Author of the H-Bomb

By Selle, Robert | The World and I, November 1998 | Go to article overview

Author of the H-Bomb


Selle, Robert, The World and I


In an ironic twist of fate, anti-Semitism in Europe helped the Allies win World War II, for it drove away from Germany some of the most powerful Jewish scientific minds of the century, including the "father of the H-bomb," Edward Teller.

Hitler's signature evil--his loathing of Jews--boomeranged to ensure the obliteration of the forces of fascism.

Teller, who in the 1930s was a wunderkind in the embryonic and exciting field of quantum mechanics, says in an interview that anti-Semitism caused him to flee from his native Hungary--and then Germany--into the open arms of an appreciative America.

And it was there, in the United States, that Teller developed the most destructive weapon in history, an accomplishment over which he says his conscience is clear. "That power [of the hydrogen bomb] should belong to those who don't want to use it" -- namely, to a democratic and beneficent country like America.

Moreover, he suggests, the existence of what may be the ultimate weapon has been a perverse blessing to humankind, for it has helped deter all-out megawars like the conflagrations of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. "In the last half of the twentieth century, there were much fewer terrible wars than in the first half," he notes.

And the atomic bomb, precursor of the H-bomb, he contends probably saved millions of Allied and Japanese lives by bringing World War II to a quick end. "Perhaps a hundred thousand tragically died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; but it terminated a conflict in which 50 million had already perished," he says.

Teller, who is 90 years old, paid a heavy price for his work on the hydrogen bomb, a weapon a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb. "My work on the hydrogen bomb was controversial. I was shunned by my colleagues for developing it," he says wistfully.

He was also a pariah because he was the sole affirmative voice when President Harry Truman polled his scientific advisers on whether to pursue the H-bomb. Teller's "necessary" stand allowed the president an excuse to proceed.

Besides the scorn of his colleagues, another difficulty in Teller's life was the loss of his foot when he was 20. One day, during the time he was pursuing his Ph.D., he was looking forward to hiking with his friends in the countryside. But on his way to meet them, he fell under a moving streetcar, which severed his foot. After several months' recuperation, however, he rebounded from the tragedy, accustoming himself to walking with a prosthesis.

Teller was born in Budapest in 1908 to a well-off Jewish family. He was the second of two children, with a sister two years his elder.

In his early years, his lawyer father and other family members anguished over him, for he didn't speak at all until age 4. When he finally did, however, he was startlingly articulate.

He soon showed great precocity in mathematics and music. One of his great sadnesses today, he says, is that he is unable to play the piano much anymore--although he continues to work: two days a week at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in Livermore, California, a facility he was instrumental in setting up; two days at the Hoover Institution in Palo Alto; and one day at home. …

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