APS News

November 2003 (Volume 12, Number 10)

This Month in Physics History

November 1, 1952: Teller and the Hydrogen Bomb

Edward Teller
Edward Teller


Often touted as the "father of the hydrogen bomb," Edward Teller was one of the most controversial scientists who worked in the US thermonuclear weapons program. While many colleagues considered him a highly imaginative and creative physicist, others were alienated by his frequently autocratic style and single minded pursuit of a fusion program to build a "super bomb".

Born in 1908 in Budapest, Hungary, to Jewish middle class parents, Teller grew up during a particularly turbulent time in the country's political history. By the time he was ready to pursue advanced studies in science, Hungary was ruled by a virulently anti-semitic fascist dictator, and the young Teller opted to leave his homeland to study in Germany under Werner Heisenberg, among others. He earned a PhD in theoretical physics in 1930 from the University of Leipzig, and while he accepted a research post at the University of Gottingen after graduation, Hitler's rise to power prompted him to emigrate first to Denmark in 1934, where he worked with Neils Bohr, and then to George Washington University in the US in 1935.

While his prior research had been in quantum mechanics, at GWU he began a very productive collaboration with Russian emigre George Gamow in nuclear physics. They formulated the so-called Gamow-Teller rules for classifying subatomic particle behavior in radioactive decay, and attempted to apply the new understanding of atomic phenomena to astrophysics.

Following the outbreak of World War II, he was one of the first scientists recruited to work on the Manhattan Project, working first at the University of Chicago before moving to Los Alamos National Laboratory.

It was Enrico Fermi who first suggested the notion of a hydrogen bomb to Teller. Even before the first atomic bomb, in September 1941, Fermi thought that an atomic bomb might heat a mass of deuterium sufficiently to ignite a thermonuclear reaction.

Although part of a group of distinguished scientists charged with designing an atomic bomb, Teller was much more interested in the feasibility of a "super bomb." He wanted both options to be pursued at Los Alamos, but building the simpler fission device was deemed daunting enough, and the fusion project was abandoned. This disappointed Teller, and also led to tensions with his fellow scientists, particularly Hans Bethe, who disapproved of Teller's stubborn refusal to perform the detailed calculation of the implosion when the theoretical division was already shorthanded.

In 1945, the atomic bomb was successfully tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Teller returned to the University of Chicago after trying again, unsuccessfully, to persuade Los Alamos to pursue fusion and create a thermonuclear weapon even more powerful. It wasn't until the Russians detonated their own atomic bomb that President Truman ordered the lab to develop a fusion weapon. Robert Oppenheimer, Fermi, and many other veterans of the Manhattan Project had vehemently opposed the plan, and the result was a deep and bitter rift between two factions of atomic scientists. Teller finally saw his dream materialize on November 1, 1952, when the first hydrogen bomb was successfully detonated on Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

Following this success, Teller lobbied Congress vigorously for a second laboratory for thermonuclear research, and the Atomic Energy Commission eventually established Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Teller served first as a consultant, then as associate director, and finally as director of the new facility.

The final break with his former Manhattan Project colleagues came in 1950 during Oppenheimer's security hearings. Teller testified against Oppenheimer, saying, "I would prefer to see the vital interests of this country in hands that I understand better and therefore trust more." Many in the scientific community felt this was an unforgivable betrayal and ostracized Teller for life.

Unlike Oppenheimer, whose strong moral sense was appalled at what science had wrought in the development of thermonuclear weapons, Teller decried the perceived contradiction between the results of science and the requirements of morality, insisting that contradiction and uncertainty should be embraced.

He continued to be a staunch advocate of a strong national defense program, championing continued nuclear testing and the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars"). He was recognized in 1962 with the Enrico Fermi Award, citing him "for leadership in research on thermonuclear reactions, and for his efforts to strengthen national security and to insure the peace."

In the May 22, 1998 issue of Science magazine, Teller, then a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, defended the morality of his 1949 recommendation to develop the H-bomb. "I am still asked on occasion whether I am not sorry for having invented such a terrible thing as the hydrogen bomb. The answer is, I am not," he wrote. "Several decades later, the cold war ended with an American victory. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that my advice to give a positive answer to the question of the hydrogen bomb played a significant role in determining this outcome."

Teller died September 9, 2003, unrepentant and controversial to the end.

Further Reading:
"Andrei Sakharov and Edward Teller, "Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science, J.L. Heilbron, ed., Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 727-728.
"Edward Teller, Father of the Hydrogen Bomb," Academy of Achievement, .

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette

November 2003 (Volume 12, Number 10)

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The Back Page
Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Ask the Ethicist
Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science