Teller, Edward

views updated Jun 27 2018


(b. Budapest, Hungary, 15 January 1908;

d. Palo Alto, California, 9 September 2003), theoretical physics, fusion, science policy.

Though an accomplished theoretical physicist, Teller is best known for his early contributions to the development of the hydrogen bomb and his unwavering defense of nuclear weapons. His support of weapons and opposition to test bans, along with his advocacy of projects such as the Strategic Defense Initiative, made him both one of the most controversial physicists of the twentieth century and one of the most politically influential.

Early Years. Teller was born into a Hungarian-Jewish family the son of Max Teller, a lawyer, and the former Ilona Deutsch, a pianist. Turbulent politics entered Edward’s life early. At the age of eleven, he witnessed the rise to power of Hungarian Communists, many of whom were Jewish, and the proclamation on 21 March 1919 of a Hungarian Soviet Republic. Although brief, the Communist rule inspired a strongly anti-Semitic reaction, the “white terror,” resulting in the execution of approximately five thousand people, most of whom were Jewish, and the displacement of tens of thousands more. Although Edward stayed in Hungary during this period, his father told him that he would have to emigrate when he was older.

Education. Even as a young child Edward displayed extraordinary mathematical ability and as a teenager he saw this as his ticket out of what he believed to be a doomed Hungarian society. In 1926 he relocated to southwestern Germany, enrolling in the Technical Insti

tute at Karlsruhe. Although he desired to study mathematics, he initially chose chemistry as a compromise with his father, who feared that math offered limited career prospects. The focus on chemistry was short-lived, as Teller quickly resumed his studies in mathematics in addition to chemistry. During his second year at Karlsruhe Teller was introduced to quantum mechanics. Upon obtaining the approval of his father, he left Karlsruhe and chemistry for good in April 1928. Within a few weeks Edward enrolled in the University of Munich to study under Arnold Sommerfeld, whose students had included future Nobel laureates Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, and Hans Bethe. In spite of Sommerfeld’s reputation as a great teacher Teller did not enjoy the experience and by the fall of 1928 he began studying under Heisenberg at the University of Leipzig.

Enjoying this experience, Teller turned to what became his doctoral research project—calculating the energy states of the hydrogen molecular ion, two hydrogen nuclei and one electron, beyond its ground state. Upon receiving his doctorate in January 1930, Teller assumed a postdoctoral position as Heisenberg’s assistant, which he maintained until that fall when he became an assistant to a physical chemist in Göttingen, the historic center of German math and physics. Teller would later remark that being a young scientist in Germany was the most satisfying period of his life.

This satisfying period was short, as Teller witnessed Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and knew that he would have to relocate again. In February 1934 he married Augusta Maria “Mici” Harkanyi, a marriage that would last more than fifty years. That same year he and his new bride arrived at Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. While in Denmark Teller became acquainted with the young Russian physicist and fellow political émigré, George Gamow. Gamow soon left the institute after obtaining a position on the faculty at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. In 1935 Teller followed Gamow to the university and relocated to the United States. He remained in America for the rest of his life, becoming a citizen in 1941. Though he had left Europe, the specter of increasing totalitarianism followed him across the Atlantic, as both his parents and sister remained there.

Dawn of the Atomic Age. Teller first began to consider the possibilities of a hydrogen weapon in late 1941 when, during a brief period at Columbia University, he met with Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi. Fermi had proposed that a fission explosion might create conditions close enough to what occurs within stars to induce the fusion of heavy hydrogen or deuterium nuclei, which, unlike standard hydrogen nuclei that contain only one proton, feature both a proton and a neutron. Though Teller was initially skeptical, he quickly established himself as the leading proponent of fusion weapons. During a 1942 meeting of top physicists at the University of California at Berkeley called by J. Robert Oppenheimer to discuss the potential development of fission weapons, Teller suggested that the prospect of building a hydrogen weapon, a “Super,” be explored as well.

