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The many tragedies of Edward Teller

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Edward Teller (January 15, 1908 - September 9, 2003)

Edward Teller was born on this day 106 years ago. Teller is best known to the general public for two things: his reputation as the “father of the hydrogen bomb” and as a key villain in the story of the downfall of Robert Oppenheimer. To me Teller will always be a prime example of the harm that brilliant men can do – either by accident or design – when they are placed in positions of power; as the famed historian Richard Rhodes said about Teller in an interview, “Teller consistently gave bad advice to every president that he worked for”. It’s a phenomenon that is a mainstay of politics but Teller’s case sadly indicates that even science can be put into the service of such misuse of power

Ironically it is the two most publicly known facts about Teller that are also probably not entirely accurate. Later in life he often complained that the public had exaggerated his roles in both the hydrogen bomb program and in the ousting of Oppenheimer, and this contention was largely true. In truth he deserved both less credit and less blame for his two major acts. Without Teller hydrogen bombs would still have been developed and without Teller Oppenheimer would still have been removed from his role as the government’s foremost scientific advisor.

The question that continues to dog historians and scientists is simple; why did Teller behave the way he did? By any account he was a brilliant man, well attuned to the massive overkill by nuclear weapons that he was advocating and also well attuned to the damage he would cause Oppenheimer and the scientific community by testifying against the father of the atomic bomb. He was also often a warm person and clearly desired friendship with his peers, so why did he choose to alienate so many who were close to him? The answers to these questions undoubtedly lie in Teller’s background. Growing up in progressive Hungary at the turn of the century as the son of a well to do Jewish father, Teller was part of a constellation of Hungarian prodigies with similar cultural and family backgrounds who followed similar trajectories, emigrated to the United States and became famous scientists. Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann were all childhood friends.

Sadly Teller became a psychological casualty of Hungary’s post-World War 1 communist and fascist regimes early in his childhood when he witnessed first hand the depredations visited upon his country by Bela Kun and then by Miklos Horthy. The chaos and uncertainty brought about by the communists left a deep impression on the sensitive young boy and traumatized him for life. Later when Teller migrated to Germany, England and America he saw the noose of Nazism tightening around Europe. This combined double blow brought about by the cruelties of communism and Nazism seems to have dictated almost every one of Teller’s major decisions for the rest of his life.

The fear of totalitarianism manifested itself early, leading Teller to be among the first ones to push for a US nuclear weapons program. He was Leo Szilard’s driver when Szilard went to meet Einstein in his Long Island cottage and got the famous letter to FDR signed by the great physicist. Along with Szilard and Wigner Teller was the first one to raise the alarm about a potential German atomic project and he lobbied vigorously for the government to take notice. By the time the war started he was a respected professor at George Washington University. Goaded by his experiences and inner conscience, Teller became one of Oppenheimer’s first recruits at Los Alamos where he moved at the beginning of the Manhattan Project in the spring of 1943.

Oppenheimer and Teller’s meeting was like one of those fateful events in Greek tragedies which is destined to end in friction and tragedy. Perhaps the most ironic twist in this story is how similar the two men were; brilliant physicists who were both products of high culture and affluent families, interested in literature and the arts, envisioning a great role for themselves in history and sensitive to the plight of human beings around them. However their personalities clashed almost right from the beginning, although the mistrust was mostly engendered by Teller.

Not all of it was Teller’s fault however. By the time Teller met Oppenheimer the latter had established himself as the foremost American-born theoretical physicist of his age, a man who could hold sway over even Nobel Laureates with his astonishingly quick mind, dazzlingly Catholic interests and knowledge and ability to metamorphose into adopting whatever role history had thrust upon him. But men like Oppenheimer are hardly simple, and Oppenheimer’s colleagues and students usually fell into two extreme camps, those who saw him as an insecure and pretentious poseur and those who idolized his intellect. Clearly Teller fell into the former group.

The friction between the two men was accentuated after Teller moved to Los Alamos when Oppenheimer made Hans Bethe the head of the project’s important theoretical division. Teller understandably chafed at the choice since unlike Bethe he had lived with the project since the beginning, but Oppenheimer’s decision was wise; he had sized up both physicists and realized that while both were undoubtedly scientifically capable, administering a division of prima donnas needed steadfast determination, levelheaded decision making and the ability to be a team player while quietly soothing egos, all of which were qualities inherent in Bethe but not in the volatile Teller.

