. After
his controversial testimony in the security clearance
hearing of his former Los Alamos colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer,
Teller was ostracized by much of the scientific community.
He continued to find support from the U.S. government
and military research establishment, particularly for
his advocacy for nuclear energy development, a strong
nuclear arsenal, and a vigorous nuclear testing program.
He was a co-founder of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
(LLNL), and was both its director and associate director
for many years.
Edward Teller in 1958 as Director of the
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
his later years he became especially known for his advocacy
of controversial technological solutions to both military
and civilian problems, including a plan to excavate an
artificial harbor in Alaska using thermonuclear explosive
in what was called Project Chariot. He was a vigorous
advocate of Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. Throughout
his life, Teller was known both for his scientific ability
and his difficult interpersonal relations and volatile
personality, and is considered one of the inspirations
for the character Dr. Strangelove in the 1964 movie of
the same name.
life and education
was born in Budapest, Hungary (then Austria-Hungary),
into a Jewish family, in the year 1908. His parents were
Ilona (née Deutsch), a pianist, and Max Teller,
an attorney. When he was very young, his grandfather told
his mother not to be too unhappy that he was apparently
an idiot, because he hadn't spoken by the age of three.
A doctor suggested he might be mentally retarded. Teller
had no interest in speaking because his father spoke Hungarian
and very poor German, and his mother spoke German and
very poor Hungarian. As a result, he decided that they
didn't know what they were talking about.
Despite being raised in a Jewish family, he later on became
an agnostic. He became very interested in numbers, and
would calculate in his head large numbers, such as the
number of seconds in a year.
Teller in his youth
left Hungary in 1926 (partly due to the numerus clausus
rule under Horthy's regime). The political climate and
revolutions in Hungary during his youth instilled a lingering
animosity for both Communism and Fascism in Teller. When
he was a young student, his right foot was severed in
a streetcar accident in Munich, requiring him to wear
a prosthetic foot and leaving him with a lifelong limp.
Teller graduated in chemical engineering at the University
of Karlsruhe and received his Ph.D. in physics under Werner
Heisenberg at the University of Leipzig. Teller's Ph.D.
dissertation dealt with one of the first accurate quantum
mechanical treatments of the hydrogen molecular ion. In
1930 he befriended Russian physicists George Gamow and
Lev Landau. Teller's lifelong friendship with a Czech
physicist, George Placzek, was very important for Teller's
scientific and philosophical development. It was Placzek
who arranged a summer stay in Rome with Enrico Fermi for
young Teller, thus orienting his scientific career in
spent two years at the University of Göttingen, and
left in 1933 through the aid of the International Rescue
Committee. He went briefly to England, and moved for a
year to Copenhagen, where he worked under Niels Bohr.
In February 1934, he married Augusta Maria "Mici"
(pronounced "Mitzi") Harkanyi, the sister of
a longtime friend.
1935, thanks to George Gamow's incentive, Teller was invited
to the United States to become a Professor of Physics
at George Washington University (GWU), where he worked
with Gamow until 1941. Prior to the discovery of fission
in 1939, Teller was engaged as a theoretical physicist,
working in the fields of quantum, molecular, and nuclear
physics. In 1941, after becoming a naturalized citizen
of the United States, his interest turned to the use of
nuclear energy, both fusion and fission.
GWU, Teller predicted the JahnTeller effect (1937),
which distorts molecules in certain situations; this affects
the chemical reactions of metals, and in particular the
coloration of certain metallic dyes. Teller and Hermann
Arthur Jahn analyzed it as a piece of purely mathematical
physics. In collaboration with Brunauer and Emmet, Teller
also made an important contribution to surface physics
and chemistry: the so-called BrunauerEmmettTeller
World War II began, Teller wanted to contribute to the
war effort. On the advice of the well-known Caltech aerodynamicist
and fellow Hungarian émigré Theodore von
Kármán, Teller collaborated with his friend
Hans Bethe in developing a theory of shock-wave propagation.
In later years, their explanation of the behavior of the
gas behind such a wave proved valuable to scientists who
were studying missile re-entry.
