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Summary Article: Teller, Edward (1908-2003)
from The Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Place: United States of America, Hungary

Subject: biography, physics

Hungarian-born US physicist widely known as the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’. He is also known for his vigorous promotion of nuclear weapons, opposition to communism, and for testifying against J Robert Oppenheimer at the security hearings of 1954.

Teller was born on 15 January 1908 in Budapest, where he attended the Institute of Technology. He also attended a series of universities in Germany, including Leipzig where he obtained his PhD in 1930. He left Germany in 1933 when Hitler came to power and after periods in Copenhagen and London, was appointed professor of physics at George Washington University, Washington, DC, in 1935. There he developed the Gamow-Teller selection rule for beta decay. In 1941 he became a US citizen and joined the staff of Columbia University, New York, and then the University of Chicago in 1942 to work with Enrico Fermi on atomic fission.

Between 1942 and 1946, Teller was a member of the Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, New Mexico, which developed the first atomic bombs. He worked initially on the fission bomb, but later convinced the Los Alamos director, J Robert Oppenheimer, to let him work on the fusion, or hydrogen (H-) bomb. By the end of World War II, Teller had designed a H-bomb (then also known as the ‘Super’) but it required a refrigeration plant to make it work and in 1949 the General Advisory Committee (GAC), chaired by Oppenheimer, advised the Atomic Energy Commission not to pursue the project. The situation changed on 29 August 1949, however, when the Soviet Union exploded its first fission bomb. Teller, now a professor at the University of Chicago, and Ernest Lawrence of the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, lobbied President Truman and on 31 January 1951, Truman announced a crash programme to build the H-bomb, with Teller appointed assistant director of weapons development at Los Alamos with responsibility for the bomb. The Super was successfully tested on Eniwetok Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in November 1952.

Teller's exact role in the development of the H-bomb has, however, been surrounded with controversy, for he has been repeatedly accused of down-playing, or ignoring, the contribution of Polish-born mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (1909-1985) to the bomb's design. The original idea of using a fission explosion to ignite a thermonuclear (fusion) explosion in deuterium (heavy hydrogen) came from Enrico Fermi. Ulam and others had proved Teller's original ideas to be unworkable. Ulam then suggested a configuration in which shock waves from the fission explosion would compress and heat the deuterium, causing it to explode. Teller later modified this idea to use X-rays from the first explosion, rather than shock waves. (Teller and Ulam's report on the design remains classified.)

After the war, Teller successfully championed the establishment of a second nuclear weapons research facility, which opened in 1952 as the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory near Berkeley, California. Teller was Livermore's associate director from 1954 until his retirement in 1975, and has been director emeritus ever since. He has also been a professor at the University of California since 1953, becoming university professor in 1970 and university professor emeritus in 1975.

Oppenheimer (and the GAC) had opposed setting up a second weapons laboratory just as he had opposed the H-bomb, but in 1954 his security clearance was revoked. It was the height of the McCarthy era and Oppenheimer was suspected of being a communist and Soviet spy. Teller was called to give evidence at his security hearing and, although he testified that he did not believe Oppenheimer to be disloyal, concluded: ‘I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.’ Oppenheimer lost his security clearance and many physicists never forgave Teller.

In the 1980s Teller returned to the public eye when he convinced President Reagan of the feasibility of placing fission-bomb-powered X-ray lasers in space to destroy incoming Soviet nuclear missiles. Billions of dollars were spent on the Strategic Defense Initiative (‘Star Wars’) before technical problems, and the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, rendered it obsolete. However Teller remains in favour of nuclear technology and defence, having suggested ‘brilliant pebbles’ - thousands of intelligent missile-interceptors based in space - and the use of nuclear explosions to prevent asteroids hitting the Earth.

© RM, 2018. All rights reserved.

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