In early 1943, by which time he had joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, Edward, along with his wife and their six-week-old son Paul, moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to join the collection of scientists and engineers working on the Manhattan Project. While working under Bethe, head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos (with whom Teller had been close friends throughout the 1930s, dating back to his time as a student in Germany), Teller came into conflict with both his immediate supervisor, Bethe, and Oppenheimer, the head of the project, over what he perceived to be the lack of attention paid to the question of developing the Super. This tension culminated in his being removed from the theoretical division during the war and allowed to devote himself full time to the question of fusion.

Development of the H-Bomb. In February 1946 Teller left Los Alamos and returned to Chicago where his second child, Susan Wendy, was born on 31 August. In spite of the move back to Illinois, his attention remained focused on the development of fusion weapons and throughout the postwar years he continued to work on the technical challenges presented by them, returning to New Mexico periodically until November 1951 to consult with scientists still working there. Nevertheless, because numerous leading figures in the physics community opposed his goal of hydrogen weapons, Teller found it difficult to attract scientists to the lab that had been the center of the Manhattan Project.

His call for a hydrogen weapons program did, however, receive considerable support from military and political figures, especially in the wake of the Soviet Union’s successful detonation of an atomic bomb in summer 1949. This increased support culminated in the January 1950 announcement by President Harry Truman that the United States would “continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or super bomb.”

Unlike the atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, which release energy when heavy elements such as uranium and plutonium undergo fission, hydrogen weapons function when, under intense heat and pressure, hydrogen isotopes—deuterium (one proton and one neutron) and tritium (one proton and two neutrons)—experience fusion. The energy released by fusion, the same process that occurs in the Sun, is orders of magnitude larger than that of fission, with some weapons more than two thousand times as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima. In addition to being far more efficient in terms of energy yield, hydrogen weapons, unlike fusion bombs, have no theoretical strength limit. The strength of the bomb can continue to increase as long as additional deuterium is added.

Fusion weapons are also quite different from fission bombs in terms of theoretical complexity. Although numerous scientists almost immediately recognized the potential military application of fission upon hearing of it in early 1939, the feasibility of fusion weapons was far less certain in the years immediately after World War II. Whereas many scientists were hesitant to work on fusion weapons due to ethical concerns, another aspect of the bomb that made many hesitant was a technical one: by the late 1940s it had become clear that the standard model of the Super, in which the detonation of a fission weapon would produce sufficient heat and energy to ignite a fusion reaction, was not feasible. The shock waves

produced by the A-bomb would propagate too slowly to permit assembly of the thermonuclear stage before the bomb blew itself apart. The question of how to ignite the hydrogen weapon continued to be a grave technical obstacle until early in 1951.

In March 1951 Stanislaw Ulam, a young Polish mathematician, came to Teller with a new approach. Together the men developed what became known as the Teller-Ulam design. This design broke up the fusion process into stages where the primary stage, resembling the classical Super, featured the detonation of an atomic bomb. The difference was that, unlike the previous model, which relied on heat and shock waves to trigger fusion, the Teller-Ulam approach made use of the radiation produced in the primary stage. In order to take advantage of this they introduced a material, polystyrene or styrofoam, which captured the high energy of gamma-ray radiation.

In bombs of this design, the styrofoam is placed around cylinders containing the fuel, a compound of lithium and deuterium known as lithium deuteride, which powers the thermonuclear or secondary stage of the reaction. As the radiation is absorbed, each cylinder is subject to intense compression at almost the same moment, which in turn compresses the lithium deuteride. In addition to compression, the lithium is bombarded by neutrons that are reflected back after being released by both the fission reaction and additional Uranium-238 placed around the weapon. As a result of the compressed lithium deuteride core being bombarded with neutrons, tritium, a hydrogen isotope featuring two neutrons, is formed and the fusion process begins when the newly produced tritium fuses with the deuterium from the original fuel.

