boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

Bomb pioneer Edward Teller dies

Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb and a controversial public figure whose pioneering weapons research and advocacy for a space-based missile-defense system placed him at the crossroads of two of the 20th century's most significant chapters, the rise of nuclear physics and the Cold War, died yesterday at Stanford University. He was 95.

Dr. Teller had suffered a stroke at his home on the campus.

The physicist possessed a singular capacity for inspiring both devotion and disdain. Eugene P. Wigner, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who was a friend and colleague, called him ``the most imaginative person I have ever met, and this means a great deal when you consider I knew Einstein.'' Nonetheless, another Nobel Prize-winning colleague, Isidor Isaac Rabi, said, ``I do really feel it would have been a better world without Teller.... I think he is an enemy of humanity.''

To his admirers, Dr. Teller was a brilliant physicist and patriot who risked his reputation in the cause of defending his adopted country and opposing world communism.

His detractors also saw him as a brilliant physicist, but one whose talents accelerated the arms race and whose politicking helped sully the reputation of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been his superior on the Manhattan Project, developing the atom bomb.

Neither camp, however, might dispute the description offered by his Soviet counterpart, Andrei Sakharov, in a 1988 tribute: ``In Dr. Teller I see a man who has always acted, his whole life, in accordance with his convictions.''

Edward Teller was born on Jan. 15, 1908, in Budapest, the son of Max Teller and Ilona (Deutsch) Teller. He did not begin speaking until he was 4, which led his maternal grandfather to warn young Edward's parents, ``I think you should prepare yourself for the possibility that you have a retarded child.'' Instead, he soon demonstrated a remarkable aptitude in both mathematics and music. (Dr. Teller was a gifted amateur pianist).

In 1926, he left Budapest to study chemical engineering in Germany. His father had chosen the subject for him because of its practicality, but Dr. Teller later admitted, ``I cheated,'' studying mathematics as well. ``My father got what he wanted, and I did what I wanted on the side.''

It took Dr. Teller only two years to become captivated by quantum mechanics, a field then revolutionizing nuclear physics. It commanded his attention at the University of Munich. While in Munich, Dr. Teller lost his right foot in a streetcar accident, but that barely affected his studies. Moving on to the University of Leipzig, Dr. Teller worked with Werner Heisenberg, a giant of 20th-century physics, and received his doctorate in 1930.

The Nazi rise to power brought Dr. Teller to the United States, albeit by an indirect route. In 1934, he married his childhood sweetheart, Augusta Harkanyi, then spent a year on a Rockefeller Fellowship studying in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, another seminal figure in 20th-century physics. He taught briefly at the University of London, then accepted a professorship at George Washington University in Washington.

As both emigre and physicist, Dr. Teller was aware of the Nazis' lengthening shadow. His parents and sister remained in Hungary, and rapid advances in physics were raising the possibility of destructive new weapons being developed. The two concerns came together when Dr. Teller accompanied the physicist Leo Szilard on one of the most momentous errands of the century when the latter went to urge Albert Einstein to warn President Roosevelt that nuclear fission could mean a terrifying new era in warfare.

Einstein's letter led to the Manhattan Project. Dr. Teller was a leading participant, working first at Columbia University and the University of Chicago with Enrico Fermi, then at the University of California at Berkeley with Oppenheimer and eventually moving on to Los Alamos, the tiny New Mexican community that for the next few years would be the top-secret world capital of physics. Perhaps his most important contribution during this time was the set of calculations proving that an atomic blast would not set off a global conflagration.

Dr. Teller found himself increasingly distracted, however, in wanting to pursue a fusion or ``super'' bomb - what we now know as a hydrogen bomb. ``Having seen [fusion] operate in the sun and the stars, and having understood that, I fell in love with the idea that it can really be done on Earth,'' he said in a 2001 Globe interview.

The atomic bomb gets its force from atomic fission, which divides the atom's nucleus. Work that Dr. Teller had done with Fermi in 1940 indicated that fusing atomic nuclei would produce vastly greater forces.

After the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan (something Dr. Teller, an advocate of a demonstration detonation, had opposed), he continued to campaign for research on a fusion bomb, this despite widespread opposition from the physics community on technical, political, and humanitarian grounds.

Dr. Teller was now becoming a controversial figure. Some charged that he was overheated in his anti-communism. Others argued that he was allowing his commitment to scientific advances to outweigh their human consequences. In addition, even Dr. Teller's supporters conceded that he never allowed fear of disaffecting others get in the way of attaining his goal.

Yet with the explosion of the Soviet atom bomb in 1949, the go-ahead was given on hydrogen bomb research, and a successful detonation took place in 1952, in large part because of a technical breakthrough by Dr. Teller and Stanislaw Ulam. As the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe, a personal friend and policy opponent of Dr. Teller's, once put it, ``Ulam was the father of the hydrogen bomb and Edward was the mother, because he carried the baby for quite a while.''

If his championing of the hydrogen bomb had made Dr. Teller controversial, his testifying against Oppenheimer in a security clearance hearing in 1954 made him an outcast. Charges of disloyalty had been made against Oppenheimer (who had opposed research on a hydrogen bomb). Dr. Teller disputed the charges, but added, ``I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better and therefore trust more.'' His testimony was seen as crucial in the decision to deny Oppenheimer his clearance. Though they smilingly shook hands at a White House award ceremony in 1963, the two were never reconciled.

In conservative and defense circles, Dr. Teller was increasingly seen as a hero. Yet to many scientists his weapons work and testimony against Oppenheimer rendered him anathema. In 1974 Dr. Teller lamented, ``If a person leaves his country, leaves his continent, leaves his relatives, leaves his friends, the only people he knows are his professional colleagues. If more than 90 percent of these then come around to consider him an enemy, an outcast, it is bound to have an effect.... The truth is it had a profound effect.''

Perhaps Dr. Teller's most practical legacy to the scientific community consists of what is now the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. After concluding his hydrogen bomb research, he began lobbying the Atomic Energy Commission for ``a second Los Alamos,'' and Lawrence Livermore was established in 1952. ``Without my dedication and my work there,'' he said in that 2001 Globe interview, ``it would not have come along.'' Dr. Teller served either as its associate director or director from 1954 to 1975, also holding a chair in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, with which the laboratory is affiliated.

During the 1970s, Dr. Teller remained in the public eye - and the subject of controversy - as a proponent of nuclear power. But it was his advocacy of a space-based antimissile program that again made him a political lightning rod. He attended the White House on March 23, 1983, when President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as ``Star Wars.''

It was merely the latest instance of Dr. Teller's fundamental - indeed, all but theological - disagreement with his old antagonist Oppenheimer over whether, as the latter once wrote, ``the physicists have known sin.''

As against that view, Dr. Teller declared in 1987, ``We would be unfaithful to the tradition of Western civilization if we shied away from exploring what man can accomplish, if we failed to increase man's control over nature. The duty of scientists, specifically, is to explore and to explain.''

In 2003, Dr. Teller received the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
 
Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months