Infinite Optimism of Edward Teller

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

Infinite Optimism of Edward Teller


Byline: Brendan Conway, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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.

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