Edward Teller

Edward Teller in 1958 as Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Edward Teller (original Hungarian name Teller Ede) (January 15, 1908 – September 9, 2003) was a Hungarian-born American nuclear physicist of Jewish descent. He was known colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb."

Early life and education

Teller was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary. As a child, he was slow to speak, and his grandfather warned that he might be retarded. However, when he spoke, he did so in complete sentences. He left Hungary in 1926 (partly due to the Numerus clausus rule under Horthy's regime) and received his higher education in Germany. The political climate and revolutions in Hungary during his youth instilled a deep hatred for both Communism and Fascism in Teller. When he was a young student he was involved in a streetcar accident which severed his leg, requiring him to wear a prosthetic foot and leaving him with a life-long limp. Teller graduated in chemical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe and received his Ph.D. in physics under ]

In 1950, calculations by the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam and his collaborator Cornelius Everett, along with confirmations by Fermi, had showed that not only was Teller's earlier estimate of the quantity of Tritium needed for the H bomb a low one, but that even with a higher amount of Tritium, the energy losses in the fusion process would be too great to enable the fusion reaction to propagate. However, in 1951, after still many years of fruitless labor on the "Super," an innovative idea from Ulam was seized upon by Teller and developed into the first workable design for a megaton-range hydrogen bomb. The exact amount of contribution provided respectedly from Ulam and Teller to what became known as the Teller-Ulam design is not decidedly known in the public domain—the degree of credit assigned to Teller by his contemporaries is almost exactly commensurate with how well they thought of Teller in general. In an interview with Scientific American from 1999, Teller told the reporter:

"I contributed; Ulam did not. I'm sorry I had to answer it in this abrupt way. Ulam was rightly dissastified with an old approach. He came to me with a part of an idea which I already had worked out and difficulty getting people to listen to. He was willing to sign a paper. When it then came to defending that paper and really putting work into it, he refused. He said, 'I don't believe in it.'"

None of Teller's Los Alamos colleagues, though, agree with this assessment. Bethe gave Teller "51%" of the credit for the creation of the H-bomb, while other scientists (those more antagonistic to Teller, such as J. Carson Mark) have claimed that Teller would have never gotten any closer without the assistance of Ulam and others.[]

The breakthrough—the details of which are still classified—was apparently the separation of the fission and fusion components of the weapons, and to use the radiation produced by the fission bomb to first compress the fusion fuel before igniting it. However, compression alone would not have been enough and the other crucial idea—staging the bomb by separating the primary and secondary—seems to have been exclusively contributed by Ulam. Also, Ulam's idea seems to have been to use mechanical shock from the primary to encourage fusion in the secondary, while Teller quickly realised that radiation from the primary would do the job much more early and more efficiently. Evidently, Teller pounced on this brainwave and used it to highlight his contribution. However, many members of the lab, including Carson Mark, think that the idea to use radiation would have occurred to anybody if he started to think about the physical processes involved. They also think that the obvious reason why Teller thought of radiation right away was because he was already working on the 'Greenhouse' tests for the spring of 1951, in which the effect of the energy from a fission bomb on a mixture of deuterium and tritium was going to be investigated. The elegance of the design impressed many scientists, to the point that some who had previously wondered if it was feasible at all suddenly believed that it was inevitable that it would be created by both the USA and USSR. Even Oppenheimer, who was originally opposed to the project, called the idea "technically sweet".

The 10.4 Mt "Ivy Mike" shot of 1952 appeared to vindicate Teller's long-time advocacy for the hydrogen bomb.

Though he had helped to come up with the design and had been a long-time proponent of the concept, Teller was not chosen to head the development project (his reputation as being a poor team player probably played a role in this). In 1952 he left Los Alamos and joined the newly established Livermore branch of the University of California Radiation Laboratory, which had been created largely through his urging. After the detonation of "Ivy Mike", the first thermonuclear weapon to utilize the Teller-Ulam configuration, on November 1, 1952, Teller became known in the press as the "father of the hydrogen bomb." Interestingly, Teller refrained from attending the test and instead saw its results on a seismograph in Berkeley. Ironically, by analysing the fallout from this test, the Russians (led in their H-bomb work by Andrei Sakharov) could have easily concluded that the new design had used compression as the key initiator, and this may have speeded up their own bomb effort. Because of official secrecy, little information about the bomb's development was released by the government, and press reports often attributed the entire weapon's design and development to Teller and his new Livermore Laboratory (when it was actually developed by Los Alamos).

Many of Teller's colleagues were irritated that he seemed to enjoy taking full credit for something he had only a part in, and in response, with encouragement from Enrico Fermi, Teller authored an article titled "The Work of Many People," which appeared in Science magazine in February, 1955, emphasizing that he was not alone in the weapon's development (he would later write in his memoirs that he had told a "white lie" in the 1955 article, and would imply that he should receive full credit for the weapon's invention).[

  • Edward Teller's FBI file (which outlines years of FBI agents trying to establish whether or not he was the same person as another Edward Teller who taught at a Marxist school in New York)
  • LLNL Interview with Edward Teller
  • Richard Rhodes on: Edward Teller's Role in the Oppenheimer Hearings
  • Scott Fishers Web Page dedicated to Edward Teller
  • Biographies of Physicists and Astronomers

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