Edward Teller: what did he discover


Intro page

1. Teller's triumph?

2. Gone fission

3. Credit - or blame?

Edward Teller, an inventor of the hydrogen bomb, celebrated his 90th birthday. Photo: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The Teller-Ulam design is the core of almost every hydrogen bomb.

Edward Teller, superbomb pioneer, dead at 95
When the history of history's bloodiest century is written, a few scientists will appear in the table of contents. Physicist Albert Einstein, surely. Radiation pioneer Marie Curie, probably. Discoverer of penicillin Alexander Fleming, maybe.

An elderly Teller gazes downward.But you can bank on reading "Edward Teller: Physicist, nuclear pioneer, accomplished pianist, ace ping-pong player, troubled genius, hawkish expert advisor; often called 'Father of the H-bomb'." While Teller did not contribute to fundamental physics on Einstein's level, his technical proficiency, coupled with his 10-year obsession to build the hydrogen bomb, made him a force to reckon with.

Passionate advocacy of nuclear weapons earned Teller a lifelong entry to the corridors of power, and for close to five decades he was an eminently qualified, intensely intelligent, combative conservative voice on national security affairs.

Among other things, Teller's vision of nuclear-powered, orbiting laser battle stations fired the imagination of President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, inspiring the Star Wars program. And while his X-ray lasers never exactly worked, the missile defense program survives, at an estimated cost of $9 billion in fiscal year 2004. It's purpose -- catch the irony? -- is to defeat missiles carrying hydrogen bombs -- the invention forever linked to Teller's name.

Teller died Sept. 10.

An earthshaking invention
Arrogant, ambitious, argumentative, Teller was a Hungarian Jewish refugee who changed the world. Beyond helping invent the "Teller-Ulam" design -- the heart of virtually every hydrogen bomb ever made -- he had enormous social and political clout.

Teller was "Perhaps one of the handful of most influential scientists in the 20th century," says Robert S. Norris, a historian with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "He was at many places at just the right time to influence events... participated in the Manhattan Project, pushed the H-bomb, created a second [nuclear weapons] laboratory, influenced the [nuclear] testing debate, and later in life, ballistic missile defense." Norris is biographer of General Leslie Groves, the overall director of the Manhattan Project, which built the atomic bomb (see "Racing for the Bomb..."in the bibliography).

Mushroom-shaped plume of white smoke. The "Mike" test, Nov. 1, 1952, was the world's first hydrogen bomb. The blast used the Teller-Ulam design, still the mainstay of H-bombs, and had the power of 10.4 million tons of TNT, about 1,000 times the bomb that leveled Hiroshima. Photo: The Atomic Archive.

Unlike a good number of his fellow nuclear physicists, Teller trenchantly opposed weapons control. "He deserves much of the credit (or blame), probably more than any other single individual, for the failure of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to prohibit underground tests along with those in all other environments..." wrote physicist Herbert York in 1976 (see "The Advisors..." in the bibliography). Continued testing has been key to developing and improving many nuclear arsenals.

In an interview, York, the first director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told The Why Files that Teller was "strong, positive, he pushed his way in, was absolutely convinced he was right about nuclear weapons and international security questions. He was dedicated, if he had an opportunity to see a key senator, he would get up out of his sickbed. People who like what he did thought he was heroic, but I think he caused more harm than good."

Teller's legacy, York says, is, "A more dangerous world."

Cylindrical bomb flanked by long tubes.
Mike weighed 82 tons, and was a test of principle, not a deliverable bomb. Those weirdo antlers were pipes that directed radiation to distant gauges so physicists could measure events in different parts of the bomb. The pipes, and everything else you see (except that bored guy catching some solar radiation) were vaporized. Oh, yeah. Mike also obliterated the island of Elugelab in the Eniwetok Atoll, Pacific Ocean, and blew 80 million tons of radioactive crud into the sky. Photo: The High Energy Weapons Archive

To Teller the truth
From a historical perspective, Teller's story drips irony:

For almost 10 years, starting in 1941, Teller promoted a flawed H-bomb design. In 1950, when mathematician Stanislaw Ulam proved the design would not work, Teller was resentful. But in 1951, Teller embraced Ulam's alternative design, added his own improvements, and spent years downplaying Ulam's role in the "Teller-Ulam" design.

Despite his obsession with the hydrogen bomb, Teller left the design of the first hydrogen bomb, Mike, to others, and he did not even attend Mike's test in 1952.

Teller pushed for a second nuclear weapons lab - Lawrence Livermore - saying Los Alamos could not be trusted to design the hydrogen bomb. Mike, however, was designed and built at Los Alamos.

Teller spent the waning years of his life promoting strategic missile defense - to defend against the bombs he'd helped invent.

Although he's considered a scientist, Teller's most profound influences were in engineering, politics and policy.

Dr. Strangelove waves mighty hand over tiny politicians.Despite Teller's long linkage with the hydrogen bomb, his biggest impact on atomic weapons may be an earlier invention. Fusion boosting increased the power and reduced the size of atomic bombs, and virtually every hydrogen bomb is triggered by a boosted fission bomb.

Finally, while Teller did not like being called "The father of the hydrogen bomb," that reputation enhanced his clout as a technical advisor to government.

Teller's was a life made for the movies, and he is widely considered the template for the title role in the dark comedy, "Dr. Strangelove: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."

Exactly what did Teller contribute to the H-bomb?


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