— Ed­ward Teller, fa­ther of the H-bomb

Ed­ward Teller’s love of math­e­mat­i­cal and quan­tum ab­strac­tions helped make ar­maged­don a prac­ti­cal pos­si­bil­ity.

Cosmos - - Contents - — AN­DREW MASTER­SON

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 mis­sile­based 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.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION – Jef­frey Phillips


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