September 10, 2003

Good Riddance

Edward Teller died yesterday at his home on the Stanford University campus, near Palo Alto, California. He was 95 years old.

If I were to have made one of those silly lists of the greatest and worst figures of the 20th century that were the talk of the blogosphere last month, Teller would have been on my list of the worst. He is known as the "father" of the hydrogen bomb but because his overblown and ill-considered attempts at bomb design didn't work, he justified his failure by falsely claiming that J. Robert Oppenheimer's opposition to the project was responsible. His lies resulted in the destruction of Oppenheimer's career.

Stanislaw Ulam saved Teller's bacon by inventing a new approach to igniting thermonuclear explosions, and Teller turned this approach into a working bomb design, and in doing so attempted to take all the credit for himself. The attempt didn't work (although the bomb itself did), and so people in the know refer to the "Teller-Ulam idea" of using the pulse of radiation from a fission explosion to ignite the fusion reaction.

Teller founded the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to "compete" with the original Los Alamos National Laboratory. (Los Alamos scientists basically wouldn't work with Teller any more.) The Livermore labs reflected the competence and moral compass of their founder Teller protege Lowell Wood famously lied to Congress about test results for an H-bomb-pumped gamma-ray laser during the height of the Star Wars boondoggle (Wood said the laser worked; it didn't). Negligence and malfeasance at LLNL remain ongoing scandals to this day.

Posted by abostick at September 10, 2003 10:50 AM

Alan, I suppose you're entitled to your opinion, but as someone who's worked with both Teller and Wood, and is fairly familiar with the history you're talking about, I can only say that neither history nor my experience support your views. Many people vehemently disagreed with Teller, on issues both technical and political, and some disliked him personally, perhaps with good reason, but I know of no one who thought he was a liar. Oh, and no one has ever claimed to have built a gamma ray laser; the controversy you refer to was about X-ray lasers.

Posted by: Jordin Kare at September 12, 2003 07:54 AM

Additionally, I'd point out that what killed Oppenheimer's career was a concatenation of things. Only one of which was Telller's testimony that he found Oppenheimer's loyalty dubious. It is, of course, a matter of opinion, but based on what I've read of Teller is seems certain that he genuinely believed that. I'd recommend Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb. He doesn't like Teller either but he gives a clear view of how Teller, and others in the field, got to be where and who they were. I never met the man, but what I read of him seemed to show a thorny difficult man who genuinely believed in what he did.


Posted by: Mary Kay at September 12, 2003 08:40 AM

I interviewed Teller severaltimes in co-authoring the second Teller biography with Stanley A. Blumberg, published by Scribner's in1989. On one point, I found him to be inaccurate: He said Hans Bethe was not among other guests invited to the White House for Reagan's delivery of his SDI ("Star Wars"). Bethe, several others,and the White House guest list contradicted this. Teller could have used a personality transplant and was understandably unpopular among his peers at Los Alamos. Much of the hostility directed at him resulted from his testimony at the Oppenheimer hearing, at which he said he would feel more comfortable if the security of the nation were in "other hands," not Oppenheimer's. But Oppenheimer himself had already done greater damage to himself by testifying earlier about his
association with security risks and by replying, when asked why, "Because I was stupid." Teller wasn't charismatic but was the only leader in work on the A-Bomb,the H-Bomb, and Israeli defense.

Posted by: Louis G. Panos at February 24, 2004 01:10 PM

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