Edward Teller

(1908—2003) Hungarian-born American physicist

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Hungarian-born US physicist, sometimes known as the ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’.

The son of a lawyer, Teller was educated at the Budapest Institute of Technology and the universities of Karlsruhe, Munich, Göttingen, and Leipzig, where he obtained his PhD in 1930. With the rise to power of Hitler, as a Jew, Teller emigrated to the USA in 1935. He became a naturalized US citizen in 1941. Teller has held chairs of physics at George Washington University (1935–41), Columbia (1941–42), Chicago (1946–52), and the University of California, Berkeley (1954–75). Since 1975 he has been a research fellow of the Hoover Institution.

During World War II Teller worked at Los Alamos on the development of nuclear weapons. Initially, he worked on the problem of designing a fission bomb, but his main interest lay in the development of the fusion bomb. Eventually, the Los Alamos director, J. R. Oppenheimer, allowed him to concentrate on the hydrogen bomb (known in the jargon of the day as the ‘Super’). By the end of the war Teller had designed a hydrogen bomb, but it required a large refrigeration plant to make it work. In 1949, Oppenheimer and the General Advisory Committee advised the Atomic Energy Commission not to pursue the Super. To the violently anticommunist Teller this seemed like madness. However, on 29 August 1949 the Soviet Union exploded its first fission bomb; political attitudes in Washington changed overnight. On 30 January 1950 President Truman announced a crash programme to develop the Super, with Teller returning to Los Alamos as assistant director for weapons development. The breakthrough came in early 1951 when Teller and the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam worked out the Teller–Ulam configuration, in which X-rays produced by an initial atomic explosion trigger a thermonuclear explosion. It was successfully tested in November 1952 on an island in the Eniwetok Atoll. By this time Teller had left Los Alamos to set up his own laboratory at Berkeley, known as the Livermore Laboratory.

In April 1954 the AEC heard Oppenheimer's appeal against the loss of his security clearance. Alone among the senior scientists from Los Alamos, Teller testified against Oppenheimer declaring that ‘one would be wiser not to grant clearance.’ When, shortly afterwards, he visited Los Alamos he was either ignored or greeted with a formal politeness. He did not return for another ten years. Thereafter Teller became increasingly political, arguing against the test ban treaty of 1963 and denying that fallout from nuclear testing was ‘worth worrying about’. His publications include The Structure of Matter (1949), Nuclear Energy in a Developing World (1977), Better a Shield than a Sword (1987), and Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics (1991).

Subjects: Warfare and Defence.

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