The life and physics of Edward Teller

November 04, 2001|By Craig Eisendrath | By Craig Eisendrath,Special to the Sun

Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics, by Edward Teller with Judith Shoolery. Perseus Publishing. 628 pages. $35.

Intermittently inaccurate and even vicious, the Memoirs of Edward Teller nevertheless helps fill in the record from someone who was present at the creation of many of the major features of the nuclear age.

Born in Hungary in 1908, the son of a secular Jewish lawyer, Teller witnessed the post-World War I seizure of Hungary by the communist movement headed by Bela Kuhn. Imprinted for life with hatred of the communists, Teller seemed barely to have noticed the rapacity of the Nazis during the years he lived in Germany.

There he studied physics and joined the group of quantum physicists, led by Werner Heisenberg, who were reinventing the nature of physical explanation. Teller provides brief, though not always insightful, portraits of his colleagues, such as John von Neumann, Leo Szilard, Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi, and Niels Bohr.

With the ascent of the Nazis in the 1930s, Teller emigrated to the United States with other eminent physicists. Eventually he was taken up in the Manhattan Project, whose scientific head was the charismatic J. Robert Oppenheimer. When Oppenheimer refused on moral grounds to work on developing a hydrogen bomb, Teller assumed an important role in its creation, although how important is not altogether clear in the Memoirs, and is an object of intense historical controversy.

Teller describes in detail his testimony at the 1954 security hearing at which Oppenheimer's clearance was denied, explaining that it was his genuine doubt about Oppenheimer's reliability, not Oppenheimer's hostility to the H-bomb, which prompted Teller to tell the committee that his colleague of many years could not be trusted.

Shunned by most of the nation's leading physicists, Teller entered, in his own phrase, another "exile." Teller blames President Eisenhower for having held the hearing in the first place, claiming that it would have made more sense simply not to have hired Oppenheimer. Here again, it is useful to read other records of these events.

Teller also took a leading role in founding Livermore Laboratory in California as a competitor to Los Alamos. He lashes out at his former colleagues: "Having seen that the nation's only weapons laboratory was motivated in a rather distant and abstract way by concerns about the safety of our nation, but in a real and substantial way by concerns about the good public relations of the laboratory, I felt I had to discuss my concerns openly."

A supporter of Nelson Rockefeller, Teller eventually drifted right, becoming a member of the conservative lobbying group High Frontier and the Hoover Institution.

Teller's last major involvement in weapons politics came with his lobbying for national missile defense during the Reagan and Bush administrations. His pet project, the X-ray laser, which he claimed could destroy hundreds if not thousands of Soviet missiles, turned out to be a complete bust and cost the country many billions of dollars before it was shelved. His other project, "Brilliant Pebbles," also turned out to be incredibly expensive and unworkable. His statement in these Memoirs that the project would cost a few billion -- projections grew to many times that when President Bush discontinued it -- and his failure to describe both projects' impracticability, make clear how little the historical record seems to matter to him.

Craig Eisendrath, a former Foreign Service officer, is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. He is the co-author, with Melvin A. Goodman and Gerald E. Marsh, of The Phantom Defense: America's Pursuit of the Star Wars Illusion (Praeger, 2001). His Crisis Game: A Novel of the Cold War will be published in January by Sunstone Press.

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