Professor Edward Teller

Father of the hydrogen bomb
Click to follow

Edward Teller, physicist: born Budapest 15 January 1908; Lecturer, London University 1934-45; Professor of Physics, George Washington University, Washington DC 1935-41; Professor of Physics, Columbia University 1941-42; Physicist, Manhattan Project 1942-46; Professor of Physics, University of Chicago 1946-52; Assistant Director, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory 1949-52; Professor of Physics, University of California 1953-60, Director, Livermore Branch, Lawrence Livermore Laboratory 1958-60 (Emeritus), Associate Director, Lawrence Radiation Laboratory 1954-75 (Emeritus), Chairman, Department of Applied Science 1963-66; Professor of Physics, University of California, Berkeley 1960-71, University Professor 1971-75 (Emeritus); Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution 1975-2003; married 1934 Augusta Harkanyi (died 2000; one son, one daughter); died Stanford, California 9 September 2003.

Edward Teller's public fame, or public infamy, had him as father of the hydrogen bomb: the Beelzebub of the 20th century. For a decade from 1942, when he was assigned as a physicist to the Manhattan Project, he was less interested in the manufacture of a "fission" or atomic bomb than in the development of a "fusion" or "super" bomb. It was as a result as much of Teller's energetic advocacy as his technical expertise that on 1 November 1952 - a year after the Russians detonated their first atomic bomb - the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb, at Eniwetok Island in the Pacific.

Yet when at the invitation of Eitan Abraham, another physicist of Hungarian descent, Teller came to the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh in October 1994 (he was then in his late eighties), he captivated me and other critics, in public and in private, by his hypnotic charm and capacity to respond convincingly, in detail, to all the queries, some pointed in the extreme, with which he was confronted over a three-day period at the university.

A heavyweight in every sense - intellectually, and physically of Joe Bugner proportions - Teller mesmerised the American military establishment from Dwight Eisenhower to the Nato commander- in-chief Andrew Goodpaster; his particular disciple was Ronald Reagan, first as Governor of California and secondly as President of the United States. When I put it to Teller that his influence over an eight-year period on the American president has been comparable to that of his Hungarian boyhood friend Tommy Balogh over Harold Wilson, Teller grunted - "Not compaa-able, faar graa-ater!"

He had had dealings with every US President since Franklin Roosevelt, and it was Teller's repeated and considered opinion that Reagan was the most intelligent - because he listened and displayed a delicious sense of humour. The evidence that he listened to Teller on "Star Wars" and much else is unchallenged.

Teller enjoyed repeating how Reagan summoned those who had served him particularly well at the very end of his presidency for medals. "Reagan did not say that the world would be grateful, or that we had done a wonderful job. Nothing of that kind. He simply said that it was the 2,735th day of office, and that 'enough is enough'!"

Edward Teller was born in Budapest in 1908, the son of Max Teller, a lawyer. His mother, Ilona, wanted him to be a pianist. Asked why he became a mathematician and physicist, he explained that his parents inflicted on him, as a small child, the indignity of turning his bedroom light off before he was tired. So he got into the habit of retreating under the bedclothes, and working out in his mind calculations such as how many seconds there are in a year. Teller would refer to his childhood as an "affair with numbers".

High school at the Minta- Gymnasium in Budapest - the same one attended by Johnny von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Nicholas Kurti and the economists Nicholas Kaldor and Tommy Balogh - he dismissed as a total loss, since his teachers believed that mathematics and calligraphy were the same subject. However, his fond father sent him to a Professor Leopold Klug, who introduced him to Leonhard Euler's Algebra, which he understood without difficulty; Klug, whom Teller revered, also taught him a little about projective geometry, and a lot about loving one's subject. He became a polymer chemist, and one of the first researchers to become obsessed with the problems associated with the stability of atoms.

Preceded by Hungarian friends of prodigious talent - among them Leo Szilard, the first man to predict nuclear explosions, Eugene Wigner, who introduced quantum mechanics into the United States, and Johnny von Neumann, the most gifted mathematician of the age, developer of games theory and computers - Teller was welcomed in Karlsruhe, Munich, Leipzig and Göttingen, all then at the forefront of world physics.

Crucially in Leipzig, Teller met another young man, who was a ping-pong addict like himself, by the name of Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg was at first beaten by Teller, but, since Heisenberg was intensely ambitious and did not like to be bettered at anything, he soon trained himself to beat Teller. Heisenberg was even more serious about his "Uncertainty Principles" and a limitation of the idea of causality. Well-defined uncertainty was not due to our imperfections but to unforeseeable circumstances.

In Leipzig, Teller occupied a room in the department where he both worked and slept. He had a computer - one which was operated by turning a handle on a loud, clanking wheel. Liking to work at night, Teller would wonder aloud whether or not part of the reason Heisenberg awarded him an accelerated doctorate (on research related, inter alia, to hydrogen molecules) was to rid himself of the grinding clanking of Teller's computer in the small hours. The chuckle with which Teller would speculate on such matters was a part of his charm - not least in great old age.

It was intimacy with Heisenberg that was later so to alarm Teller about the all too real prospect of German nuclear weapons, in the lands of the Nazis, and propel him to go with Leo Szilard to see Alfred Einstein on 20 August 1939; Szilard had a letter in his pocket, which he and Teller persuaded Einstein to sign, addressed to Franklin Roosevelt, outlining the danger - "The science is there," the letter said. "Nuclear explosives can be made, and the Germans were the first to know about it. They discovered it" - and urging the President, before a Nazi bomb was developed, to embark on what became known as the Manhattan Project and the Los Alamos development of the atomic bomb. This he did: the US began on their own programme in 1941.