1942, Teller was invited to be part of Robert Oppenheimer's
summer planning seminar at the University of California,
Berkeley for the origins of the Manhattan Project, the
Allied effort to develop the first nuclear weapons. A
few weeks earlier, Teller had been meeting with his friend
and colleague Enrico Fermi about the prospects of atomic
warfare, and Fermi had nonchalantly suggested that perhaps
a weapon based on nuclear fission could be used to set
off an even larger nuclear fusion reaction. Even though
he initially explained to Fermi why he thought the idea
would not work, Teller was fascinated by the possibility
and was quickly bored with the idea of "just"
an atomic bomb (even though this was not yet anywhere
near completion). At the Berkeley session, Teller diverted
discussion from the fission weapon to the possibility
of a fusion weapon what he called the "Super"
(an early version of what was later to be known as a hydrogen
December 6, 1941, the United States had begun development
of the atomic bomb, under the supervision of Arthur Compton,
chairman of the University of Chicago physics department,
who coordinated uranium research with Columbia University,
Princeton University, University of Chicago, and University
of California, Berkeley. Eventually, Compton transferred
the Columbia and Princeton scientists to the Metallurgical
Laboratory at Chicago, and Enrico Fermi moved in at the
end of April 1942 and the construction of Chicago Pile
1 began. Teller was left behind at first, but then called
to Chicago two months later. In early 1943, the Los Alamos
laboratory was built to design an atomic bomb under the
supervision of Oppenheimer in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Teller moved there in April 1943.
Teller's ID badge photo from Los Alamos
became part of the Theoretical Physics division at the
then-secret Los Alamos laboratory during the war, and
continued to push his ideas for a fusion weapon even though
it had been put on a low priority during the war (as the
creation of a fission weapon was proving to be difficult
enough by itself). Because of his interest in the H-bomb,
and his frustration at having been passed over for director
of the theoretical division (the job was instead given
to Hans Bethe), Teller refused to engage in the calculations
for the implosion mechanism of the fission bomb. This
caused tensions with other researchers, as additional
scientists had to be employed to do that workincluding
Klaus Fuchs, who was later revealed to be a Soviet spy.
Apparently, Teller managed to also irk his neighbors by
playing the piano late in the night. However, Teller made
valuable contributions to bomb research, especially in
the elucidation of the implosion mechanism. He also was
one of the few scientists to actually watch (with eye
protection) the first test detonation in July 1945, rather
than follow orders to lie on the ground with backs turned.
He later said that the atomic flash "was as if
I had pulled open the curtain in a dark room and broad
daylight streamed in."
1946, Teller participated in a conference in which the
properties of thermonuclear fuels such as deuterium and
the possible design of a hydrogen bomb were discussed.
It was concluded that Teller's assessment of a hydrogen
bomb had been too favourable, and that both the quantity
of deuterium needed, as well as the radiation losses during
deuterium burning, would shed doubt on its workability.
Addition of expensive tritium to the thermonuclear mixture
would likely lower its ignition temperature, but even
so, nobody knew at that time how much tritium would be
needed, and whether even tritium addition would encourage
heat propagation. At the end of the conference, in spite
of opposition by some members such as Robert Serber, Teller
submitted an unduly optimistic report in which he said
that a hydrogen bomb was feasible, and that further work
should be encouraged on its development. Fuchs had also
participated in this conference, and transmitted this
information to Moscow. The model of Teller's "classical
Super" was so uncertain that Oppenheimer would later
say that he wished the Russians were building their own
hydrogen bomb based on that design, so that it would almost
certainly retard their progress on it.
1946, Teller left Los Alamos to return to the University
of Chicago as a professor and close associate of Enrico
Fermi and Maria Mayer. He was now known as the father
of the hydrogen bomb.
the Soviet Union's first test detonation of an atomic
bomb in 1949, President Truman announced a crash development
program for a hydrogen bomb. Teller returned to Los Alamos
in 1950 to work on the project. He insisted on involving
more theorists, such as Klaus Fuchs; it was Fuchs who
later claimed to invent compression by means of radiation
implosion back in 1946. However many of Teller's prominent
colleagues, like Bethe and Oppenheimer, were sure that
the project of the H-bomb was technically infeasible and
politically undesirable. None of the available designs
were yet workable. However Soviet scientists who had worked
on their own hydrogen bomb have claimed that they developed
1950, calculations by the Polish mathematician Stanislaw
Ulam and his collaborator Cornelius Everett, along with
confirmations by Fermi, had shown that not only was Teller's
earlier estimate of the quantity of tritium needed for
the H-bomb a low one, but that even with higher amounts
of tritium, the energy loss in the fusion process would
be too great to enable the fusion reaction to propagate.
