Infinite Optimism of Edward Teller

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 18, 2003 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Infinite Optimism of Edward Teller


When Edward Teller died last week at age 95, newspapers catalogued milestones in the prominent career of the physicist and public servant who gave us the H-bomb. The Washington Post called Teller "a man of intellect who was deeply involved for decades in the great public issues of his day."

The Post stopped short of labeling him a philosopher of science, but this is precisely what he was, beyond his many contributions to physics and to national defense. In books, articles, lectures and interviews, Teller propounded a sophisticated philosophy of science that will remain relevant long after his death. In a little-noticed interview in 1999, Teller revealed the underpinnings of this philosophy.

The first element is optimism about the scientific enterprise. "I am firmly convinced that scientists must find out what can be found out," he explained. Sometimes, dangerous technologies derive from this, he conceded. But the solution is not to give up inquiry, or to deny dangers result from them. The solution is to keep the technology out of irresponsible hands and direct it toward positive ends. "Stability does not come from weapons," Teller explained. It comes "from human intentions, and from the power of those with proper intentions to make them work." The atomic bomb, like any technology, will always be subject to such intentions. It follows that the technology must be kept from those who lack the proper ones.

Of course, policing nuclear technology is a not a scientific endeavor but fundamentally a political one. Teller's scientific wisdom - of a part with his keen political sensibilities - extended its optimism to politics to emphasize the virtues of democratic government. Unlike the ideas many contemporary scientists promote, Teller knew the proper boundaries of science. He knew what questions it could answer and what lay beyond its ken. He knew where science meets politics and philosophy. How should nuclear technology be used? Who decides? "That responsibility I claim the scientist does not have," Teller argued.

"In a democracy, kings should not make the decisions, capitalists should not make the decisions, movie stars should not make the decisions, scientists should not make them either," Teller argued. "People in general must make the decisions, and we scientists must look to it that people understand what they are deciding about."

Teller's humility on such questions was profound. "I think our job is to increase human knowledge, human power, human understanding and make sure that the human society in general keeps up.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Infinite Optimism of Edward Teller


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?