After development of the Teller-Ulam design it became clear that the creation of fusion weapons was technically feasible. Any doubt about their possibility came to an end on 31 October 1952 when the United States detonated its first thermonuclear device, “Mike,” on Enewetak Atoll in the South Pacific. The device, while far too large to be a deliverable weapon, had a yield equivalent to approximately 10.4 megatons of TNT, or more than 500 times the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Teller and the Oppenheimer Hearing. Teller’s position and continuous advocacy of hydrogen weapons, which he saw as the best response to the increasing threat posed by the Soviet Union, resulted in a number of conflicts with other physicists that often led to the dissolution of long-time friendships. Teller was not alone among physicists in calling for the development of fusion weapons; other notable advocates of a hydrogen program included Nobel laureate (1939) Ernest Lawrence, future Nobel laureate (1968) Luis Alvarez, and John Wheeler, whose 1939 Physical Review paper with Bohr on fission was one of the foundational works in the field. Teller, however, was the program’s most active advocate and the scientist most closely associated with it. As he attempted to marshal the resources necessary to pursue hydrogen weapons in a way comparable to the Manhattan Project, a number of physicists, many of whom had worked on the Manhattan Project in one capacity or another, made their opposition to this new program clear. These scientists included then-president of Harvard University James Conant, Enrico Fermi, I. I. Rabi, and former Los Alamos director Oppenheimer.

Whereas Teller’s position on weapons put him into conflict with any number of scientists, it was his conflict with Oppenheimer that had the most profound effect on Teller and his relationships to other physicists. This conflict, which first emerged at Los Alamos, intensified in the postwar years. Teller found few takers in his effort to have scientists return to Los Alamos and continue work on fusion weapons. Although there were a number of reasons for declining, not the least of which was the uncertainty over whether or not fusion weapons were technically feasible, Teller attributed much of the hesitancy to Oppenheimer’s influence over the physics community and his failure to support the hydrogen program. The clearest expression of this opposition came on 30 October 1949 when a blue-ribbon panel of scientists led by Oppenheimer and known as the General Advisory Committee (GAC) to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) issued a report to President Truman that advised against developing fusion bombs. In an addendum to the report Fermi and Rabi stated, “By its very nature it [a fusion bomb] cannot be confined to a military objective but becomes a weapon .... of genocide. ....It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.”

Whereas Teller and Oppenheimer had been in conflict over the issue of fusion weapons since their days together at Los Alamos, it was Teller’s testimony at Oppenheimer’s 1954 AEC security hearing, testimony that many physicists saw simply as retaliation for Oppenheimer’s failure to support fully a fusion program, which proved to be a defining event in Teller’s often tumultuous relationship with other elite physicists. The hearing concerned the question of whether or not Oppenheimer should be stripped of security clearance. Although Teller made it clear during his testimony that he did not believe Oppenheimer had ever been disloyal, he also stated, “In a great number of cases I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer act ..... in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand. I thoroughly disagreed with him in [sic] numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated. To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more. In this very limited sense I would like to express a feeling that I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands” (U.S. Energy Commission, 1971, p. 710).

Once the transcript of the hearing was made public shortly after its conclusion, a number of physicists who read his testimony felt that Teller had betrayed Oppenheimer, and what were already difficult relationships were stretched to the breaking point. The situation deteriorated to the point where, according to lifelong friend Wheeler, some physicists would literally turn their backs on Teller when he entered a room.

Teller as Policy Advisor. Though Teller’s advocacy of nuclear weapons put him at odds with many in the scientific community, it also provided him with powerful allies in the military and government who shared Teller’s vision of sophisticated, often then-unrealized, technology playing a major role in defense. Whereas he never achieved the same high profile as Oppenheimer once had, Teller maintained an important voice on issues of science and defense in numerous administrations up to and including that of Ronald Reagan.

Teller’s first important political victory came with President Truman’s decision in January 1950 that the United States would pursue a full-scale hydrogen bomb program. A second and perhaps more telling victory came with the creation of a second weapons laboratory in Livermore, California, just east of Berkeley. Although physicists at Berkeley such as Lawrence and Alvarez sought to be involved in responding to the Soviet atomic detonation in the summer of 1949, the establishment of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in 1952 resulted primarily from Teller’s efforts. In successfully campaigning for a second lab he showed great aptitude for marshaling political resources and for building upon networks of sympathetic government and military officials.

