Edward Teller, go to hell!

Actually, he’s been dead since 2003, but I’d send him to hell anyway.


Edward Teller (original Hungarian name Teller Ede) (January 15, 1908 – September 9, 2003) was a Jew-Hungarian-American theoretical physicist, known colloquially as “the father of the hydrogen bomb”, even though he claimed that he did not care for the title.[1]

Teller is best known for his work on the American nuclear program, specifically as a member of the Manhattan Project during World War II, his role in the development of the hydrogen bomb, and his long association with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (which he co-founded and served as a director). He invited contention in the 1950s by his controversial testimony in the security clearance hearing of his former Los Alamos colleague Robert Oppenheimer, and thus became ostracized by much of the scientific community. He continued to find support from the U.S. government and military research establishment, particularly for his advocacy for nuclear energy development, a strong nuclear arsenal, and a vigorous nuclear testing program.

In his later years, he became especially known for his advocacy of controversial technological solutions to both military and civilian problems, including a plan to excavate an artificial harbor in Alaska using thermonuclear explosives. He was a vigorous advocate of Ronald Reagan‘s Strategic Defense Initiative, though he was accused of overselling the feasibility of the project. Over the course of his life, Teller was known both for his scientific ability and his difficult interpersonal relations and volatile personality, and is considered one of the inspirations for the character Dr. Strangelove in the 1964 movie of the same name.[2] He was also awarded with an Ig Nobel Prize in 1991 for his peace proposals, such as the Star Wars weapons system.

In 1942, Teller was invited to be part of Robert Oppenheimer’s summer planning seminar at the University of California, Berkeley for the origins of the Manhattan Project, the Allied effort to develop the first nuclear weapons. A few weeks earlier, Teller had been meeting with his friend and colleague Enrico Fermi about the prospects of atomic warfare, and Fermi had nonchalantly suggested that perhaps a weapon based on nuclear fission could be used to set off an even larger nuclear fusion reaction. Even though he initially explained to Fermi why he thought the idea would not work, Teller was fascinated by the possibility and was quickly bored with the idea of “just” an atomic bomb (even though this was not yet anywhere near completion). At the Berkeley session, Teller diverted discussion from the fission weapon to the possibility of a fusion weapon—what he called the “Super” (an early version of what was later known as a hydrogen bomb).[6]

In 1946, Teller participated in a conference in which the properties of thermonuclear fuels such as deuterium and the possible design of a hydrogen bomb were discussed. It was concluded that Teller’s assessment of a hydrogen bomb had been too favourable, and that both the quantity of deuterium needed, as well as the radiation losses during deuterium burning, would shed doubt on its workability. Addition of expensive tritium to the thermonuclear mixture would likely lower its ignition temperature, but even so, nobody knew at that time how much tritium would be needed, and whether even tritium addition would encourage heat propagation. At the end of the conference, in spite of opposition by some members such as Robert Serber, Teller submitted an unduly optimistic report in which he said that a hydrogen bomb was feasible, and that further work should be encouraged on its development. Fuchs had also participated in this conference, and transmitted this information to Moscow. The model of Teller’s “classical Super” was so uncertain that Oppenheimer would later say that he wished the Russians were building their own hydrogen bomb based on that design, so that it would almost certainly retard their progress on it.[10]

Following the Soviet Union‘s first test detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949, President Truman announced a crash development program for a hydrogen bomb. Teller returned to Los Alamos in 1950 to work on the project. Teller quickly grew impatient with the progress of the program, insisted on involving more theorists, and accused his colleagues of lacking imagination. This worsened his relations with other researchers. None of his designs (or anyone else’s), however, were yet workable. Bethe thought that had Teller not pressed for an early H-bomb test, the Russians’ own development might possibly have been slowed, particularly as the information Klaus Fuchs gave them contained many incorrect technical details that rendered a workable H-bomb infeasible. Russian scientists who had worked on the Soviet hydrogen bomb have claimed that they could see that the early ideas were infeasible as well as anyone else who had looked at them did, and also claimed that they developed their H-bomb wholly independently.[12]

In 1950, calculations by the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam and his collaborator Cornelius Everett, along with confirmations by Fermi, had shown that not only was Teller’s earlier estimate of the quantity of tritium needed for the H-bomb a low one, but that even with a higher amount of tritium, the energy losses in the fusion process would be too great to enable the fusion reaction to propagate. However, in 1951, after still many years of fruitless labor on the “Super,” an innovative idea from Ulam was seized upon by Teller and developed into the first workable design for a megaton-range hydrogen bomb. The exact contribution provided respectively from Ulam and Teller to what became known as the Teller–Ulam design is not definitively known in the public domain, and the exact contributions of each and how the final idea was arrived upon has been a point of dispute in both public and classified discussions since the early 1950s.[13]

In an interview with Scientific American from 1999, Teller told the reporter:

“I contributed; Ulam did not. I’m sorry I had to answer it in this abrupt way. Ulam was rightly dissatisfied with an old approach. He came to me with a part of an idea which I already had worked out and difficulty getting people to listen to. He was willing to sign a paper. When it then came to defending that paper and really putting work into it, he refused. He said, ‘I don’t believe in it.’[3]

The rift between Teller and many of his colleagues was widened in 1954 when he testified against Robert Oppenheimer, former head of Los Alamos and member of the Atomic Energy Commission, at Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing. Teller had clashed with Oppenheimer many times at Los Alamos over issues relating both to fission and fusion research, and during Oppenheimer’s trial he was the only member of the scientific community to label Oppenheimer a security risk.

