Edward Teller (1908-2003) was a Hungarian-American physicist who is best known for his work in developing the hydrogen bomb, although he also was an earlier member of the research team developing the first atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. He founded the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which remains one of the premier research institutions of the Department of Energy.
– Early Life and Immigration –
Teller was born to a Hungarian Jewish family in Budapest, but emigrated during the 1920s, when the country was wracked by factional conflicts between monarchists, communists, and later fascists. This brought him first to Germany, where he studied chemical engineering at Karlsruhe and then quantum engineering at the University of Leipzig. During this time he cultivated friendships with a number of future influential scientists, including Enrico Fermi, and also lost his foot in a street accident.
Teller initially intended to remain in Germany, but in 1933, the same year the Nazi Party took control of the government there, he left, working in England, in the Danish laboratory of Niels Bohr, and finally in the theoretical physics program of George Washington University. By the time America joined the Allied war effort following Pearl Harbour, Teller was a naturalized American citizen willing to donate his scientific expertise to the war.
– Atomic Bomb and Hydrogen Bomb –
Teller joined the Manhattan Project from its beginning, along with Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. Although his colleagues in the Project were initially concerned solely with a fission-based weapon (which became the weapons used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki), even from the beginning Teller was reportedly much more interested in the construction of a far larger weapon based on hydrogen fusion. Fro his own work with hydrogen, Teller believed the bomb could be constructed.
The Manhattan Project achieved success with the first atomic weapon, and then the war ended and the project wound up, before Teller could convince many others to join his quest for the hydrogen bomb. However, when the Truman administration was again shocked into action by the test detonation of the first Soviet atomic weapon four years later, in 1949, Teller was hastily recalled for national service. Based on work also performed by fellow ex-Manhattan Project researcher Stanislaw Ulam, he was finally able to design the new weapon, the first of which exploded in 1952. The old atomic bombs were measured in kilotons (thousands of tons of TNT); the new hydrogen bombs could instead be measured in megatons.
– Later Controversies –
Teller’s design for the new hydrogen bomb sealed his scientific and political legacy. However, just two years later, he incited new trouble by opposing former colleague Robert Oppenheimer as being unworthy of holding a top security clearance. In the hearing in which he testified, Teller testified that Oppenheimer was a credible scientist but had interfered with the development of the hydrogen bomb and therefore lacked the necessary foresight to be a top administrator – raising the question of the extent to which Teller was simply settling old scores during the fission-fusion discussions of the 1940s. The Oppenheimer hearings ruined Teller’s reputation in much of the scientific community, though he continued to contribute to a number of important nuclear energy programs.
In the late 1950s, as it became apparent that above-ground nuclear testing would eventually be restricted by test ban treaties, Teller emerged also as the advocate of a strange series of non-military nuclear explosions, codenamed Plowshare by the U.S. government. (The Soviets also operated a sizeable non-military nuclear explosion program, which resulted in the creation, among other things, of radiation-saturated artificial lakes.) One of Teller’s ambitious designs, codenamed Chariot by the Atomic Energy Commission, would have seen the creation of an artificial harbour in Alaska through the detonation of a large nuclear charge. Another would have removed oil from the Canadian tarsands using nuclear explosions. None of Teller’s schemes were ever implemented.
In his later years, Teller emerged as an advocate of the “Star Wars” program, or Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) pursued by the Reagan administration. He won several prestigious science awards (although never the Nobel), including a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush. He died in Stanford, California, in 2003.