Edward Teller's role in promoting SDI assessed

July 05, 1992|By Stanley Blumberg


William J. Broad.

Simon & Schuster.

350 pages. $25. It is evident from the copious notes that William J. Broad has devoted a great deal of time and energy in gathering material for this book. Printed sources are supplemented by numerous interviews, mostly of Edward Teller's critics (the physicist himself would not talk to Mr. Broad).

But despite his apparent scholarship, it is still difficult to understand how Mr. Broad, a New York Times science reporter, could write this highly technical account of Edward Teller's involvement in promoting America's nuclear defense when he does not appear to understand the elementary theory of nuclear fission.

A writer who deals with the precise discipline of science has an obligation to readers and to his own reputation not to misrepresent the facts, even though common usage may be on his side.

A case in point: The bombs that America exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki were commonly referred to as atom bombs, when in reality they were nuclear bombs. Mr. Broad compounds this confusion by writing, "The A-bomb worked by splitting atoms apart, the H-bomb worked by fusing them together."

In classical physics, the nucleus of an atom is surrounded by one or more rotating electrons. In fission, the nucleus of the atom is split, not the atom. In fusion, the nucleus is fused, not the atom.

Given Mr. Broad's lack of understanding of the theory of nuclear fission, it's difficult to accept his criticism of Dr. Teller's advocacy of SDI. The major portion of this book deals with Dr. Teller's role in what Mr. Broad claims as "the Star Wars deception." The author argues that Dr. Teller's advocacy of the X-ray laser, a missile defense technology, convinced Ronald Reagan in March 1983 of the need for a Strategic Defense Initiative.

The SDI was a new program only in that it brought together and expanded existing research and development in this field. For more than a decade, both the United States and the Soviet Union had been hard at work on anti-missile defensive systems. In 1979, for example, the United States shot down over the Pacific Ocean a missile with a missile. So the failed X-ray laser was not the only game in the ballpark.

And Dr. Teller was not the only -- or even the most important -- advocate of SDI. Gen. Daniel O. Graham and certainly the Joint Chiefs must share the credit or blame for President Reagan's "initiative."

The first section of the book briefly describes Dr. Teller's early life as a precocious child of an upper middle-class, assimilated Jewish family in Budapest. In 1930, at the age of 22, he received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the University of Leipzig, then accepted a post as a research assistant at the University of Gottingen in Germany.

In 1933, Hitler assumed power in Germany. Dr. Teller left to become a Rockefeller Fellow at the University of Copenhagen. After a brief stay as an instructor at the University of London, he became a professor at George Washington University.

Mr. Broad acknowledges that Dr. Teller, working in Los Alamos, N.M., when the nuclear bomb was developed and assembled, "made an important contribution to perfecting implosion, a technique . . . that was used in the first explosion." He fails to add that when the implosion concept first was proposed by another scientist, an attempt to dismiss it was thwarted by Dr. Teller, who wished to explore the idea. Together with the brilliant Hungarian mathematician, John Von Neumann, they produced the theoretical underpinning of the theory of implosion.

From the early 1940s, Dr. Teller was fascinated by the concept of building a fusion bomb in which isotopes of hydrogen nuclei, deuterium and tritium would unite, releasing energy. Most of his colleagues, however, were convinced that the Hungarian scientist was involved in a quixotic quest, and there were periods when Dr. Teller himself thought the task was beyond man's capacity. Through a period of years the scientific community became polarized over the question of whether America should make an all-out effort to develop and build this horrible weapon -- the hydrogen bomb.

J. Robert Oppenheimer argued the bomb could not be built, and even if it could it should not be. But Dr. Teller was convinced that the survival of his adopted country would be imperiled if the Soviets won the race to build a hydrogen bomb.

According to Mr. Broad, after many false starts, "in December 1950 [mathematician Stanislaw] Ulam proposed a new type of )) atomic bomb design that used mechanical shock . . ." In essence, Ulam suggested what he believed to be a novel configuration of the nuclear trigger, producing the heat and pressure necessary for thermonuclear fusion. There was only one problem with Ulam's idea -- it could not work.

Dr. Teller's idea to use radiation, rather than pressure, to compress and heat the fuel made the hydrogen bomb possible.

Mr. Broad leaves the readers with the impression that the X-ray laser is a failed issue. The theory is widely accepted, but so far the technology has proven elusive. The Israelis, however, are still seeking a breakthrough.

And the author would offer a more accurate portrait of SDI if he had examined the program's successes as well as its failures.

Mr. Blumberg is co-author of two books on Edward Teller. He lives in Baltimore.

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