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The Memoirs of Edward Teller

After reading his Memoirs, I sent Edward Teller my enthusiastic opinion of it – and a personal “Thank you”. I did not expect, or receive, a reply.

Dear Professor Teller,

You will have received many tributes to your wonderful book and I should like to send you mine. During the last few years I have decided to write, just for myself, reviews of the books I read. Usually brief, this one has got entirely out of hand and I cannot expect you to read it, but perhaps its length will impress you of the impact your book has had on an ordinary person. Also a “Thank You”. I was interned by the Japanese in Shanghai and it is uncertain how things would have gone if the ending of the War had been long drawn out and messy. The Bomb you helped to make ensured it was sudden and conclusive.

Edward Teller died in on September 9th of this year at the age of 95. The review that follows was written shortly before his death.
Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics
Edward Teller (with Judith Scoolery)
Perseus Publishing, 2002

A big book (628 pages); since the author is 94, there is some reason for this, given he is still active in the Hoover Institution, though perhaps not in research nuclear physics. I have been aware that he has attracted considerable hostility both from the usual left-leaning media and intellectuals, but also from other physicists (e.g. Bethe, p. 542), partly for his strong advocacy of making the H Bomb, but mostly because of his negative testimony about Oppenheimer, though I feel that these were pretexts rather than reasons.

Yet despite this, there is a remarkable lack of bitterness or animus against his opponents. Photographs of him in old age show him as jolly, benign and genial. I could almost say that Teller was anti-paranoid and perhaps the clearest thing about him which emerges from this book is not his scientific achievement and persistence in his work to bring his ideas to fruition, but the warmth of his friendships, his lasting relationships and his feelings for others in general. In an odd way, which perhaps he does not realise, and I am sure does him an injustice, they even seem to overshadow his love for his wife and family, as if these were only special cases in his general attitude to others, and that Mici was just the one of the band of friends in Budapest that he happened to marry. He was obviously deeply hurt when fellow-scientists actually “cut” him and never, as far as is given here, broke off a friendship himself. He certainly managed to retain friendships with those he disagreed with, scientifically and politically, in particular Szilard and Fermi.

His character seems to have been imbued with the feeling that beliefs and attitudes, like scientific problems, can be decided or reconciled by discussion and a disinterested search for the truth. Therefore why quarrel personally with an opponent while doing so? Oppenheimer, to ET, was not so much unreliable, as an enigma – and no wonder. It seems extraordinary that Oppenheimer should have discouraged him from signing Szilard and Franck’s petition to the military, and Truman, to go for a harmless demonstration of the atomic bomb (p. 206), yet exhibited so much revulsion against further nuclear work after the war (p. 219). Yet again, Oppenheimer suggested the use of the H-bomb during the Korean War, not only in conversation with Teller (p. 352), but also to Eisenhower (p. 353). Granted that Teller writes from memory and presumably without documentation, it would be interesting to know if Oppenheimer has denied these assertions.

Teller makes little of, if he mentions at all, the culture-shift to the left that took place amongst scientists from the ’20s to the ’50s, which made them reluctant to adopt the same wholehearted anti-communist, as had been their anti-nazi, stance. All Oppenheimer’s political friends and associates were communists (including his wife), and he supported the Communist Party to the tune of $150 a month during the ’30s. Yet from the long interrogation Teller underwent (given in full as an Appendix) in the hearings to decide on whether to withdraw security clearance from Oppenheimer, it is clear that Teller did not doubt Oppenheimer’s loyalty, only his judgement, reliability and motivation with respect to his employment on nuclear research. Teller had every reason to be anti-nazi – he was of Jewish descent – but never seems to have been attracted (like, say Koestler, also a Hungarian Jew) to communism; perhaps he’d been immunised by his experience, brief as it was and young as he was (born 1908) of the Bela Kun regime of 1919.

Although it must surely be that the years of Teller’s work on the A and H bombs were the most important, he says himself: “My years as a young scientist in Germany were the most satisfying years of my life (p. 77).” I can see that to a physicist the pages about his early scientific development will be most revealing and interesting, while to the general reader they sketch the last years during the century when people could move freely from country to country, with scientists visiting here and there to learn and exchange views.

Born in Budapest, he was stranded after the war in a town now in Romania, then taken back to Hungary, educated there, and there made his first friendships, including his scientific ones – Wigner, von Naumann and Szilard. His University education was in Karlsruhe, then in Munich, where he lost all but the heelbone of his right foot after jumping off a tram. The repair operation, together with a German-made prosthesis, seems to have restored almost normal ability to walk: “I could even go for long hikes in the mountains”. He then studied under Heisenberg in Leipzig, visited Bohr in Copenhagen and took a paying job in Gottingen (where he modified the “Twenty Questions” game by making the Object unknown to both questioner and questioned.)