However, in 1951, in the joint report by Ulam and Teller
of March 1951, "Hydrodynamic Lenses and Radiation
Mirrors", an innovative idea emerged, and it was
developed into the first workable design for a megaton-range
H-bomb. The exact contribution provided respectively from
Ulam and Teller to what became known as the TellerUlam
design is not definitively known in the public domain,
and the exact contributions of each and how the final
idea was arrived upon has been a point of dispute in both
public and classified discussions since the early 1950s.
The Teller-Ulam design kept the fission and fusion fuel
physically separated from one another, and used X-rays
from the primary device "reflected" off the
casing to compress the secondary.
an interview with Scientific American from 1999, Teller
told the reporter:
contributed; Ulam did not. I'm sorry I had to answer it
in this abrupt way. Ulam was rightly dissatisfied with
an old approach. He came to me with a part of an idea
which I already had worked out and had difficulty getting
people to listen to. He was willing to sign a paper. When
it then came to defending that paper and really putting
work into it, he refused. He said, 'I don't believe in
issue is controversial. Bethe considered Teller's contribution
to the invention of the H-bomb a true innovation as early
as 1952, and referred to his work as a "stroke of
genius" in 1954. In both cases, however, Bethe emphasized
Teller's role as a way of stressing that the development
of the H-bomb could not have been hastened by additional
support or funding, and Teller greatly disagreed with
Bethe's assessment. Other scientists (antagonistic to
Teller, such as J. Carson Mark) have claimed that Teller
would have never gotten any closer without the assistance
of Ulam and others. Ulam himself claimed that Teller only
produced a "more generalized" version of Ulam's
breakthroughthe details of which are still classifiedwas
apparently the separation of the fission and fusion components
of the weapons, and to use the X-rays produced by the
fission bomb to first compress the fusion fuel before
igniting it. Ulam's idea seems to have been to use mechanical
shock from the primary to encourage fusion in the secondary,
while Teller quickly realized that X-rays from the primary
would do the job much more symmetrically. Some members
of the laboratory (J. Carson Mark in particular) later
expressed the opinion that the idea to use the x-rays
would have eventually occurred to anyone working on the
physical processes involved, and that the obvious reason
why Teller thought of it right away was because he was
already working on the "Greenhouse" tests for
the spring of 1951, in which the effect of x-rays from
a fission bomb on a mixture of deuterium and tritium was
going to be investigated.
the actual components of the so-called TellerUlam
design and the respective contributions of those who worked
on it, after it was proposed it was immediately seen by
the scientists working on the project as the answer which
had been so long sought. Those who previously had doubted
whether a fission-fusion bomb would be feasible at all
were converted into believing that it was only a matter
of time before both the USA and the USSR had developed
multi-megaton weapons. Even Oppenheimer, who was originally
opposed to the project, called the idea "technically
he had helped to come up with the design and had been
a long-time proponent of the concept, Teller was not chosen
to head the development project (his reputation of a thorny
personality likely played a role in this). In 1952, he
left Los Alamos and joined the newly established Livermore
branch of the University of California Radiation Laboratory,
which had been created largely through his urging. After
the detonation of "Ivy Mike", the first thermonuclear
weapon to utilize the TellerUlam configuration,
on November 1, 1952, Teller became known in the press
as the "father of the hydrogen bomb." Teller
himself refrained from attending the testhe claimed
not to feel welcome at the Pacific Proving Groundsand
instead saw its results on a seismograph in the basement
of a hall in Berkeley.
The 10.4 Mt "Ivy Mike" shot of 1952 appeared
Teller's long-time advocacy for the hydrogen bomb.
was an opinion that by analyzing the fallout from this
test, the Soviets (led in their H-bomb work by Andrei
Sakharov) could have deciphered the new American design.
However, this was later denied by the Soviet bomb researchers.
