Teller, Edward


Teller, Edward
orig. Ede Teller

born Jan. 15, 1908, Budapest, Hung., Austria-Hungary
died Sept. 9, 2003, Stanford, Calif.

Hungarian-born U.S. nuclear physicist.

Born to a prosperous Jewish family, he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig (1930) before leaving Nazi Germany (1933) and settled in the U.S. in 1935. In 1941 he joined Enrico Fermi's team in the effort to produce the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, and in 1943 J. Robert Oppenheimer recruited him for the Manhattan Project. At the war's end, Teller advocated development of a fusion bomb, and he won permission after initial government resistance. With Stanislaw Ulam he developed a workable hydrogen bomb in 1952. That same year he helped establish the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory (Livermore, Calif.), which became the chief U.S. factory for nuclear weapons. In 1954 he joined the opposition to Oppenheimer's continued security clearance. A staunch anticommunist, he devoted much energy to his crusade to keep the U.S. ahead of the Soviet Union in nuclear arms; he opposed nuclear weapons treaties, and he was principally responsible for convincing Pres. Ronald Reagan of the need for the Strategic Defense Initiative. In 2003 Teller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Edward Teller.

Courtesy of the University of California Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Berkeley, Calif.

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▪ 2004

      Hungarian-born American nuclear physicist (b. Jan. 15, 1908, Budapest, Hung.—d. Sept. 9, 2003, Stanford, Calif.), spearheaded the U.S. program to develop the hydrogen bomb, the world's first thermonuclear weapon. In 1941 Teller joined Enrico Fermi and other scientists in the Manhattan Project; the goal was to create the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. Teller was one of the first scientists recruited in 1943 to work on production of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos (N.M.) Scientific Laboratory. After World War II his push to develop the more powerful hydrogen bomb received little support from his colleagues, but Pres. Harry Truman authorized the effort after the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic weapon in 1949 and British scientist Klaus Fuchs confessed that he had passed information on atomic weapons to the Soviets. On Nov. 1, 1952, a hydrogen bomb devised by Teller and physicist Stanislaw Ulam was detonated successfully at Enewetak atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Teller was among the first scientists whose research focused on the stability of the atomic nucleus. Early in his career he worked with such scientific luminaries as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and George Gamow. Many of his colleagues turned against him, however, when his testimony before the U.S. Congress in 1954 contributed to the downfall of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the former director of the Los Alamos laboratory. Undeterred, Teller spent much of the rest of his life working to ensure U.S. superiority in the arms race. In the early 1950s he helped establish the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory (now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), which became the main production facility for thermonuclear weapons in the U.S. He opposed the 1963 Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of the 1970s. Having dealt with each U.S. president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, Teller established a strong rapport with Pres. Ronald Reagan and in the 1980s was influential in advancing the proposal for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a space-based missile defense system that was eventually abandoned because of technological difficulties. In 2003 Teller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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▪ American physicist
Hungarian  Ede Teller  
born January 15, 1908, Budapest, Hungary, Austria-Hungary
died September 9, 2003, Stanford, California, U.S.
 Hungarian-born American nuclear (nuclear weapon) physicist who participated in the production of the first atomic bomb (1945) and who led the development of the world's first thermonuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb.

      Teller was from a family of prosperous Hungarian Jews. After attending schools in Budapest, he earned a degree in chemical engineering at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany. He then went to Munich and Leipzig to earn a Ph.D. in physical chemistry (1930). His doctoral thesis, on the hydrogen molecular ion, helped lay the foundation for a theory of molecular orbitals that remains widely accepted today. While a student in Munich, Teller fell under a moving streetcar and lost his right foot, which was replaced with an artificial one.

      During the years of the Weimar Republic, Teller was absorbed with atomic physics, first studying under Niels Bohr (Bohr, Niels) in Copenhagen and then teaching at the University of Göttingen (1931–33). In 1935 Teller and his bride, Augusta Harkanyi, went to the United States, where he taught at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Together with his colleague George Gamow (Gamow, George), he established new rules for classifying the ways subatomic particles can escape the nucleus during radioactive decay. Following Bohr's stunning report on the fission of the uranium atom in 1939 and inspired by the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Roosevelt, Franklin D.), who had called for scientists to act to defend the United States against Nazism, Teller resolved to devote his energies to developing nuclear weapons.

