"We Knew That If We Succeeded, We Could at One Blow Destroy a City": A Final Interview with the Most Controversial Father of the Atomic Age, Edward Teller

By Lennick, Michael | American Heritage, June-July 2005 | Go to article overview
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"We Knew That If We Succeeded, We Could at One Blow Destroy a City": A Final Interview with the Most Controversial Father of the Atomic Age, Edward Teller


Lennick, Michael, American Heritage


ON OCTOBER 31, 1952, HALLOWEEN WAS JUST GETTING ROLLING in California when, half a world away on the South Pacific island of Elugelab, the firing circuits closed on Ivy-Mike, the first practical test of the prototype hydrogen bomb. Ghosts and goblins roamed the Berkeley streets as Dr. Edward Teller, the driving force behind the new weapon, sat quietly in a darkened basement, patiently scanning for subtle, indirect evidence that he had irrevocably altered the world yet again. He had to squint to read the slowly moving lighted pen of the seismograph, a device normally used to record earthquakes. If the test shot was successful, Teller would see it here 15 to 20 minutes afterward, once the unprecedented shock wave had traversed thousands of miles to nudge the seismograph's detector.

It was already November 1, All Saints' Day, at the test site. the early-morning skies were clear over Enewetak Atoll. At T-Zero a radio signal from the control room aboard the USS Estes 30 miles away triggered 92 detonators to fire simultaneously, compressing an orange-size uranium/plutonium composite core to supercriticality. The resulting fission explosion, about the size of the Nagasaki blast, was only the first step. In a few millionths of a second it created the conditions, the necessary heat, pressure, and radiation, to enable nature's lightest, most plentiful elements to undergo fusion--to momentarily burn as a man-made star.

Down in Teller's borrowed basement lab the signal arrived exactly as anticipated, a tiny blip. He quickly sent word to his former colleagues at the Los Alamos nuclear-weapons laboratory in New Mexico. Ironically, the radio silence invoked by security concerns meant that the lab that had built the first atomic bombs as well as the new hydrogen test device would receive its initial hint of a successful detonation from its estranged and isolated co-inventor. The telegram read: "It's a boy."

Dr. Edward Teller--Manhattan Project physicist, father of the hydrogen bomb, and a man reputed to be the model for the title character in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove--was born in Hungary in 1908 and died in California in 2003. As a child he witnessed the horrors of Bela Kun's Red Terror and Miklos Horthy's far more brutal regime, events that go a long way toward explaining his lifelong distrust of the Soviet Union. In 1926 he went to college in Germany, and he stayed there through graduate school and the start of his research career before fleeing the Nazi menace in 1934.

Teller was a singular presence among his peers. Loud, aggressive, cocksure, he could dominate any conversation with whatever agenda he was pushing that day. It was not entirely his choice to monitor the 1952 Ivy-Mike test from that Berkeley basement, but he had long ago antagonized and alienated the Los Alamos physicists who would build the device, and he had ultimately walked off the project, hardly a unique situation in his long career. His shadow looms over much of the twentieth century and reaches well into the twenty-first. An early member of J. Robert Oppenheimer's team at Los Alamos, he made key contributions throughout the Manhattan Project, though almost as an afterthought. As early as 1942 he had grown bored with the physics of atomic bombs. He had far bigger fish to fry.

ALTHOUGH HE WAS A BRILLIANT VISIONARY SCIENTIST, Teller never won a Nobel Prize. His great strength lay in his ability to seize upon an interesting idea and promote it doggedly, for years if necessary, long after its originators had lost interest and moved on. His primary claim to fame, the development of the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s, is a perfect example. Hans Bethe's work on the carbon cycle, explaining for the first time how stars achieve fusion and thus create heavier elements, had laid the groundwork. In September 1941 Enrico Fermi suggested the possibility of using an atomic bomb to trigger a fusion reaction in hydrogen. Teller grasped the concept instantly and was unable to let it go.

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"We Knew That If We Succeeded, We Could at One Blow Destroy a City": A Final Interview with the Most Controversial Father of the Atomic Age, Edward Teller
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