As Teller's self-deprecating humour put it: "Leo Szilard was a wonderful and ingenious man who could do anything - except drive a motor car. I went along as his chauffeur." In truth, it was the 31-year-old Teller who galvanised Szilard to galvanise Einstein to make full use of his prestigious access to FDR.

I asked Teller in 1994 what his considered opinion was on the delicate question of Heisenberg and the German bomb. Inevitably Teller, who had a horror of simplification to the point of distortion, retorted:

It's not uncomplicated. In 1940, when the Germans overran Copenhagen, Niels Bohr, who was half-Jewish, thought he was destined for a concentration camp. Heisenberg, with some courage, as he was himself suspected of being anti-Nazi, went to Copenhagen to see Bohr, his old teacher, at his house, provided by Karlsbad, the beer manufacturers. Heisenberg, assuming there were bugging devices in Bohr's house, said, "I'm working hard for my country." His country was the Nazis. Bohr was shocked. Outside in the garden, Heisenberg said, "I'm working on nuclear experiments; I hope they do not succeed. I hope our friends in the US will not succeed either."

Heisenberg told Bohr and the German authorities that one could not use carbon, and one had to use heavy water. That was a big mistake. Heisenberg allowed the graphite used to be very impure. That was an even bigger mistake. Had Heisenberg been his own self - he never made a mistake - those blunders would not have happened!

Teller concluded that Heisenberg had deliberately sabotaged the German bomb, and both from knowing his character, and from the evidence of the secret tapes made by the British authorities at a farm in England between 6 and 10 August 1945, when interned German scientists discussed among themselves Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Teller was keen to work with former German colleagues.

His attitude to the Russians was altogether different. During his time at Leipzig, he became extremely close to Lev Landau, the Nobel prizewinning Leningrad physicist, who in the middle 1930s was an ardent Communist (constantly teasing Teller about the democratic system). The fact that Landau could be sent to Siberia, and his life endangered, made an indelible impression on Teller.

The charges made against Teller's conduct are legion. Charge and counter-defence can only be deployed in necessarily truncated form. The first charge is that he was responsible for the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, alone among the scientists, he wanted to explode the Los Alamos device 10,000 metres above Tokyo Bay, to let the Emperor and eight million Japanese see the device before having to use it in earnest. Actually, the decision was made by Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and nobody else.

The second charge is that Teller "shopped" Robert Oppenheimer, director of the weapons laboratory at Los Alamos, when, at the time of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, the US Atomic Energy Commission held an inquiry after he was accused of being an agent of the Soviet Union. In fact, it was, as Teller understatedly described it, "a somewhat involved story". Teller regarded Oppenheimer as a very complicated man, but as a "truly excellent leader; I liked and respected him".

But, in the summer of 1945, Teller declined to sign a round-robin on the use of nuclear weapons (partly in the light of what had happened to Landau). He was called on that account to Washington. Because of the Chevalier case (involving the passing of secrets to the Soviets), he said he was in principle against giving loose clearance.

Asked in 1954 if Oppenheimer should be given clearance, Teller said that, as far as intention was concerned, he did not believe Oppenheimer wished to betray the United States; as far as his actions and talk were concerned, he did not know, and he wished that the security of the country was in hands that he understood. (He had been tipped off obliquely by Sir James Chadwick, Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, that there was a security leak, before Klaus Fuchs was uncovered.)

Another charge was that Teller broke ranks among senior scientists who would otherwise have been unanimous against going ahead with the H-bomb. Teller retorted that he knew the Russian Communists better than his accusers did, since his mother and sister were suffering terribly in Hungary.

A taste of Teller's brand of sardonic humour parries this charge:

When Beria went to Stalin to tell him of the successful explosion of the Russian bomb, he asked the dictator what he should do. "Well, Comrade Laurenti," grunted Stalin, "I suppose you have a list of persons and scientists whom you would have shot, if the bomb had not gone off. You'd better give everyone on that list a Stalin Prize, First Class!"

The final charge against Teller is that he seduced President Reagan into embarking on the aborted but exceedingly costly Strategic Defense Initiative missile defence system known as Star Wars. Unapologetic, Teller responded that we should all remember Tunguska, the meteorite that landed in Siberia, the sort of event that occurs on average every 300 years or so - a danger by no means easily dismissed. As he put it to his packed Heriot-Watt hall, "If Tunguska had occurred near Edinburgh - no Edinburgh!"

At the age of 86, his cause of the moment was that the danger from meteorites could be averted for the benefit of everybody, by everybody - and that the success of such co-operation could bring countries and political systems closer to each other.

My abiding memory of Edward Teller is of a man who three times in three days had just finished spellbinding, noteless sessions of 110 minutes each, demanding a telephone to contact his childhood sweetheart of 70 years and wife of 60 years, back in California. Sweetly, he said of his Augusta ("Mici", who died in 2000), "She never agrees with me on anything - except on those matters on which I am attacked by other people!"

Two years ago, in 2001, Teller published his Memoirs, subtitled "A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics", and in July this year, at the age of 95, he was awarded the United States' highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was unable to attend the ceremony in Washington, but his daughter, Wendy, accepted the award from President George W. Bush on his behalf.

Tam Dalyell