While working at Los Alamos in the late 1940s Teller became involved in a protracted conflict with Norris Bradbury—the director of Los Alamos from October 1945, when he took over from Oppenheimer, to 1970— over the best way to pursue a hydrogen weapons program. The conflict reached a head in the summer of 1951, just months after the Teller-Ulam breakthrough, when Teller decided that a second and independent lab was necessary to pursue fully the new design. Shortly thereafter, Teller’s influence in political and military circles began to show. Under pressure to do so, the GAC reviewed the matter and, with only one dissenting vote, argued against building a second lab on the grounds that it would divert resources and manpower from Los Alamos. The series of events that followed suggested that in many important ways Teller had already supplanted Oppenheimer as the most powerful scientific voice in Washington, even prior to the latter’s security hearing. Undaunted by the GAC report, Teller solicited and found great support within the U.S. Air Force. Moving their way up the chain of command Teller’s views were fully supported by Secretary of the Air Force Thomas Finletter. As the military became more active in directly sponsoring nuclear research, the AEC came under increasing pressure to form a second lab. The desired result was achieved in June 1952 when the AEC approved a laboratory at Livermore, where weapons work included conducting diagnostic experiments during weapons tests. The new lab officially opened its doors in September 1952.

While continuing to work on hydrogen weapons Teller again took on the role of de facto policy advisor in 1957, when the question of atmospheric testing arose. After almost a decade of exploding atomic weapons in the atmosphere, the fallout began to settle and a growing number of nations were concerned about the potential health consequences. The pressure to move away from atmospheric testing increased when Albert Schweitzer, the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner, called for a ban on weapons tests. In that same year Congressional hearings focused public concern on the cancer hazard posed by exposure to radiation. Finally, Linus Pauling, the 1954 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, obtained nine thousand signatures from concerned scientists around the world who supported a test ban. The public concern resonated with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was himself concerned by the buildup of nuclear weapons. By 19 June 1957 a moratorium seemed likely when, shortly after the Russians proposed a two- to three-year ban, the president announced that he “would be perfectly delighted to make some satisfactory arrangement for temporary suspension of tests.”

Teller, along with his close ally and AEC chairman, Lewis Strauss, strongly opposed any freeze. On 21 June 1957 Teller and two other AEC physicists met with the president to argue for the continuation of tests on the grounds that such tests would help in the development of clean bombs, that is, bombs free of radioactive fallout, which Teller suggested would be realized within six or seven years. In spite of his earlier statement and the growing global support for a test ban, Eisenhower deferred to Teller and the AEC consultants in the belief that “the real peaceful use of atomic science depends on their developing clean weapons,” giving no weight to Teller’s suggestion that such weapons still did not exist. Though he was successful in dissuading Eisenhower, Teller’s ability to forestall an atmospheric ban was compromised with the 1960 election of Democrat John F. Kennedy. In a pattern that would persist throughout his life, Teller found a less receptive audience in the Democratic administration and on 5 August 1963 the United States, USSR, and United Kingdom signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited atmospheric testing.

Though Teller continued to give his input on issues relating to science and defense throughout the Cold War, emphasizing the need for futuristic technology, he found his most receptive audience in the Reagan administration. It was in this period that the nuclear freeze movement gained support with its claim that the continued stockpiling of weapons was unnecessary, given the large arsenals already in existence. In response to these arms-control advocates Teller suggested to government officials that nuclear weapons research could be presented as necessary for defense and funded under the rubric of a defensive shield. He was able to convince politicians of the feasibility of a laser defense system known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, but referred to by critics as “Star Wars,” a system of satellites firing x-ray lasers at incoming missiles. Teller’s critics became increasingly vocal as, despite the tens of billions of dollars committed to the project, the promised technology never came to be.

In addition to his university appointments at George Washington University and Chicago, Teller was appointed professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley and associate director of Livermore Lab in 1953. He became director of the lab in 1958 before resigning in 1960 to become professor of physics at large for the University of California. In 1975 he was named director emeritus of Livermore. He was a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Nuclear Society. Among the honors he received were the Albert Einstein Award, the Enrico Fermi Award, and the National Medal of Science. He was also named as part of the group of U.S. scientists who were Time magazine’s People of the Year in 1960. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by President George W. Bush in July 2003, less than two months before his death.


Teller’s archival collection, The Papers of Edward Teller, 1946–2003, is held at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace; Archives; Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305.


