Judging Edward Teller: A closer look at one of the most influential scientists of the Twentieth Century

By Istvan Hargittai, with foreword by Peter Lax and afterword by Richard Garwin (Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2010), 575 pages, $32.00; ISBN 978-1-61614-221-6.

Reviewed by Leonard R. Solon

This book is a must-read for anyone wishing to understand the principal problem facing the world inherited from the work of physicists in the last century.  Although it focuses on the life of Edward Teller (1908-2003), the biography is unlikely to change the views of those who already have an opinion of Teller since there is plenty of detail to support either a positive or negative judgment.

The spectrum of perceptions includes this from Hungarian-American physicist and Nobel laureate Eugene P. Wigner:  "Teller's imagination was more fertile than that of anyone else I have ever known," which he reinforced by adding that he also knew Albert Einstein.  There is also this negative observation by American Nobel laureate Isidor I. Rabi:  "He is a danger to all that is important.  I do think it would have been a better world without Teller.  I think he is an enemy of humanity."

Teller and Wigner are two members of the famous group of five Jewish Hungarian-American scientists designated informally as "the Martians," (Teller, Wigner, Leo Szilard, John von Neumann, and Theodore von Karman).  Teller, though in no sense religious, was the only one who did not convert.  The four conversions almost certainly were for career reasons in anti-Semitic Hungary.

The author attributes the Martian designation to a joking exchange between Enrico Fermi and Szilard during the days of the Manhattan Project.  Fermi, who was dubious of intelligent life originating outside of the Earth, received a rebuttal from Szilard to the effect that it had already happened.  Hungary, a nation with a small population of only ten million, had given an unlikely rise to a brilliant group of gifted scientists and mathematicians including, of course, Szilard himself.  However, there is an earlier source for this legend that credits the accomplished German physicist Friedrich Georg Houtermans [1].

Teller is best known as "father of the hydrogen bomb."  There is no evidence that he resented the prestige of being associated with the alleged paternity, but usually light-heartedly protested when confronted with the characterization by an interviewer saying "I am the father of Paul and Wendy," his children.  In an article Teller correctly called the weapon "the work of many people."

In my judgment, although Teller and Stanislaw M. Ulam came up with the radiation implosion design that finally made the bomb possible, a more suitable candidate for the questionable "father" distinction is American physicist Richard L. Garwin.  The first actual hydrogen bomb design was included in a four-page technical memorandum and sketch delivered to Teller by Garwin on July 25, 1951.  The design was the basis for the MIKE shot detonated November 1, 1952 as part of the Pacific nuclear tests.  The device was exploded on the small one-mile diameter island of Elugelab and had a yield of 10.5-11 megatons TNT equivalent.  Garwin discusses why his design of the MIKE device was unknown to the public and not even to most scientists at Los Alamos: "The detailed proposal was presented in early 1951 to the appropriate Los Alamos committee chaired by [Hans] Bethe and as Teller states was thoroughly criticized and then endorsed and built essentially as I had proposed.  It was important what was being achieved and not who proposed it and I had by then sensed what had been a guiding principle in my own life:  You can either get something done or credit for it but not both."

Teller was born in 1908 in Budapest and given the name Ede, later anglicized to Edward.  He attended the Minta Gymnasium and Budapest Technical University where his initial studies were in chemistry.  He continued his academic work in Germany at the Karlsruhe Technical University in 1926 and the University of Munich in 1928.  That year he experienced a serious accident when he fell beneath a trolley car that severed his right foot and required a prosthesis which he wore the remainder of his life.  It did not interfere with his later activities and was not even noticed by some of his associates.