Because of official secrecy, little information about
the bomb's development was released by the government,
and press reports often attributed the entire weapon's
design and development to Teller and his new Livermore
Laboratory (when it was actually developed by Los Alamos).
of Teller's colleagues were irritated that he seemed to
enjoy taking full credit for something he had only a part
in, and in response, with encouragement from Enrico Fermi,
Teller authored an article titled "The Work of
Many People," which appeared in Science magazine
in February 1955, emphasizing that he was not alone in
the weapon's development. He would later write in his
memoirs that he had told a "white lie" in the
1955 article in order to "soothe ruffled feelings",
and claimed full credit for the invention.
was known for getting engrossed in projects which were
theoretically interesting but practically unfeasible (the
classic "Super" was one such project.) About
his work on the hydrogen bomb, Bethe said:
will blame Teller because the calculations of 1946 were
wrong, especially because adequate computing machines
were not available at Los Alamos. But he was blamed at
Los Alamos for leading the laboratory, and indeed the
whole country, into an adventurous programme on the basis
of calculations, which he himself must have known to have
been very incomplete."
the Manhattan Project, Teller also advocated the development
of a bomb using uranium hydride, which many of his fellow
theorists said would be unlikely to work. At Livermore,
Teller continued work on the hydride bomb, and the result
was a dud. Ulam once wrote to a colleague about an idea
he had shared with Teller: "Edward is full of enthusiasm
about these possibilities; this is perhaps an indication
they will not work." Fermi once said that Teller
was the only monomaniac he knew who had several manias.
Sublette of Nuclear Weapon Archive argues that Ulam came
up with the radiation implosion compression design of
thermonuclear weapons, but that on the other hand Teller
has gotten little credit for being the first to propose
fusion boosting in 1945, which is essential for miniaturization
and reliability and is used in all of today's nuclear
became controversial in 1954 when he testified against
J. Robert Oppenheimer, a former head of Los Alamos and
an advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission, at Oppenheimer's
security clearance hearing. Teller had clashed with Oppenheimer
many times at Los Alamos over issues relating both to
fission and fusion research, and during Oppenheimer's
trial he was the only member of the scientific community
to label Oppenheimer a security risk.
Teller testified about J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1954.
at the hearing by AEC attorney Roger Robb whether he was
planning "to suggest that Dr. Oppenheimer is disloyal
to the United States", Teller replied that:
I do not want to suggest anything of the kind. I know
Oppenheimer as an intellectually most alert and a very
complicated person, and I think it would be presumptuous
and wrong on my part if I would try in any way to analyze
his motives. But I have always assumed, and I now assume
that he is loyal to the United States. I believe this,
and I shall believe it until I see very conclusive proof
to the opposite.
he was immediately asked whether he believed that Oppenheimer
was a "security risk", to which he testified:
"In a great number of cases I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer
act I understood that Dr. Oppenheimer acted
in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand.
I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and
his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated.
To this extent, I feel that I would like to see the vital
interests of this country in hands which I understand
better, and therefore trust more. In this very limited
sense, I would like to express a feeling that I would
feel personally more secure if public matters would rest
in other hands."
also testified that Oppenheimer's opinion about the thermonuclear
program seemed to be based more on the scientific feasibility
of the weapon than anything else. He additionally testified
that Oppenheimer's direction of Los Alamos was "a
very outstanding achievement" both as a scientist
and an administrator, lauding his "very quick
mind" and that he made "just a most wonderful
and excellent director."
this, however, he detailed ways in which he felt that
Oppenheimer had hindered his efforts towards an active
thermonuclear development program, and at length criticized
Oppenheimer's decisions not to invest more work onto the
question at different points in his career, saying:
"If it is a question of wisdom and judgment, as
demonstrated by actions since 1945, then I would say one
would be wiser not to grant clearance."
security clearance was revoked after the hearings. Most
of Teller's former colleagues disapproved of his testimony
and he became ostracized by much of the scientific community.
After the fact, Teller consistently denied that he was
intending to damn Oppenheimer, and even claimed that he
was attempting to exonerate him. Documentary evidence
has suggested that this was likely not the case, however.
Six days before the testimony, Teller met with an AEC
liaison officer and suggested "deepening the charges"
in his testimony. It has been suggested that Teller's
testimony against Oppenheimer was an attempt to remove
Oppenheimer from power so that Teller could become the
leader of the American nuclear scientist community.
always insisted that his testimony had not significantly
harmed Oppenheimer. In 2002, Teller contended that Oppenheimer
was "not destroyed" by the security hearing
but "no longer asked to assist in policy matters."
