A Scientific Warrior
Edward Teller has long been a controversial figure. Born in Hungary in 1908, he moved to Germany in 1926, where he joined the fraternity of those exploring the new science of quantum mechanics. Following the rise of anti-semitism in Germany, Teller came to the United States in 1935. He was one of the original members of the Manhattan Project, and remained in weapons work after World War II, playing a key role in the development of the hydrogen fusion bomb. He also helped to found the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and to this day remains a strong advocate of nuclear power and the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative. Teller will be publishing his life's memories in November (Memoirs, Perseus, Cambridge, Mass., $35, 592 pp., ISBN: 0-7382-0532-X). IEEE Spectrum associate editor Stephen Cass talked to him about his life and his work.
Edward Teller [top row, far left] was photographed in 1945 with key Manhattan Project scientists, including Harold Urey and Enrico Fermi [front row, second from left, second from right]. Below is Teller today.
You describe a turbulent childhood in Hungary during World War I and a Communist takeover for several months in 1919 and its aftermath. How did this experience shape your later life?
It made me interested in what was going on outside Hungary. My father had a map of the battlefronts in his office, and I remember seeing what was going on week after week. Even after I came to the United States, I was better informed and more interested in what was going on in this way than most. My childhood experiences also made me familiar with the dark side of Communism. And the dark side of fascism as well. I did not know that something reasonable like democracy even existed until I experienced it much later.
What scientific accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?
I participated in the great experience of developing quantum mechanics. In this development, I was a child. I came [to this field] rather late because I had studied chemistry. And so my contribution [for the most part was] in the application of the new ideas of quantum mechanics to polyatomic molecules--benzene, for example. It was a lot of detailed work, which was successful and most enjoyable.
Do you have any regrets that your life moved away from pure science and into weapons research and policy issues?
I wish I had lived in a better time--a time where dangers like that of Hitler and Stalin had been absent. But since it so happened I lived in this time, I was drawn into [the Manhattan Project]. I was given an opportunity. I did it, I did not enjoy it. But I was happy I did so. I would not be at all proud of having refused.
Were you surprised by some of the hostile reactions other Manhattan Project scientists had toward continued weapons research after the war?
Not at all. It was just those scientists who had imagination enough to understand their subject but not imagination enough to understand the world, and to understand the changes in the world, and they believed that by hoping for peace, there would be peace.
The debate over whether or not to research the hydrogen bomb was a bitter one. You also gave testimony that many people interpreted as being damaging to Robert Oppenheimer during the hearing that led to his loss of security clearance for suspected Communist links; you were ostracized. How did you maintain your resolve to pursue your work?
It was not an easy time. But I was helped by having friends, and we made [new] friends. Those friends were partly in the Livermore Laboratory and partly among other similar-minded Hungarians working in somewhat less controversial subjects, like my very good friend Johnny von Neumann. They helped me technically, they helped me psychologically.
You say in your memoirs that the establishment of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in 1952 was your proudest accomplishment. Why?
For a very simple reason. The Livermore Laboratory made a great contribution to the winning of the Cold War without any bloodshed. We had an important part in the end of the Soviet Union, of which I am very happy.
What was the importance of creating a second laboratory after Los Alamos?
Two secret laboratories, which can actually compete with each other, are better [than one]. One example I can mention is that when the question of nuclear-powered submarines came up, Los Alamos said, "It can't be done for a reasonable price." Livermore said, "It can be done," and we got the contract. The fact that we had submarines that could not be destroyed in a first strike made a great contribution to the Soviets being deterred from attacking.
Controversially, you argued against the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Why?
Because it could not be checked. It would lead to the United States losing its advantage while other countries developed dangerous weapons. I am against treaties that cannot be checked and that will be violated. The result of that treaty is that dangerous knowledge is now available to [many] governments while the United States has made little progress.
You have also advocated nuclear power plants, which has always generated heated opposition in some quarters. How do you think it could be made a more palatable choice for the public?
With more assurance that complications [in power plant operation] will not become very serious. And by educating people that nuclear power is important because we are running out of other fuels. The raw materials we are now relying upon will begin to run short even in the next quarter of a century. A hundred years from now, we will have to look for other sources of power. I believe the best and easiest [source to use]--if properly handled--is nuclear power. I want nuclear reactors underground, and reactor products should be stored alongside the reactor, not transported. I think a safe approach to nuclear power is important and generally not practiced.
In Hungary, nuclear power has been developed; 40 per cent of electricity in Hungary is nuclear. This is due to a very efficient group of people [at the location] where the Hungarian reactors are built. Hungary is one of the few countries where nuclear power is really accepted, and I think it will be to Hungary's ultimate benefit.
Opponents of nuclear power point to accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and claim these events demonstrate that nuclear power is too dangerous to use.
Those were accidents that the press has blown up out of all proportion. Three Mile Island resulted in a loss of a lot of money. Absolutely nobody was killed. Chernobyl, we do not know...in the accident itself, a few hundred people were killed, not many more than a big airplane accident. That other people were killed by radioactivity--this is unproven and probably wrong, too. A scientific conference in Vienna, 10 years after Chernobyl, showed that probably the biggest damage did not come from Chernobyl itself but from the fear caused by Chernobyl--in the months after Chernobyl, the number of women [having abortions] because of fear of what would happen to them soared. Tens of thousands of children were prevented from being born, because of the slight radioactivity that was measurable, but I believe not dangerous. What caused the damage was not radioactivity but the fear of radioactivity.
Antiballistic missile defense has been very much in the news lately. Some have claimed that the system will never work, while others have declared it irrelevant in a post-Cold War world. Is an ABM defense worthwhile?
We had made a good beginning under the Reagan and [first] Bush administrations in creating a defense against missiles. The [Clinton administration] was not interested and neglected the defense of the American people--a serious mistake that the new Bush administration is beginning to correct. We lost a number of valuable years.
The missile shield is needed, but it should be carried out using a different system than is currently being tested. In the approach that we advocated under Reagan, the push was to stop the missiles very early. In the early acceleration phase of flight, the missiles are easiest to destroy. A system that would do that would not be a defense of the United States. It would be a defense of everybody, run by some sort of international regime. That is certainly not easy. Perhaps this kind of cooperation must first be developed in something more popular, like weather forecasting. Then it should be easier to sell the idea that we should defend both ourselves and everybody else. I am not for a unique defense of the United States. I am for planning for a peaceful world.
Education and public understanding of science is important to you. In a culture where TV soundbites tend to be the main conduit of transmitting information, can anything be done to improve the level of general scientific understanding?
I have a practically impossible solution--television should be improved! Actually for me, television can only be improved by not looking at it. Education is not just important, it's beautiful. Teachers should be better paid and better honored. The best people today do not become teachers. You must also get experienced people in the classroom who can teach children part-time.
Any thoughts for the 21st century?
Peace is very important. But to have peace, you must have power in the hands of those who want peace. That is the mistake of the pacifists, who believe that the knowledge of the big weapons is identical with the use of weapons. I am for the knowledge, but against the use.
TOP: ARCHIVE PHOTO/BOTTOM: PAUL SAMUKA/AP PHOTO