“The Rate of Selective Thermonuclear Reactions.” Physical Review 53, no. 7 (April 1938): 608–609.

“On the Polar Vibrations of Alkali Halides.” Physical Review 59, no. 8 (April 1941): 673–676.

With Allen Brown. The Legacy of Hiroshima. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962.

With Wilson K. Talley and Gary H. Higgins. The Constructive Uses of Nuclear Explosives. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968.

Better a Shield Than a Sword: Perspectives on Defense and Technology. New York: Free Press/Macmillan, 1987.

With Judith Shoolery. Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics. Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 2001.


Galison, Peter, and Barton Berstein. “In Any Light: Scientists and the Decision to Build the Superbomb, 1952–1954.” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 19, no. 2 (1989): 267–347.

Herken, Gregg. Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. New York: Holt, 2002.

O’Neill, Dan. The Firecracker Boys. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Phodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: Transcript of Hearing before Personnel Security Board and Texts of Principal Documents and Letters. Foreword by Philip M. Stern. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971.

York, Herbert F. The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989.

Shawn Mullet

Edward Teller

views updated May 18 2018

Edward Teller

The Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller (born 1908)—sometimes called the "father" or the "architect" of the hydrogen bomb—was for decades on the forefront of the nuclear question and in the 1980s was an advocate of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), also known as "Star Wars."

Born in Budapest, Hungary, on January 15, 1908, Edward Teller was the second child of Ilona Deutsch and Max Teller, a lawyer from Hungarian Monrovia. When he was twelve years old, Edward was introduced to one of his father's friends, Leopold Klug, a professor of mathematics at the University of Budapest. Klug gave Edward Teller a copy of Euler's Algebra. Later Teller wrote: "I never shall forget him [Klug]. I knew, after meeting Professor Klug, what I wanted to do when I grew up." As he recalled: "For as long as I could remember, I had wanted to do one thing: to play with ideas and find out how the world is put together." The first 18 years of his life were spent in Budapest. Before the end of high school, Teller had befriended Eugene P. Wigner (Nobel Laureate for Physics, 1963), John von Neumann (later the celebrated mathematician), and Leo Szilard (later the "father" of the atomic bomb).

Leaving Hungary because of anti-Semitism, Teller went to Germany to study chemistry and mathematics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology from 1926 to 1928. A lecture he heard by Herman Mark on the new science of molecular spectroscopy made a lasting impression on him: "He [Mark] made it clear that new ideas in physics had changed chemistry into an important part of the forefront of physics." After Karlsruhe, Teller went to the University of Munich in 1928. As a result of a streetcar accident in Munich on July 14, 1928, he lost most of his right foot. Reconstructive surgery enabled him to walk without a prosthetic, but he occasionally chose to use an artificial foot. From Munich, Teller went to the University of Leipzig from 1929 to 1930. There he obtained a Ph.D. in physical chemistry under Werner Heisenberg in 1930. His dissertation was on experiments in which he used quantum mechanics to calculate energy levels in an excited hydrogen molecule. From 1929 to 1931 he was a research associate at the University of Leipzig. He held a similar position at the University of Göttingen from 1931 to 1933.

Following Heisenberg's advice, he went in 1934—as a Rockefeller Fellow—to study under Niels Bohr at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. On February 26, 1934, a few weeks after starting his Copenhagen fellowship, Teller married Augusta Maria Harkanyi, having known her for many years. He then became a lecturer at the University of London (City College of London) in 1934-1935.

Becomes an American Citizen

In 1935 Teller came to the United States. He became professor of physics at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., from 1935 to 1946. While on leave during 1941-1942, he held a similar position at Columbia University in New York. At George Washington University Teller worked with George Gamow. Together they calculated the rules for one of the major forms of radioactivity, which became known as the Gamow-Teller selection rules for beta decay. He spent the summer of 1939 at Columbia University "doing a little lecturing to graduate students but primarily as the peacemaker on the Fermi-Szilard project." He moved to Columbia University in 1941 to work on the atomic bomb project. He wrote later: "My moral decision had been made in 1941. That was the year I joined the effort to produce an atomic bomb. That was the year I became an American citizen." Indeed, he and his wife were sworn in as naturalized citizens in March 1941. Their family soon grew to include as son in 1943 and a daughter in 1946.