Teller never really recovered from this slight and from then on his relationship with both Oppenheimer and Bethe (with whom he had been best friends for years) was increasingly strained. It wouldn’t be the first time he let the personal interfere with the professional and I think this was his first great tragedy – the inability to separate personal feelings from objective thinking. It was also during the war that the idea of using an atomic bomb to ignite a self-sustaining fusion reaction caught Teller’s imagination. Teller confirmed Oppenheimer’s decision to hire Bethe when he refused to perform detailed calculations for the implosion weapon and insisted that he work on his pet idea for the “Super”, a diversion that was undoubtedly orthogonal to the urgent task of producing an atomic bomb, especially one which was necessary to light up the Super in any case.

After the war got over Teller kept on pushing for the hydrogen bomb. History was on his side and the increasing encroachment of the Soviets into Eastern Europe followed by major events like the Berlin airlift and the testing of the first Soviet atomic bomb firmed up his conviction and allowed him to drum up support from scientists, politicians and the military. Sadly his initial design for the Super was fatally flawed; while an atomic bomb would in fact ignite a large mass of tritium or deuterium, energy losses would be too rapid to sustain a successful fusion reaction. Even after knowing this Teller kept pushing for the design, taking advantage of the worsening political situation and his own growing prominence in the scientific community. This was Teller’s first real dishonest act.

His second dishonest act was withholding credit from the man who actually came up with the first successful idea for a hydrogen bomb – Stanislaw Ulam. An exceptionally brilliant and versatile mathematician, Ulam first performed detailed calculations that revealed holes in Teller’s original Super design and then thought of the key process of radiation implosion that would compress a batch of thermonuclear fuel and enable its sustained fusion. Teller who had been smoldering with rage at Ulam’s calculations until then immediately saw the merit of the idea and significantly refined it. Since then almost every hydrogen bomb in the world’s nuclear arsenals has been constructed on the basis of the Teller-Ulam model. Yet Teller seems to have denied Ulam the credit for the idea even in his later years, something that is especially puzzling considering that he downplayed his own role in the development of hydrogen bombs in the waning years of his life. Was this simply a ploy engineered to gain sympathy and to display false modesty? We will never know.

The act for which Teller became infamous followed only a few years later in 1954. Since the end of the war Oppenheimer had been steadfast in his opposition to the hydrogen bomb, not just on a moral basis but also on a technical basis. This did not go down well with the establishment, especially in the face of the increasingly dire-looking international situation. Oppenheimer was hardly the only one opposing the project – prominent scientists like Enrico Fermi and Isidor Rabi were even more vocal in their opposition – but Oppenheimer’s reputation, his role as the government’s foremost nuclear advisor and his often casual cruelty and impatience with lesser men made him stand out. After the Teller-Ulam design came to light Oppenheimer actually supported the project but by that time he had already made powerful enemies, especially in the person of Lewis Strauss, a vindictive, petty and thin-skinned former Secretary of the Navy who unfortunately had the ear of President Eisenhower.

When the government brought charges against Oppenheimer Teller was asked to testify. He could have declined and still saved his reputation but he chose not to. Curiously, the actual testimony offered by Teller is at the same time rather straightforward as well as vague enough to be interpreted damningly. It has an air of calculated ambiguity about it that makes it particularly potent. What Teller said was the following:

In a great number of cases I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer act – I understood that Dr. Oppenheimer acted – in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand. I thoroughly disagreed with him in 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.

What is interesting about the testimony, as explained by Freeman Dyson in his autobiography, is that it’s actually quite undramatic and true. Oppenheimer had lied to army officials during the war regarding an indirect approach made to him for ferrying secrets to the Soviet Union. He had refused right away but had then concocted an unnecessary and bizarre “cock and bull story” (in his own words) to explain his actions. That story had not gotten him into trouble during the war because of his indispensable role in the project, but it certainly qualified him as “confused and complicated”. In addition after the war, Oppenheimer’s views on nuclear weapons also often appeared conflicted, as did his loyalties to his former students. Oppenheimer’s opinions on the hydrogen bomb which were quite sound were however also interpreted as “confused and complicated” by Teller. But where Teller was coming from, Oppenheimer’s actions were hard to understand, and therefore it was clear that Teller would trust opinions regarding national security in someone’s else’s hands. Thus Teller’s testimony was actually rather unsurprising and sensible when seen in a certain context.

