Learning to Love the Bomb | The Nation


Learning to Love the Bomb

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While I saw Edward Teller at several scientific conferences and heard him lecture, I met him only once. It left an indelible memory. It was at the end of April 1954. By this time I was far enough along on my PhD thesis that it was clear I might actually get my degree. The weapons laboratories were hiring interns, and my name had been given to Teller as someone who might be recruited for Livermore, a laboratory created in 1952 at Teller's instigation as a competitor to Los Alamos in the design of hydrogen bombs. Livermore was located on an old Navy base not far from San Francisco. I'm not sure that its purpose was widely known. I doubt if I knew it, but I thought it might be interesting to meet Teller.

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Jeremy Bernstein
Jeremy Bernstein's most recent book is a biography, Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (Ivan R. Dee). He is currently...

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Washington, DC

We agreed to meet in the lobby of a Washington hotel where the American Physical Society was having a conference. I had no trouble recognizing him, and he suggested we talk in his suite, where it would be quieter. He explained that he was giving a talk the following day, and to prepare it he would present it to me spontaneously; he asked me to interrupt if I had any questions. When we got to his suite he began pacing around the living room, lecturing. I think "lumbering" would be a better description. In 1928, when he had gone to Munich to study, he lost his right foot in an accident involving a streetcar. In later years Teller became an avid hiker but his prosthesis made his gait somewhat awkward. Suddenly in the middle of this lecture--during which I had remained mute, having no questions and not much understanding--he stopped and said, with no explanation, that he'd much rather be discussing physics than politics.

I had no idea what he was talking about until a couple of months later. On June 15 the Atomic Energy Commission released the full transcripts of a hearing before its Personnel Security Board, which had begun on April 12 and lasted until May 6, the result of which was that Teller's colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer lost his clearance and much of his reputation. Teller and Oppenheimer had had a difficult relationship, dating from the time that they were both at Los Alamos during the war. Even then Teller was fixated on building a hydrogen bomb and would not do the work of the laboratory that Oppenheimer was directing, which was trying to build a fission bomb. Teller was a witness--a hostile witness--and his testimony was devastating. At the end of it he was asked if he was having difficulty recruiting young people to come to Livermore. He replied, "I am going to spend the next three days in the Physical Society in trying to persuade additional young people to join in." I was one of the "additional young people," but I must not have made much of an impression, because I never heard from either Teller or Livermore, for which I am extremely grateful.

While the hearing ended Oppenheimer's work for the government, it also ended Teller's relationship with much of the physics community. To many he became a pariah, and people with whom he had worked at places like Los Alamos would no longer talk to him. It pushed Teller further and further into the right-wing community, which shared his paranoia about what they perceived to be the Soviet menace. It is impossible to be neutral about this. You may think Teller was the savior of Western civilization, or you may think he was an unprincipled fanatic, but you won't be indifferent. That is why it is so difficult to write an objective biography. I think the British television producer Peter Goodchild, also author of a biography of Oppenheimer, makes a decent attempt. But the facts speak for themselves. I was amused by his epilogue, where he tries to give a balanced summary. For example, after pointing out Teller's specious arguments about the "benign" nature of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing, he says, "Teller fought what he saw as the hysterical, ill-educated and irrational fear of nuclear activities with great vigour. He battled against the fears of fallout in the 1950s and his argument--that there was an over-reaction to the dangers of fallout--still has support from researchers to-day." One wonders who these unnamed "researchers" are. It's as if he were summarizing another book. In the body of the book he makes it abundantly clear what he really thinks of Teller. Since I share the view that Teller was often an unprincipled and intellectually dishonest fanatic, I am generally admiring of Goodchild's book. The question is what made Teller this way. In this I think Goodchild misses an important point, because he does not understand the physics. If this were a biography of, say, Einstein, that would be fatal, but since so much of Teller's later life was political, the science is somewhat secondary.

Goodchild's scientific misunderstandings are too numerous to mention them all, but let me give one example. He gives an account of the discovery of fission that is rather muddled. Then he goes on to describe the first practical application of fission, which was the construction of a reactor--it went critical on December 2, 1942--at the University of Chicago by a group led by Enrico Fermi. His description is totally confused. Two crucial elements of a reactor are the fuel--in this case natural uranium--and the so-called "moderator." Of the latter, Goodchild writes, "Then, by withdrawing or immersing the uranium in the moderator [in this case purified graphite], the reaction could be accelerated, or dampened, or stopped altogether." He has confused the role of the moderator with that of the control rods that are made of a neutron-absorbing material and are moved in and out. The function of the moderator, which along with the uranium is never moved anywhere, is to slow the neutrons and thus enhance the fission reaction. Of course, these howlers could have been prevented if a competent physicist had vetted his manuscript. But there is a deeper point.

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