The Manhattan Project

As a physicist, Teller worked from 1942 to 1946 for the Manhattan Engineering District (wartime Manhattan Project). Early in 1942 he worked with Fermi on fission problems at Columbia University. In 1942-1943 he was at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. In April 1943 he joined the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where he remained until 1946 when he left to teach at the University of Chicago until 1949 when he returned to Los Alamos to complete his work on the bomb. According to Teller: "In Los Alamos my metamorphosis was completed. In January 1939 I had been a pure theoretical physicist. Before the attack on Hiroshima I had started work in applied science. After the war, I tried to find my way back to the simpler life of a scientist and a teacher. I never succeeded."

Only three weeks separated the experimental explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, in southern New Mexico (July 16, 1945), and the bombing of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945). The bomb was "The result of our wartime work at Los Alamos." And as Teller recalls: "As the oldest member of our group (I was thirty-seven), I was invited to see the test from an observation area just 20 miles away." In his book The Legacy of Hiroshima (1962), Teller writes: "It was necessary and right to develop the atomic bomb. It was unnecessary and wrong to bomb Hiroshima without specific warning." He adds: "Soap and water do not wash away sin. Nuclear test bans cannot erase the memory of Hiroshima."

At the University of Chicago, Teller was professor of physics from February 1946 to 1952. On leave from the university, he returned in 1949 to Los Alamos on a full-time basis. He remained there until 1952 as assistant director of what is now called Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. Looking backward, Teller says (1987): "In 1949 I advocated work on the hydrogen bomb, a weapon of attack….Iam now arguing for the development of the means to defend against those weapons."

On January 31, 1950, President Harry S. Truman made a statement on the hydrogen bomb, in which he declared: "…I have directed the Atomic Energy Commission to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or superbomb." J. Robert Oppenheimer and the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission had earlier expressed their opposition to the "Superbomb" or "Super." Apart from Teller, Ernest O. Lawrence and Luis W. Alvarez were among the principal supporters of the "Super." In fact, "Teller lobbied hard for the super in 1949, after the nation heard the news of the Soviet nuclear breakthrough."

The first full-scale thermonuclear explosion—of "Mike"—occurred on November 1, 1952. The islet of the Eniwetok chain, Elugelab, in the South Pacific, where it took place, was wiped off the face of the earth. Teller was not on hand for this first explosion. He had left Los Alamos exactly one year before, on November 1, 1951. While in California on November 1, 1952, he "attended the first hydrogen bomb explosion by watching the sensitive seismograph at the University of California in Berkeley." A bomb of ten megatons, "Mike" was about a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

To whom should go the credit of the development of the H-bomb? Teller has been called its "father" or "architect." As stated by Teller himself in a 1955 issue of Science, "Hundreds of ideas and thousands of technical skills are required for success. The hydrogen bomb is an achievement of this kind." A capital contribution was made by Stanislaw Ulam, the Polish-born mathematician: he "formulated the original design idea that Teller adapted and made into a workable bomb" (Pringle and Spigelman). Teller also remarked in Science, "In the whole development [of the H-bomb] I claim credit in one respect only: I believed, and persisted in believing, in the possibility and the necessity of developing the thermonuclear bomb."

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer is the title given to the official transcript of the hearing before the Personnel Security Board in Washington, DC, April 12, 1954-May 6, 1954. After Teller's testimony at this security hearing, and the subsequent withdrawal of Oppenheimer's security clearance, "Oppenheimer was widely seen as a scientific martyr and Teller as his persecutor" (Broad). Teller was "Scorned by scientific colleagues" (Broad). As Teller remarked in 1987, "As a result of acting on my beliefs, I lost what I wished to retain: friendly fellowship with many of my fellow scientists." To this day, in spite of the passing of time, the scientific community remains divided on the Teller-Oppenheimer controversy. Later, after hearing testimony from former Prisoners of War that they were to be killed when the planned invasion of Japan began, Teller said that, "for the first time, I had a real impression which almost amounts to a moral justification for using the atomic bomb." By stopping the war with the bomb most of those POW's were saved.