He claimed his words were an overreaction, because he
had only just learned of Oppenheimer's failure to immediately
report an approach by Haakon Chevalier, who had approached
Oppenheimer to help the Russians. Teller said that, in
hindsight, he would have responded differently.
to the Oppenheimer controversy, Teller maintained a friendly
relationship with Oppenheimer. When Leó Szilárd
asked Teller to help circulate a petition that discourages
the United States from using an atomic bomb on Japan unless
Japan is made fully aware of the possibility of such an
attack, he consulted Oppenheimers wisdom. Teller
believed that Oppenheimer was a natural leader and could
help him with such a formidable political problem. Oppenheimer
reassured Teller that the nations fate should be
left to the sensible politicians in Washington. Bolstered
by Oppenheimers influence, he decided to not sign
the petition. However, Teller learned soon after his meeting
that Oppenheimer conversely endorsed a political use of
the super bomb. Following Tellers discovery, his
relationship with his advisor began to deteriorate.
Government work and political advocacy
the Oppenheimer controversy, Teller became ostracized
by much of the scientific community, but was still quite
welcome in the government and military science circles.
Along with his traditional advocacy for nuclear energy
development, a strong nuclear arsenal, and a vigorous
nuclear testing program, he had helped to develop nuclear
reactor safety standards as the chair of the Reactor Safeguard
Committee of the AEC in the late 1940s, and later headed
an effort at General Atomics which designed research reactors
in which a nuclear meltdown would be impossible (the TRIGA).
promoted increased defense spending to counter the perceived
Soviet missile threat. He was a signatory to the 1958
report by the military sub-panel of the Rockefeller Brothers
funded Special Studies Project, which called for a $3
billion annual increase in America's military budget.
was Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
(19581960), which he helped to found (along with
Ernest O. Lawrence), and after that he continued as an
Associate Director. He chaired the committee that founded
the Space Sciences Laboratory at Berkeley. He also served
concurrently as a Professor of Physics at the University
of California, Berkeley. He was a tireless advocate of
a strong nuclear program and argued for continued testing
and development in fact, he stepped down from the
directorship of Livermore so that he could better lobby
against the proposed test ban. He testified against the
test ban both before Congress as well as on television.
Teller on television (1960).
established the Department of Applied Science at the University
of California, Davis and LLNL in 1963, which holds the
Edward Teller endowed professorship in his honor. In 1975
he retired from both the lab and Berkeley, and was named
Director Emeritus of the Livermore Laboratory and appointed
Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. In 1983,
he spoke at The Thomas Jefferson School, a conference
of intellectuals discussing Objectivism organized by economist
Professor George Reisman, where he received a standing
ovation. After the fall of communism in Hungary in 1989,
he made several visits to his country of origin, and paid
careful attention to the political changes there.
Operation Plowshare and Project Chariot
was one of the strongest and best-known advocates for
investigating non-military uses of nuclear explosives,
which the United States explored under Operation Plowshare.
One of the most controversial projects he proposed was
a plan to use a multi-megaton hydrogen bomb to dig a deep-water
harbor more than a mile long and half a mile wide to use
for shipment of resources from coal and oil fields through
Point Hope, Alaska. The Atomic Energy Commission accepted
Teller's proposal in 1958 and it was designated Project
Chariot. While the AEC was scouting out the Alaskan site,
and having withdrawn the land from the public domain,
Teller publicly advocated the economic benefits of the
plan, but was unable to convince local government leaders
that the plan was financially viable.
One of the Chariot schemes involved chaining five
thermonuclear devices to create the artificial harbor.
scientists criticized the project as being potentially
unsafe for the local wildlife and the Inupiat people living
near the designated area, who were not officially told
of the plan until March 1960. Additionally, it turned
out that the harbor would be ice-bound for nine months
out of the year. In the end, due to the financial infeasibility
of the project and the concerns over radiation-related
health issues, the project was cancelled in 1962.
related experiment which also had Teller's endorsement
was a plan to extract oil from the tar sands in northern
Alberta with nuclear explosions. The plan actually received
the endorsement of the Alberta government, but was rejected
by the Government of Canada under Prime Minister John
Diefenbaker, who was opposed to having any nuclear weapons
in Canada, although Canada had nuclear weapons from 1963
technology and Israel
some twenty years, Teller advised Israel on nuclear matters
in general, and on the building of a hydrogen bomb in
particular. In 1952, Teller and Oppenheimer had a long
meeting with David Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv, telling him
that the best way to accumulate plutonium was to burn
natural uranium in a nuclear reactor. Starting in 1964,
a connection between Teller and Israel was made by the
physicist Yuval Neeman, who had similar political views.