As it happened however, his words were seen as a great betrayal by the majority of physicists who supported Oppenheimer. The result of this perception was that Teller himself was damaged far more by his testimony than was Oppenheimer. Close friends simply stopped talking to him and one former colleague publicly refused to shake his hand, a defiant display that led Teller to retire to his room and weep. He was essentially declared a pariah by a large part of the wartime physics community. It is likely that Teller would have reconsidered testifying against Oppenheimer had he known the personal price he would have to pay. But the key point here is that Teller had again let personal feelings interfere with objective decision making; Teller’s animosity toward Oppenheimer went back years, and he knew that as long as the emperor ruled he could never take his place. This was his chance to stage a coup. As it happened his decision simply led to a great tragedy of his life, a tragedy that was particularly acute since his not testifying would have essentially made no difference in the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance.

This inability to keep the personal separate from reality exemplified Teller’s obsession with nuclear weapons for the next fifty years until his death. At one point he was paranoid enough to proclaim that he saw himself in a Soviet prison camp within five years. I will not go so far as to label Teller paranoid from a medical standpoint but some of the symptoms certainly seem to be there. Teller’s attachment to his hydrogen bombs became so absolute that he essentially opposed almost every effort to seek reconciliation and arms reductions with the Soviets. The Partial Test Ban Treaty, the NPT, the ABM treaty and sound scientific opposition to Reagan’s fictional “Star Wars” defense; all met with his swift disapproval even when the science argued otherwise, as in the case of Star Wars . He also publicly debated Linus Pauling regarding the genetic effects of radiation just as he would debate Carl Sagan twenty years later regarding nuclear winter.

Sagan has a particularly illuminating take on Teller’s relationship with nuclear weapons in his book “The Demon- Haunted World”. The book has an entire chapter on Teller in which Sagan tries to understand Teller’s love affair with bombs. Sagan’s opinion is that Teller was actually sincere in his beliefs that nuclear weapons were humanity’s savior. He actually believed that these weapons would solve all our problems in war and peace. This led to him advocating rather outlandish uses for nuclear weapons: “Do you want to find out more about moon dust? Explode a nuclear weapon on the moon and analyze the spectrum of the resulting dust. Do you want to excavate harbors or change the course of rivers? Nuclear weapons can do the job”. Teller’s proposal to excavate harbors in Alaska using bombs led to appropriate opposition from the Alaskan natives. In many of these scenarios he seemed to simply ignore the biological effects of fallout.

But as much as I appreciate Sagan’s view that Teller was sincere in his proposals I find it hard to digest; Teller was smart enough to know the collateral damage caused by nuclear weapons, or to know how ridiculous the idea of using nuclear weapons to study moon dust sounded when there were much simpler methods to do it. My opinion is that by this time he had travelled so far along the path which he chose for himself after the war that he simply could not retract his steps. He clung to dubious peacetime uses of nuclear weapons simply so that he could advocate their buildup in wartime. By this time the man was too far along to choose another role in his life. That, I think, was another of Teller’s tragedies.

But in my view, Teller’s greatest tragedy had nothing to do with nuclear weapons. It was simply the fact that in pursuit of his obsession with bombs he wasted his great scientific gifts and failed to become a truly great physicist. Ironically he again shared this fate with his nemesis Robert Oppenheimer. Before the war both Oppenheimer and Teller had made significant contributions to science. Teller is so famous for his weapons work that it is easy to ignore his scientific research. Along with two other scientists he worked out an important equation describing the adsorption of gases to solids. Another very significant Teller contribution known to chemists is the Jahn-Teller effect, a distortion of geometry in certain inorganic molecular complexes that impacts key properties like color and magnetic behavior. In nuclear physics Teller again came up with several ideas including the Gamow-Teller rules that describe energy transitions in nuclei. Even after the war Teller kept on thinking about science, working for instance on Thomas-Fermi theory which was the precursor of techniques used to calculate important properties of molecules.

But after 1945 Teller’s scientific gifts essentially lay undisturbed, stagnating in all their creative glory. Edward Teller the theoretical physicist was slowly but surely banished to the shadows and Edward Teller the nuclear weapons expert and political advocate took his place. A similar fate befell Oppenheimer, although for many years he at least stayed in touch with the latest developments in physics. Seduced by power, both men forgot what had brought them to this juncture in history to begin with. In pursuing power they ignored their beloved science.

Ultimately one fact stands apart stark and clear in my view: Edward Teller’s obsession with nuclear weapons will likely become a historical curiosity but the Jahn-Teller will persist for all eternity. This, I think, is the real tragedy.