Other Positions and Awards

Teller was a consultant at the Livermore Branch of the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California from 1952 to 1953. He became associate director at what is now called Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (after Ernest O. Lawrence) from 1954 to 1958; he was later director (1958-1960) and again associate director (1960-1975), and finally consultant and associate director emeritus (after 1975). At the University of California at Berkeley, he became professor of physics (1953-1960), professor of physics-at-large (1960-1970), university professor (1970-1975), and professor emeritus (after 1975). After 1975 Teller was a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. Among his other positions, Teller was a member of the White House Science Council from 1982 to 1986.

After 1954 more than 20 honorary degrees were bestowed upon him. He was a recipient of numerous awards, among which were the Enrico Fermi Award for 1962 (given by President John F. Kennedy and handed over for the late president by President Lyndon B. Johnson), and the National Medal of Science for 1982 (given by President Ronald Reagan) for his research on stellar energy, fusion reaction, molecular physics, and nuclear safety. Among other awards Teller received are the Priestly Memorial Award (1957), the Einstein Award (1959), the General Donovan Memorial Award (1959), the Robins Award (1963), the Leslie R. Groves Gold Medal (1974), the Harvey Prize (1975), the Sylvanus Thayer Award (1986), the Presidential Citizen Medal (1989), and the Order of Banner with Rubies of the Republic of Hungary.

The Star Wars Project

On March 23, 1983, President Reagan announced "a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles." The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) became better known as "Star Wars." Teller was a strong advocate of the project—he met with the president in September 1982 to brief him on it. This controversial issue divided both the scientific and political worlds. Eventually, the plan was determined to be flawed: the satellites cost more that anticipated; the computer technology for the systems was complicated and unreliable; and the nuclear powered lasers were rejected.

Further Reading

Alone or in collaboration, Teller published more than a dozen books from 1939 to 1987. Here is a selective list: Better A Shield Than a Sword. Perspectives on Defense and Technology (1987); The Pursuit of Simplicity (1980); Energy From Heaven and Earth (1979); with Wilson K. Talley, Gary H. Higgins, and Gerald W. Johnson, The Constructive Uses of Nuclear Explosives (1968); with Allen Brown, The Legacy of Hiroshima (1962). Among Teller's many articles, "The Work of Many People, " Science 121 (February 1955) should be singled out.

An objective biography of Teller exists: Stanley A. Blumberg and Gwinn Owens, Energy and Conflict: The Life and Times of Edward Teller (1976). On the atomic bomb, the H-bomb, and Teller, read, in particular: Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986); Peter Wyden, Day One. Before Hiroshima and After (1985); Ferenc Morton Szasz, The Day the Sun Rose Twice: The Story of the Trinity Site Nuclear Explosion, July 16, 1945 (1984); Robert C. Williams and Philip L. Cantelon, editors, The American Atom: A Documentary History of Nuclear Policies From the Discovery of Fission to the Present. 1939-1984 (1984); and Herbert F. York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb (1976).

For the public debate on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or "Star Wars" see Franklin A. Long, Donald Hafner, and Jeffrey Boutwell, editors, Weapons in Space (1986), and Steven E. Miller and Stephen Van Evera, editors, The Star Wars Controversy. An International Security Reader (1986). □

Edward Teller

views updated May 09 2018

Edward Teller


Hungarian Physicist

Teller is one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century. Until the end of the Cold War, he was one of the leading members of the military industrial complex.

As a young boy, Edward Teller was introduced to extreme nationalism, prejudice, and authoritarian government. When he was six, his native Hungary became deeply involved in World War I. Severe wartime shortages and unprecedented carnage gave Teller an early lesson in the importance of peace and security.

After the war, clashes between Communist and anti-Communist forces, frequent executions, and anti-Semitism hardened Teller's hatred of all types of authoritarianism. These early childhood experiences would influence his stand against both fascism and Communism. Edward Teller came to believe that democracy was the best form of government. He used his scientific expertise to fight all threats to its existence.

At an early age Teller showed formidable intellectual capacity, especially in mathematics. His excellent grades opened the doors to the great European universities. After graduating from secondary school, Teller chose to study in Germany, eventually receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Teller decided to emigrate to America, where he eventually accepted a position at George Washington University. Here Teller became part of the American scientific establishment.