Between 1964 and 1967, Teller visited Israel six times,
lecturing at Tel Aviv University, and advising the chiefs
of Israel's scientific-security circle as well as prime
ministers and cabinet members.
each of his talks with members of the Israeli security
establishment's highest levels he would make them swear
that they would never be tempted into signing the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1967, when the Israeli nuclear
program was nearing completion, Teller informed Neeman
that he was going to tell the CIA that Israel had built
nuclear weapons and explain that it was justified by the
background of the Six-Day War. After Neeman cleared it
with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Teller briefed the head
of the CIA's Office of Science and Technology, Carl Duckett.
It took a year for Teller to convince the CIA that Israel
had obtained nuclear capability; the information then
went through CIA Director Richard Helms and then to the
US president at that time, Lyndon B. Johnson. Teller also
persuaded them to end the American attempts to inspect
the Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona. Teller's
personal opinion became factual assertion, when in 1976
Carl Duckett testified in Congress before the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission, that after receiving information
from "American scientist", he drafted a National
Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Israel's nuclear capability.
the 1980s, Teller again visited Israel to advise the Israeli
government on building a nuclear reactor. Three decades
later, Teller confirmed that it was during his visits
that he concluded that Israel was in possession of nuclear
weapons. After conveying the matter to the U.S. government,
Teller reportedly said: "They [Israeli] have it,
and they were clever enough to trust their research and
not to test, they know that to test would get them into
suffered a heart attack in 1979, and many observers described
him as blaming it on Jane Fonda: She had starred in The
China Syndrome, which depicted a fictional reactor accident
and was released less than two weeks before the Three
Mile Island accident. She outspokenly lobbied against
nuclear power while promoting the film. Teller acted quickly
to lobby in favor of nuclear energy, testifying to its
safety and reliability, and soon after one flurry of activity
suffered the attack. He signed a two-page-spread ad in
the July 31, 1979, Wall Street Journal with the headline
"I was the only victim of Three-Mile Island".
It opened with:
May 7, a few weeks after the accident at Three-Mile Island,
I was in Washington. I was there to refute some of that
propaganda that Ralph Nader, Jane Fonda and their kind
are spewing to the news media in their attempt to frighten
people away from nuclear power. I am 71 years old, and
I was working 20 hours a day. The strain was too much.
The next day, I suffered a heart attack. You might say
that I was the only one whose health was affected by that
reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was
not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous."
next day, The New York Times ran an editorial criticizing
the ad, noting that it was sponsored by Dresser Industries,
the firm that had manufactured one of the defective valves
that contributed to the Three Mile Island accident.
the 1980s, Teller began a strong campaign for what was
later called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), derided
by critics as "Star Wars," the concept of using
ground and satellite-based lasers, particle beams and
missiles to destroy incoming Soviet ICBMs. Teller lobbied
with government agenciesand got the approval of
President Ronald Reagan for a plan to develop a
system using elaborate satellites which used atomic weapons
to fire X-ray lasers at incoming missiles as part
of a broader scientific research program into defenses
against nuclear weapons. Scandal erupted when Teller (and
his associate Lowell Wood) were accused of deliberately
overselling the program and perhaps had encouraged the
dismissal of a laboratory director (Roy Woodruff) who
had attempted to correct the error. His claims led to
a joke which circulated in the scientific community, that
a new unit of unfounded optimism was designated as the
teller; one teller was so large that most events had to
be measured in nanotellers or picotellers. Many prominent
scientists argued that the system was futile. Bethe, along
with IBM physicist Richard Garwin and Cornell University
colleague Kurt Gottfried, wrote an article in Scientific
American which analyzed the system and concluded that
any putative enemy could disable such a system by the
use of suitable decoys. The project's funding was eventually
Teller became a major lobbying force of the Strategic
Initiative to President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
scientists opposed strategic defense on moral or political
rather than purely technical grounds. They argued that,
even if an effective system could be produced, it would
undermine the system of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)
that had prevented all-out war between the western democracies
and the communist bloc. An effective defense, they contended,
would make such a war "winnable" and therefore
(or perhaps because of) his hawkish reputation, Teller
made a public point of noting that he regretted the use
of the first atomic bombs on civilian cities during World
War II. He further claimed that before the bombing of
Hiroshima he had indeed lobbied Oppenheimer to use the
weapons first in a "demonstration" which could
be witnessed by the Japanese high-command and citizenry
before using them to inflict thousands of deaths. The
"father of the hydrogen bomb" would use this
quasi-anti-nuclear stance (he would say that he believed
nuclear weapons to be unfortunate, but that the arms race
was unavoidable due to the intractable nature of Communism)
to promote technologies such as SDI, arguing that they
were needed to make sure that nuclear weapons could never
be used again (Better a shield than a sword was the title
of one of his books on the subject).