After a public hearing, the authorities agreed with Teller. Oppenheimer’s security clearance was eventually stripped, and Teller was treated as a pariah by many of his former colleagues. In response, Teller began to run with a more military and governmental crowd, becoming the scientific darling of conservative politicians and thinkers for his advocacy of American scientific and technological supremacy. After the fact, Teller consistently denied that he was intending to damn Oppenheimer, and even claimed that he was attempting to exonerate him. Documentary evidence has suggested that this was likely not the case, however. Six days before the testimony, Teller met with an AEC liaison officer and suggested “deepening the charges” in his testimony.[26] It has been suggested that Teller’s testimony against Oppenheimer was an attempt to remove Oppenheimer from power so that Teller could become the leader of the American nuclear scientist community.[27]

Teller promoted increased defense spending to counter the perceived Soviet missile threat. He was a signatory to the 1958 report by the military sub-panel of the Rockefeller Brothers funded Special Studies Project, which called for a $3 billion annual increase in America’s military budget.[30]

For some twenty years, Teller advised Israel on nuclear matters in general, and on the building of a hydrogen bomb in particular.[37] In 1952, Teller and Oppenheimer had a long meeting with Ben-Gurion in Tel Aviv, telling him that the best way to accumulate plutonium was to burn natural uranium in a nuclear reactor. Starting in 1964, a connection between Teller and Israel was made by the physicist Yuval Neeman, who had similar political views. Between 1964 and 1967, Teller visited Israel six times, lecturing at Tel Aviv University, and advising the chiefs of Israel’s scientific-security circle as well as prime ministers and cabinet members. At each of his talks with members of the Israeli security establishment’s highest levels he would make them swear that they would never be tempted into signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1967 when the Israeli program was nearing completion, Teller informed Neeman that he was going to tell the CIA that Israel had built nuclear weapons and explain that it was justified by the background of the Six-Day War. After Neeman cleared it with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Teller briefed the head of the CIA’s Office of Science and Technology, Carl Duckett. It took a year for Teller to convince the CIA that Israel had contained nuclear capability; the information then went through CIA Director Richard Helms and then to the US president. Teller also persuaded them to end the American attempts to inspect the Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona.

Teller suffered a heart attack in 1979, which he blamed on Jane Fonda; after the Three Mile Island accident, the actress had outspokenly lobbied against nuclear power while promoting her latest movie, The China Syndrome (a movie depicting a nuclear accident which had coincidentally been released only a little over a week before the actual incident.) In response, Teller acted quickly to lobby in favor of nuclear energy, testifying to its safety and reliability, and after such a flurry of activity suffered the attack. Teller authored a two-page spread in the Wall Street Journal which appeared on July 31, 1979, under the headline “I was the only victim of Three-Mile Island”, which opened with:

On May 7, a few weeks after the accident at Three-Mile Island, I was in Washington. I was there to refute some of that propaganda that Ralph Nader, Jane Fonda and their kind are spewing to the news media in their attempt to frighten people away from nuclear power. I am 71 years old, and I was working 20 hours a day. The strain was too much. The next day, I suffered a heart attack. You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous.[38]

The next day, The New York Times ran an editorial criticizing the ad, noting that it was sponsored by Dresser Industries, the firm which had manufactured one of the defective valves which contributed to the Three Mile Island accident.[39]

In the 1980s, Teller began a strong campaign for what was later called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), derided by critics as “Star Wars,” the concept of using ground and satellite-based lasers, particle beams and missiles to destroy incoming Soviet ICBMs. Teller lobbied with government agencies—and got the sanction of President Ronald Reagan—for his plan to develop a system using elaborate satellites which used atomic weapons to fire X-ray lasers at incoming missiles— as part of a broader scientific research program into defenses against nuclear weapons. However, scandal erupted when Teller (and his associate Lowell Wood) were accused of deliberately overselling the program and perhaps had encouraged the dismissal of a laboratory director (Roy Woodruff) who had attempted to correct the error.[39] His claims led to a joke which circulated in the scientific community, that a new unit of unfounded optimism was designated as the teller; one teller was so large that most events had to be measured in nanotellers or picotellers. Many prominent scientists argued that the system was futile.

Despite (or perhaps because of) his hawkish reputation, Teller made a public point of noting that he regretted the use of the first atomic bombs on civilian cities during World War II. He further claimed that before the bombing of Hiroshima he had indeed lobbied Oppenheimer to use the weapons first in a “demonstration” which could be witnessed by the Japanese high-command and citizenry before using them to inflict thousands of deaths. The “father of the hydrogen bomb” would use this quasi-anti-nuclear stance (he would say that he believed nuclear weapons to be unfortunate, but that the arms race was unavoidable due to the intractable nature of Communism) to promote technologies such as SDI, arguing that they were needed to make sure that nuclear weapons could never be used again (Better a shield than a sword was the title of one of his books on the subject).

However, there is contrary evidence. In the 1970s, a letter of Teller to Leo Szilard emerged, dated July 2, 1945:

“Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people. This might help convince everybody the next war would be fatal. For this purpose, actual combat-use might even be the best thing.”[40]

So here we have a two-faced man who cheated one of his colleagues out of credit he was due and backstabbed another to gain more influence and prestige before political and military leaders. He may have been a scientist, but he was also a horrible man whose work could have destroyed the whole world. FUCK HIM!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s