The words on the telegram sent by Edward Teller in December 1952 appeared to herald life-affirming news:
“It’s a boy.”
The message, however, was in code. To those in the know, the message wasn’t about new life at all but the possibility of human extinction. It meant the world’s first test of a hydrogen bomb – a thermonuclear ‘fusion’ weapon 500 times more powerful than the atomic ‘fission’ bombs dropped on Japan – had not only worked but exceeded expectations, transforming the Pacific island of Elugelab into one giant crater.
This event was primarily responsible for Teller – a Hungarian émigré, physics professor, member of the Manhattan Project and at that point co-founder of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California – being forever dubbed “the father of the hydrogen bomb”.
It was a nickname he resisted right up until his death from natural causes in 2003, at the age of 95. He remains one of the most controversial scientists of the modern era: a brilliant physicist but also a vigorous hawk obsessed with the threat of Communist domination, a vocal advocate of nuclear and hydrogen-based thermonuclear weapons, and the key architect of the American plan in the 1980s for a missile defence system known as the Strategic Defence Initiative. It was a billion-dollar boondoggle that increased Cold War tensions before it was abandoned.
Teller was born in Budapest in January 1908 to Max Teller, a wealthy lawyer, and his wife Ilona. The family hit hard times after World War I under the brief Communist regime run by Bela Kun, an experience that was to mark young Edward for life.
He deferred to his father’s request that he pursue chemical engineering, enrolling at a university in Budapest in 1925, then migrated to Germany the following year to study at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe. While doing so he continued to read maths. After graduating he moved to the University of Munich in 1928, where he studied physics, and had his foot amputated following a streetcar accident. He then moved to the University of Leipzig, where he studied quantum mechanics and received his doctorate under Werner Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame).
By the early 1930s, he was teaching physics at the University of Göttingen. When Adolf Hitler came to power, Teller, who was Jewish, quickly perceived that Germany had suddenly become a very dangerous place. He sensibly fled to Copenhagen, funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. After a short time in Denmark, he moved briefly to Britain, then to the US in 1935, taking a position as a physics professor at George Washington University.
By then, age and experience had arguably made the man. He was a big fan of the French novelist Jules Verne. He was also a pianist – in later years his neighbours would complain that he played loudly late at night.
In the US, his pursuit of mathematical and quantum abstractions transformed into the development of very real weapons systems. He joined the Manhattan Project, which was racing to develop the first atomic bomb, and worked with Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer – whom he would later denounce as a security risk. He was, according to his biographers, a difficult man, unable to work effectively in a team.
After World War II, he switched his attention to the prospect of developing a hydrogen bomb, a project he continued to champion long after its first appalling demonstration. He became a prominent Cold War warrior, using his influence to campaign for the development of more atomic weapons and missile systems.
He had the ear of successive US presidents, and by 1983 had helped convince US president Ronald Reagan to commit to funding an improbable system of satellite and missile-based X-ray, particle beam and laser weapons. Not a single bit of the Strategic Defence Initiative (dubbed ‘Star Wars’) had been completed by the time was abandoned at the end of Reagan’s tenure in 1989 – despite having cost US$36 billion.
Teller remained a vocal proponent of nuclear deterrence right until the end. His death, following a stroke, ended his influence – but not the debate surrounding his legacy.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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