The Teller Tragedy

By Codevilla, Angelo M. | The American Spectator, October 2005 | Go to article overview

The Teller Tragedy


Codevilla, Angelo M., The American Spectator


The Teller Tragedy

The story of a great scientist who slipped the leash of truth.

As CHARLES DE GAULLE WAS LIBERATING FRANCE from Nazi Germany's puppet Vichy regime in 1944, he was asked about its head, Marshal Henri Pétain-the same Pétain who had been arguably France's greatest hero in World War I. Sadly, de Gaulle answered: "Pétain is a great man who died circa 1926." Similarly, the Edward Teller I knew in the 1980s and '90s was, in my view, a great man who had died long before. A new biography by Peter Goodchild, Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelore (Harvard University Press, 352 pages, $29.95), chronicles Teller's great life and his living death. In the process, despite obvious left-wing biases and gaps of knowledge, the book teaches about the physics of nuclear weapons, about the intellectual insights that made them possible, and about the vicious relations among most of the brilliant people involved. But it misses something essential.

Tragedies tell of admirable people undone by flaws. Hence they teach us that our virtues do not insure us against wrecking ourselves and what we love. The most instructive and gripping tragedies, we think of Aeschylu' or Shakespeare's, are set amidst great events. We see the events contributing to the flaw's development, the good and great man's decline, and marvel at what might have happened if only a few people had behaved better. The most pathetic tragedies reduce the great man to aparody of himself.

Such was the life of Edward Teller: a very brilliant man who loved America passionately and worked very hard to defend her, but whose confusion of his own personal success with America's good came to define him, aggravated the disagreements among American scientists into hatreds that crippled American weaponeering, then led to his own descent from the highest levels of science into hucksterism, and finally made him perhaps more responsible than any other person for the fact that America still lacks defenses against the weapons he did so much to invent. Peter Goodchild's gratuitous subtitle, "The Real Dr. Strange-love," underlines the pathos.

We need not agree with Goodchild's stress on Edward Teller's insecure youth in the last days of Austro-Hungarian Budapest to note that Teller always acted as if he had something to prove. Prove himself he did, from his earliest days, with a kind of scientific prowess heavy on intuition. Teller could see solutions to mathematical problems that others could not. And he brought to bear on problems of physics and chemistry principles that others knew but had not thought of applying. Conversely, when he came across someone else's insight, he could see implications in it that escaped its author. That is why, from the time that he went to study in Germany in 1926, senior colleagues, "gods" like Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, recognized his value as a sounding board-a man who could come up with "ideas and move them past intellectual roadblocks that others could not overcome. In 1932 Enrico Fermi let the 23 year old work in his laboratory in Rome.

Teller's intellectual style is familiar to all who struggle through math problems only to find that the other fellow has skipped to the right answer, and is working backward. A former student of his wrote: "Fermi who taught me also, builds a house from the foundations up. Edward adds the roof and points out the esoteric applications in the distance."

In 1935 Teller joined the exodus of German, Italian, Hungarian, and Danish scientists to America. Gratitude and wonder produced love at first sight, further fired by the affection that the bride of his life, Mici, felt for this country.

The War and the Bomb

TELLER WAS BY NO MEANS the least contributor to the fruitful atmosphere of scientific and personal comity that joined the émigré physicists in late '3Os America. Hans Bethe attributes to Teller the insight into the proton exchanges that transform helium and carbon into one another in the heart of the sun-a major basis for his own Nobel Prize. …

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