      By 1941 Teller had taken out U.S. citizenship and joined Enrico Fermi (Fermi, Enrico)'s team at the University of Chicago in the epochal experiment to produce the first self-sustaining nuclear (Manhattan Project) chain reaction. Teller then accepted an invitation from the University of California at Berkeley to work on theoretical studies on the atomic bomb with J. Robert Oppenheimer (Oppenheimer, J. Robert); and when Oppenheimer set up the secret Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico in 1943, Teller was among the first men recruited. Although the Los Alamos assignment was to build a fission bomb, Teller digressed more and more from the main line of research to continue his own inquiries into a potentially much more powerful thermonuclear hydrogen fusion bomb. At war's end he wanted the U.S. government's nuclear weapons development priorities shifted to the hydrogen bomb (thermonuclear bomb). Hiroshima, however, had had a profound effect on Oppenheimer and other Manhattan Project scientists, and few had the desire to continue in nuclear weapons research.

      Teller accepted a position with the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago in 1946 but returned to Los Alamos as a consultant for extended periods. The Soviet Union's explosion of an atomic bomb in 1949 made him more determined that the United States have a hydrogen bomb, but the Atomic Energy Commission's general advisory committee, which was headed by Oppenheimer, voted against a crash program to develop one. The debate was settled by the confession of the British atomic scientist Klaus Fuchs that he had been spying for the Soviet Union since 1942. Fuchs had known of the American interest in a hydrogen bomb and had passed along early American data on it to the Soviets. In response, President Harry Truman ordered the go-ahead on the weapon, and Teller laboured on at Los Alamos to make it a reality.

 Teller and his colleagues at Los Alamos made little actual progress in designing a workable thermonuclear device until early in 1951, when the physicist Stanislaw Marcin Ulam (Ulam, Stanislaw Marcin) proposed to use the mechanical shock of an atomic bomb to compress a second fissile core and make it explode; the resulting high density would make the burning of the second core's thermonuclear fuel much more efficient. Teller in response suggested that radiation, rather than mechanical shock, from the atomic bomb's explosion be used to compress and ignite the thermonuclear second core. Together these new ideas provided a firm basis for a fusion weapon, and a device using the Teller-Ulam configuration, as it is now known, was successfully tested at Enewetak atoll in the Pacific on November 1, 1952; it yielded an explosion equivalent to 10 million tons (10 megatons) of TNT.

      Teller was subsequently credited with developing the world's first thermonuclear weapon, and he became known in the United States as “the father of the H-bomb.” Ulam's key role in conceiving the bomb design did not emerge from classified government documents and other sources until nearly three decades after the event. Still, Teller's stubborn pursuit of the weapon in the face of skepticism, and even hostility, from many of his peers played a major role in the bomb's development.

      At the U.S. government hearings held in 1954 to determine whether Oppenheimer was a security risk, Teller's testimony was decidedly unsympathetic to his former chief. “I would feel personally more secure,” he told the inquiry board, “if public matters would rest in other hands.” After the hearings' end, Oppenheimer's security clearance was revoked, and his career as a science administrator was at an end. Although Teller's testimony was by no means the decisive factor in this outcome, many prominent American nuclear physicists never forgave him for what they viewed as his betrayal of Oppenheimer.

      Teller was instrumental in the creation of the United States' second nuclear weapons laboratory, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, in Livermore, California, in 1952. For almost the next four decades it was the United States' chief factory for making thermonuclear weapons. Teller was associate director of Livermore from 1954 to 1958 and from 1960 to 1975, and he was its director in 1958–60. Concurrently he was professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley from 1953 to 1960 and was professor-at-large there until 1970.

      A staunch anticommunist, Teller devoted much time in the 1960s to his crusade to keep the United States ahead of the Soviet Union in nuclear arms. He opposed the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, and he was a champion of Project Plowshare, an unsuccessful federal government program to find peaceful uses for atomic explosives. In the 1970s Teller remained a prominent government adviser on nuclear weapons policy, and in 1982–83 he was a major influence in President Ronald Reagan (Reagan, Ronald W.)'s proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative, an attempt to create a defense system against nuclear attacks by the Soviet Union. In 2003 Teller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Additional Reading
Stanley A. Blumberg and Gwinn Owens, Energy and Conflict: The Life and Times of Edward Teller (1976); and Stanley A. Blumberg and Louis G. Panos, Edward Teller (1990), are biographies. Herbert F. York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb (1976), chronicles the development of atomic weaponry and explores the personalities involved in the decisions. William J. Broad, Teller's War (1992), treats his involvement in the Strategic Defense Initiative. Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (1995), discusses Teller's work on thermonuclear weapons.

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Universalium. 2010.

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