Ashutosh Jogalekar About the Author: Ashutosh (Ash) Jogalekar is a chemist interested in the history and philosophy of science. He considers science to be a seamless and all-encompassing part of the human experience. Follow on Twitter @curiouswavefn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Carlyle 6:58 am 01/16/2014

    Your dismissive ‘Reagan’s fictional “Star Wars” defense; ‘
    was instrumental in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a brilliant tactic. The soviet Union had for years bragged about supposing the US industrially & technologically. They had failed in the manned race to the moon, then they could not keep up with what they perceived as a real possibility that Regan’s ‘Star Wars’ might become a reality. He outspent them. A cheap & humane way to win the cold war. As a result all of Eastern Europe was freed from communism as well.

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  2. 2. Carlyle 7:00 am 01/16/2014

    Sorry about the poor proof reading.

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  3. 3. curiouswavefunction 8:28 am 01/16/2014

    Looks like the old “Star Wars killed the Soviet Union” myth (which also ignores the fact that Reagan orchestrated some of the biggest arms reductions in history) is still alive. There is no serious evidence in support of your contention and plenty against it. In a well cited article in the pages of this very publication (Sci Am 1984; 251: 4) Bethe, Garwin and Gottfried demonstrated how the purported system would not work and how it could have been thwarted by cheap countermeasures. I would suggest you read it. Also in 1987, the American Physical Society concluded that a global shield such as “Star Wars” was not only impossible with existing technology, but that ten more years of research was needed to learn whether it might ever be feasible. The safest and cheapest Soviet response to Star Wars would simply have been to augment their existing nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. Planned Soviet expenditures against Star Wars were paltry, hardly enough to trigger the collapse of their economy. This view is supported by internal documents and testimony from leading Soviet scientists including Roald Sagdeev and Yevgeny Velikhov. Star Wars was both a technical and a political failure and if anything it increased the possibility of nuclear war.

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  4. 4. outsidethebox 8:49 am 01/16/2014

    After thirty years – the same old lies from the left. It didn’t matter what some leftist American scientists believed about “star wars”. What mattered is what the Soviets thought about it – and they believed it was possible. It didn’t matter how much the Soviets wasted trying to counter it. What mattered is they realized their economic system wasn’t throwing off enough money to match it. And therefore changed their behavior which brought about the end of the system. Save us all from people who think they know so much about science while demonstrating they know nothing about human beings.

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  5. 5. WarmNeutron 10:00 am 01/16/2014

    After thirty years – the same old lies from the right. Since leftist scientists wrote those papers it must mean the science was wrong. Patron Saint Ronald saves the world, single handedly crushes the Evil Empire. It doesn’t even matter that his own advisors were disgusted with him for trying to get rid of nukes at the 1986 Reykjavik summit.

    Hey, I have an idea, how about replacing Luke Skywalker with Reagan in the new Star Wars movie (It is called ‘Star Wars’ after all)?

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  6. 6. Spironis 1:25 pm 01/16/2014

    A thermonuclear warhead is detonated in the vacuum of space. The whole of its mass has a temperature averaging about an MeV (0.00124 nm). Visible light tops off at 400 nm, 3.1 eV. Is the detonation visible, or must it expand and cool into visibility?

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  7. 7. outsidethebox 7:46 pm 01/16/2014

    Warm Neutron you just don’t get it. Not even one little bit. It just doesn’t matter if the science was right or wrong. All that mattered was what the politburo thought about the science. And they didn’t agree with you.

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  8. 8. Lazarg2 7:51 pm 01/17/2014

    I’ve met Teller a couple of times at Stanford and I also speak Hungarian. In my view, he felt great physical discomfort in his entire life due to a freak streetcar accident in Germany in his twenties. His right foot was severed, he wore a prosthetic foot, he was limping. It seemed to me that he was in constant pain. Teller had that European stiff upper lip, he never talked about the pain. I think his foot problems greatly affected his personality.

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  9. 9. curiouswavefunction 9:35 am 01/20/2014

    Thanks for your comment. I think that’s a very good point, and I tend to agree that Teller’s unfortunate foot accident definitely left him in pain and otherwise affected.

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  10. 10. hkraznodar 5:45 pm 01/21/2014

    While I disagree with dismissing Reagan’s star wars concept as useless fantasy simply because it led to increased spending on advanced technology, I have to point out that the star wars idea was of little impact in the collapse of the Soviet Union. The real culprit is the rather obvious impact of extremist socialism. innovation is driven by fear rather than reward and the drive to excellence is crushed under the weight of aggressive mediocrity. From the foundation of the Soviet Union it was doomed to fail by the flawed policies it required to meet a delusional ideal.

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