In 1932 he visited Rome and made friends with Fermi. By this time it was becoming inadvisable to return to Gottingen and he was one of the scientists invited to Britain by Lindemann and Donnan, getting a job at London University. It is an interesting (if hidden) example of his take-it-for-granted attitude to his own intellectual abilities that he never mentions when he learnt English, or any other language, which makes me wonder how many others he knows. He and Mici spoke Hungarian together; at age eight, his daughter Wendy confided to Szilard that she couldn’t become a mother because she didn’t know the secret language wives spoke to husbands in (p. 355n).

Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation (whose bureaucrats provided some obstacles), between two stays in London Teller worked with Bohr in Copenhagen and married Mici, then moved on to the George Washington University. Thus as with other scientists, his move from Europe to the US partook of an escape, but was also a progress from job to job. Having experienced a far more virulent, ingrained form of anti-semitism in Hungary, he almost failed to recognize the more menacing, because more ideological and programmed, nazi version. One result was that his parents and sister remained in Hungary; while they survived the War, his father died and he did not see the others until they were allowed to leave in 1959, probably as a result of the influence that Szilard had with the Hungarian government.

Another reason why Teller didn’t notice the political situation was that from an early age he was fascinated, almost obsessed, with science and extremely fortunate in having the brains to match. As one who cannot follow what Teller would doubtless describe as the simple physics of his explanations of his work and his problems, I wonder how many scientists, let alone his readers, are able to. Yet this does not detract from appreciation of the scientific aspects of his autobiography; his disagreement with Bethe and Ulam on the technical feasibility of “Method A”, and his ultimate vindication by more accurate computer methods (p. 544), might even be seen as an illustration of scientific intuition, though such a concept is never claimed.

Teller also gives an excellent analysis of the dilemma facing the scientist when trying to find out whether something undesirable (in this case H-fusion) will or won’t work (p. 310). And surely Bethe’s hope that an agreement between the US and USSR for neither to try to make the H-bomb, around 1950, when Stalin was still alive, was hopelessly unrealistic (p. 544)? And certainly a scientist can’t write, as Bethe did, of the H-bomb as a “calamity” that could have remained uninvented, and disingenuous of him to suggest “that it was necessary to make a pause before the decision and consider this irretrievable step most carefully.” After all, there was a pause and that was what exasperated Teller so much – and it was people with misgivings like Bethe who caused it.

Although dubbed “father of the H-Bomb”, Teller repudiated this title, but more, I think, out of modesty than to avoid its odium. I am not sure how he can avoid deserving it, at least from his efforts to get it made; despite these, work was delayed for perhaps five years. Another achievement was the setting up of a nuclear research lab, the Livermore, in competition with Los Alamos, a situation which he judged would be beneficial to nuclear research and to both labs. He also worked on a commission to ensure that nuclear power stations were foolproof, at a time when there were, of course, no nuclear engineers. Two projects dear to him were thwarted: the use of nuclear explosions for what can only be called super-landscaping, rendered impossible by the popular fear of radiation, and – though it may still come to pass – the Strategic Defence Initiative, or SDI – never called “Star Wars”.

Pertinent to popular fears and scares about radiation is his conviction as long ago as 1960 that a small but measurable amount of radiation above normal background could be beneficial, citing Cohen (p. 442n). Inevitably, as the book nears its end, friends begin to die – Fermi, van Naumann, Szilard – his beloved Mici at 91, after 66 years of marriage and 76 of companionship, and his sister Emmi, just before this book was completed. Perhaps the most poignant to the reader was that of his dear friend Maria (who providentially didn’t burn his letters) and his realising later that she would probably have understood him if he had spoken to her, on her deathbed, as did another friend, in German, her mother tongue, instead of English, which they had used for 50 years.

3 comments to The Memoirs of Edward Teller

  • Walter E. Wallis

    I fully agree with your estimate. I understand they are considering renaming the Lawrence Livermore Lab after Dr. Teller. Doubly appropriate because Lawrence’s widow, a few years ago, in a fit of anti-warness, asked that Lawrence’s name be removed.

    Give them what they want.

    Dr. Teller may have done more than any other man beside Reagan to keep us free. The criticism from the “Better Red than Dead” crowd is mostly to drown out their own gross misconception of the comparative strengths of freedom and slaveruy.

  • Teller was also a strong proponent of government openness and the free flow of information. Virginia Postrel mentioned it when he died.

    Didn’t Teller also advocate Project Orion? Now that’s a use for atomic power. (Note for those who don’t obsess over spacecraft – Project Orion was a proposal to use atomic bombs to drive a spacecraft. Yes, it’d be possible.) The landscaping thing still seems rather foolish to me, unless they’ve managed to make atomic weapons far cleaner than I imagined. Popular fear or not, enough REMs will kill you in nasty ways.

  • Yeah, Orion was certainly possible, and still is in my opinion. But politics will obviously get in the way.

    I’ll miss the guy too. I read his book and it kicked a**!