On August 2, 1939, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) reported to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that the development of nuclear weapons was possible. Because this research had been pioneered in Germany and many scientists were working within the Nazi organization, the probability was high that the Germans had a bomb program in operation. Teller and other prominent American scientists were given permission to develop a bomb on October 9, 1941, an undertaking called the Manhattan Project. The first atomic weapons were used against Japan to end World War II in August 1945.

Soon another conflict was at hand. The Cold War dominated international relations for half a century. Teller saw this as another battle against totalitarianism. His fears intensified when, on August 20, 1949, the Soviets exploded their first atomic weapon. He was also afraid that the Russians would develop an even more powerful hydrogen bomb. After intense secret debate spurred by Soviet advances in nuclear weapons, President Truman announced in January 1950 that an American hydrogen bomb project was underway.

Teller, known as the father of the American hydrogen bomb, accelerated research efforts. On May 8, 1951, a small test explosion proved the feasibility of Teller's concept, a theory called radiation implosion. On November 1, 1952, the United States detonated a device that was 500 times more powerful than the Nagasaki bomb. The final test of the hydrogen bomb came on March 1, 1954. The explosion produced a yield of 15 megatons, 1,000 times as large as the Hiroshima bomb. Although the Soviets were also working to develop thermonuclear weapons, their program lagged consistently behind that of the United States; they did not test a megaton weapon until 1955.

With both superpowers able to launch thermonuclear weapons, a horrific stalemate known as mutual assured destruction (MAD) ensued. Each side knew that a launch against its adversary would end its own existence. Teller, however, viewed MAD as an unacceptable means of maintaining peace. He believed that to hold the world's population hostage to nuclear destruction was unjustifiable. His prominent role in the development of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in the 1980s, was an attempt to end this nightmarish scenario. This project, known popularly as "Star Wars," was the most controversial of Teller's career. It was based on the theory that a combination of lasers and ballistic missiles could shoot down incoming missiles. The project has languished since the end of the Cold War.


Teller, Edward

views updated May 29 2018

Teller, Edward (1908––2003), nuclear physicist.The Hungarian‐born physicist earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in Germany after academic study and research in Munich and Leipzig. In Germany during the Weimar years, Teller taught at the University of Göttingen while studying atomic physics under Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. In 1935, he went to the United States to teach at George Washington University.

Teller worked with Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago to create the first self‐sustaining nuclear chain reaction. In 1943, he was recruited to work with J. Robert Oppenheimer on the fission bomb at the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. While at Los Alamos, Teller began his own research on the feasibility of a thermonuclear or hydrogen fusion bomb. The USSR's explosion of an atomic bomb in 1949 galvanized Teller strongly to advocate U.S. development of the hydrogen bomb. After President Harry S. Truman approved the H‐bomb project in 1950, Teller returned to Los Alamos to begin work on the new weapon. The collaboration between Teller and the physicist S. M. Ulam proved successful. The fusion concept was successfully tested in the Pacific at Enewetok atoll on 1 November 1952.

As the Cold War intensified, Teller gave testimony at government hearings in 1954 that contributed to the removal of Oppenheimer's security clearance. After helping in 1952 to create the Lawrence Livermore nuclear laboratory in Berkeley, California, Teller divided his time between working at Livermore and teaching physics at Berkeley.

Teller has been a powerful policy advocate for many years. His strong anti‐Communist views led him to oppose the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty and to influence President Ronald Reagan to propose the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983.
[See also Atomic Scientists; Nuclear Weapons.]


Louis G. Panos , Edward Teller, 1990.

Mark Polelle

Teller, Edward

views updated May 14 2018

Teller, Edward (1908–2003) US physicist, b. Hungary. Often referred to as the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’, in 1935 Teller left Europe and settled in the USA, where he conducted research on solar energy. During World War 2, he contributed to nuclear weapons' research with Enrico Fermi. He was involved in the Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic bomb. Teller was a central figure in developing and testing (1952) the hydrogen bomb. He supported Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) or ‘Star Wars’ project.

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