is contrary evidence. In the 1970s, a letter of Teller
to Leó Szilárd emerged, dated July 2, 1945:
only hope is in getting the facts of our results before
the people. This might help convince everybody the next
war would be fatal. For this purpose, actual combat-use
might even be the best thing."
historian Barton Bernstein argued that it is an "unconvincing
claim" by Teller that he was a "covert dissenter"
to the use of the weapon. In his 2001 Memoirs, Teller
claims that he did lobby Oppenheimer, but that Oppenheimer
had convinced him that he should take no action and that
the scientists should leave military questions in the
hands of the military; Teller claims he was not aware
that Oppenheimer and other scientists were being consulted
as to the actual use of the weapon and implies that Oppenheimer
was being hypocritical.
own comments on the role of lasers in SDI, as disclosed
in live panel discussions, were published, and are available,
in two laser conference proceedings.
his early career, Teller made contributions to nuclear
and molecular physics, spectroscopy (the JahnTeller
and RennerTeller effects), and surface physics.
His extension of Fermi's theory of beta decay (in the
form of the so-called GamowTeller transitions) provided
an important stepping stone in the applications of this
theory. The JahnTeller effect and the BET theory
have retained their original formulation and are still
mainstays in physics and chemistry. Teller also made contributions
to ThomasFermi theory, the precursor of density
functional theory, a standard modern tool in the quantum
mechanical treatment of complex molecules. In 1953, along
with Nicholas Metropolis and Marshall Rosenbluth, Teller
co-authored a paper which is a standard starting point
for the applications of the Monte Carlo method to statistical
Edward Teller in his later years
vigorous advocacy for strength through nuclear weapons,
especially when so many of his wartime colleagues later
expressed regret about the arms race, made him an easy
target for the "mad scientist" stereotype.
In 1991, he was awarded one of the first Ig Nobel Prizes
for Peace in recognition of his "lifelong efforts
to change the meaning of peace as we know it". He
was also rumored to be one of the inspirations for the
character of Dr. Strangelove in Stanley Kubrick's 1964
satirical film of the same name (others speculated to
be RAND theorist Herman Kahn, rocket scientist Wernher
von Braun, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara).
In the aforementioned Scientific American interview from
1999, he was reported as having bristled at the question:
"My name is not Strangelove. I don't know about
Strangelove. I'm not interested in Strangelove. What else
can I say?... Look. Say it three times more, and I throw
you out of this office." Nobel Prize winning
physicist Isidor I. Rabi once suggested that "It
would have been a better world without Teller."
In addition, Teller's false claims that Stanislaw Ulam
made no significant contribution to the development of
the hydrogen bomb (despite Ulam's key insights of using
compression and staging elements to generate the thermonuclear
reaction) and his personal attacks on Oppenheimer caused
even greater animosity within the general physics community
Appearing on television discussion After Dark in 1987
1986, he was awarded the United States Military Academy's
Sylvanus Thayer Award. He was a fellow of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association
for the Advancement of Science, and the American Nuclear
Society. Among the honors he received were the Albert
Einstein Award, the Enrico Fermi Award, the Corvin Chain
and the National Medal of Science. He was also named as
part of the group of "U.S. Scientists" who were
Time magazine's People of the Year in 1960, and an asteroid,
5006 Teller, is named after him. He was awarded with
the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George
W. Bush less than two months before his death. His final
paper, published posthumously, advocated the construction
of a prototype liquid fluoride thorium reactor.
died in Stanford, California on September 9, 2003, at
the age of 95.