In 1929 he transferred to the University of Leipsig where he studied for his Ph.D degree under the renowned Werner Heisenberg.  Heisenberg was the object of Teller's lifelong affection and warmest respect, sentiments not wholly reciprocated by Heisenberg.  As with Teller, there were aspects of Heisenberg's life considered egregiously deplorable.  On the positive side, though urged to do so by the Nazis, he refused to condemn Einstein's and other Jews' physical theories and was even labeled a "white Jew" by the Nazi press and may well have ended in a concentration camp or worse except for the intervention of his mother who had a long friendship with the mother of the savage Nazi SS leader Heinrich Himmler.  Himmler's mother persuaded her son to leave Heisenberg in peace.

On the other side, Heisenberg became head of the German atomic bomb project.  Despite his post-war claim that his lack of success was attributable to moral considerations against such a weapon, Heisenberg and his colleagues continued working on the project after the Nazi leadership had given up confidence in achieving the bomb as a meaningful weapon in the war.  This misrepresentation was further advanced by Teller: "I believe the idea of putting the power of an atomic bomb into Hitler's hand was consciously or unconsciously repellant to many of the scientists involved, but most especially to Heisenberg." [2]

One of the controversial and important subjects treated carefully in Hargittai's book was whether the atomic bombings in the populated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified in terms of the massive numbers of immediate and long-term civilian deaths.  With the prior history of fiercely determined Japanese resistance in the South Pacific and the home island of Okinawa, President Truman and his military advisors came to the conclusion that far more American and indeed Japanese lives would have been lost in a required full scale invasion than was lost in the atomic bombings.

There is much to be learned from this book aside from details associated with Teller such as his rejection by a large segment of the scientific community following his devastating testimony at the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission on security clearance hearings for the Manhattan Project's scientific director, J. Robert Oppenheimer.  Important is the author's debatable conjecture that the breakup of the Soviet Union was at least in part attributable to Teller's vigorous defense of President Ronald W. Reagan's (1911-2004) famous Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) speech of March 23, 1983, in which the President proposed a total "non-nuclear" defense against nuclear weapons.  Teller, though supportive of the SDI concept, visualized not a non-nuclear but a sophisticated nuclear x-ray laser defense system.  To this day neither Reagan's SDI or the x-ray laser itself has been achieved.  According to the theory, developing its own SDI represented an insupportable economic and indefensible burden to the continued existence of the Soviet Union.

With his political antagonism toward the Soviet Union during the years of the Cold War, Teller's advice and support were sought by major American military elements.  Teller's opinion of the wickedness of the Soviet Union was derived in substantial measure from the writings of author Arthur Koestler, particularly his famous novel Darkness at Noon.

This reviewer deduces from this book the conclusion that humanity may be on the precipice of destruction.  Consider the large distribution of nuclear weapons already held by nation states or others who either have the capacity or the desire to make them.  Also, in the last century, there were two occasions when only the restraint of political leaders or a changing military situation prevented nuclear weapons use.  The first was the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.  The second was the authorization by Israel's Prime Minister Golda Meir to her military chief-of-staff Moshe Dayan to use nuclear weapons if necessary against the invading armies of Egypt and Syria during their near success in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. 

Some of the best American and Russian scientific minds of the last century proposed the preemptive use of nuclear weapons.  Russian physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, characterized as the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, suggested exploding a thermonuclear device in an enemy port, presumably New York City [3].

According to Hargittai, Oppenheimer considered the possibility of using atomic bombs in the Korean conflict.  Though regarded as the most aggressive "hawk," Teller did not support either Oppenheimer or his good friend and fellow Martian, von Neumann, who had advocated nuclear strikes on Moscow. 

One must conclude that the START treaties and non-proliferation agreements, though useful, are not at all adequate.  A think tank should be established dedicated exclusively and with sufficient resources to address the issues involved.


[1Physics Today, July 1992, p. 29.
[2]  Edward Teller with Judith Shoolery, Memoirs:  Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics (Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA, 2001), p. 230.
[3]  Andrei Sakharov, Memoirs, translated by Richard Lourie (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1990), p. 221.

Leonard R. Solon, Ph.D
Former member of U.S. Atomic Energy Commission

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.