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Friday, September 08, 2006

Edward Teller Dies, September 9, 2003

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Today in 2003, Edward Teller died in Stanford, California. Teller is most famous for being credited as the "father of the hydrogen bomb", but he was involved in many nuclear-related projects during the last half 20th century. It is not an exaggeration to say that Teller's work in the field of nuclear weapons helped to define US strategy and foreign policy during the Cold War and after.

Edward Teller was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1908. The Hungary of his youth was filled with political tensions which left Teller with a hatred for both fascism and communism that would help guide his career. While a student, he lost his foot in an auto accident and wore a prosthetic for the rest of his life, which caused him to limp. Undaunted, Teller received a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Karlsruhe and a Ph.D in physics from the University of Leipzig.

Teller's family was Jewish, and so the young graduate left Germany in 1933 after working for two years at the University of Gottingen. He spent a year Copenhagen, where he worked for Niels Bohr, who gave his name to the model of the atom we are most familiar with today. At 26, Teller married Augusta Maria Harkanyl.

The next year, 1935, Teller came to the United States to accept a position as a Professor of Physics at George Washington University. He was still at the University when the United States entered the Second World War in December, 1941. The next summer, he was invited to attend a planning seminar held by Robert Oppenheimer at Berkeley. This meeting was the genesis of what would become known as the Manhattan Project, the Allied program to develop an atomic weapon.

Teller spent the war working in the Theoretical Physics Division at Los Alamos Laboratory, the main base of operations for the Manhattan Project. He made some significant contributions to the project, but he also gained the reputation of being hard to work with. He also developed a tendency to seek full credit for projects that were actually team efforts.

It was early in his work at Los Alamos that Teller and Enrico Fermi first discussed the possibility of a hydrogen bomb. Fermi had only mentioned the theory in passing, but it sparked an interest in Teller that would not die. A hydrogen bomb is a weapon that requires a standard nuclear device (known as a fission bomb) to set off an exponentially more powerful fusion reaction. This would allow bombs with incredible destructive force to be built.

Teller's ideas for a hydrogen bomb were largely shunned at Los Alamos because the central project, the fission bomb, was still far from completion. Besides, the general opinion was that a hydrogen weapon would not work as Teller envisioned it. For a few years, it looked as if a fusion bomb would never be built.

That outlook changed in 1949 when the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb. In an attempt to build something even more deadly, President Truman sponsored a development program for the hydrogen bomb. Teller, who had left Los Alamos in 1946, returned in 1950 to work on the project. Much of the project still remains classified, so it is unclear as to how much credit Teller really deserves. Suffice it to say, he did not go to the first test of the weapon in November, 1952 because he claimed to not feel welcome at the site.

Regardless, Teller was soon being called the "father of the hydrogen bomb." This made him very unpopular in many scientific circles despite the fact that he was far from a war hawk. In fact, he had asked that the first atomic bomb not be dropped on a Japanese city but in a remote area as a means of demonstration. He simply saw the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union as a necessary evil that worked to keep Communism at bay. Because of his views, he was highly regarded by government and military groups who often sought his input on projects of importance.

Teller once again became the center of controversy in 1954 when he testified at Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance hearing. Oppenheimer had been Teller's boss at Los Alamos and was the name most associated with the Manhattan Project. While Teller did not think Oppenheimer was a disloyal American, he questioned some of his odd behavior and thought processes. Because of this, he felt that his former associate was a poor security risk. Oppenheimer's security clearance was stripped. Among most of the scientific community, Teller became a pariah.

In his later years, Teller became a strong advocate for the peaceful use of nuclear power. After the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, Teller lobbied in favor of continued use of nuclear power, so much so that he suffered a heart attack because of the effort and the fact that he was 71. He blamed the attack on Jane Fonda, who was a constant critic of nuclear power.

During the Reagan Administration, Teller became a vocal backer of the Strategic Defense Initiative, termed "Star Wars" by critics in the media. SDI turned out to be technologically unworkable at that time, but some of the ideas from the project are currently at work as part of the US anti-ballistic missile program.

Teller died at the age of 95, having received the Presidential Medal of Freedom just two months before.

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