EDWARD TELLER; Exploring How a Great Physicist Came to Exert Powerful Moral Influence on His Time

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 2, 2005 | Go to article overview

EDWARD TELLER; Exploring How a Great Physicist Came to Exert Powerful Moral Influence on His Time


Byline: Jeffrey Marsh, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Edward Teller (1908-2003) had one of the longest and most noteworthy careers in the history of science. He made important contributions to nuclear physics in the 1930s and was a leading figure in the inception of the World War II Manhattan Project. He is most famous, though, as "the father of the hydrogen bomb," a title bestowed upon him in the 1950s which reflects both his role in the technical breakthrough that made construction of the H-bomb possible and the dogged political battle he waged against the scientific establishment to continue research on the bomb.

But perhaps the most remarkable of all his achievements occurred when he was in his 70s, when the "Star Wars" missile defense concept he advocated was enthusiastically endorsed by President Ronald Reagan and helped deliver the coup de grace to the Soviet Union's ambitions to compete militarily with the United States.

Peter Goodchild is a BBC television producer whose earlier works include major TV and written biographies of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the celebrated leader of the Manhattan Project. What he learned then about Teller inspired Mr. Goodchild to embark upon this massive work, which answers just about any question you may have about Dr. Teller's life and work.

Edward Teller was born in Budapest into a cultured and highly assimilated Hungarian-Jewish family. The family's placid life was disrupted when Bela Kun's communist uprising following World War I took over Hungary, requisitioning part of the Teller home in its revolutionary zeal. The communists were overthrown after four months, but the new regime led by Admiral Horthy was highly antisemitic and, among other things, imposed quotas on the number of university places and government jobs available to Jews.

Young Edward's academic brilliance won him first prizes in both physics and mathematics in a nationwide competition for high school graduates, and he left Hungary to study in Germany, where he earned a Ph.D. under Werner Heisenberg, a founder of the new quantum mechanics, who made him his assistant. When Hitler took power, he joined the exodus of Jewish scientists, first moving to Copenhagen.

Teller married his long-time sweetheart from Budapest, Mici (pronounced Mitzi) and joined his Russian refugee friend George Gamow at George Washington University. He soon became a leading figure in the rapidly expanding American physics community. Some of the 60-odd papers he produced then are still producing practical spin-offs. Among other achievements, he inspired Hans Bethe's unraveling of the thermonuclear reactions that power the sun.

In late 1939, following the discovery of nuclear fission in uranium, Teller's old Budapest friend Leo Szilard sounded the alarm that the Germans might build an atomic bomb in a letter he drafted to President Roosevelt for Albert Einstein to sign. (Teller drove Szilard to Einstein's summer home in Long Island.) However, serious US efforts to build a bomb only commenced in late 1941, when the MAUD report - named after physicist Niels Bohr's nanny - arrived in Washington, describing British progress on fission research.

Teller was summoned by Oppenheimer to join the A-bomb project, and soon began thinking about the possibility of a thermonuclear "superbomb." One of the first scientists to arrive at the newly established Los Alamos laboratory, he was deeply hurt when Oppenheimer selected Bethe, a more systematic but less imaginative figure, to head the theoretical division, an appointment Teller had expected. Adding insult to injury, a review committee relegated work on the superbomb to the back burner. From then on, he regarded Oppenheimer with deep suspicion.

After the war, Teller spent three years at the University of Chicago, pursuing pure research and mentoring a number of distinguished students. Disappointed by the failure of Los Alamos to pursue the superbomb as aggressively as he wished, he argued, correctly, that the Russians could well be working on the H-bomb. …

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