Learning to Love the Bomb | The Nation


Learning to Love the Bomb

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The question that any biographer of Teller has to try to answer is how good a physicist he was. What did he actually accomplish? To me this, along with his experiences under the brief Communist regime in Hungary when he was a young man, is a profound key to Teller's character and behavior. After the Communists were overthrown there was an outburst of anti-Semitism that affected the Tellers. On the physics, I have asked several physicists who knew Teller when he was actively doing physics how they would rank him. Among them there is agreement that few physicists of his generation had more natural ability. Some told me they thought he was more gifted than Oppenheimer. But given his gifts, what did he actually achieve in physics? This, incidentally, is often asked about Oppenheimer. I believe the answer is, relatively little. After the war Teller taught at the University of Chicago from 1946 to 1949. Goodchild, as a testimony to Teller's productivity at that time, notes that he co-wrote thirteen papers. He does not tell us what role Teller played in writing these papers or what their significance was. I certainly have not read them, and I am not aware of anything Teller did then that had much impact. Goodchild quotes some of Teller's contemporaries, all of whom note that Teller had what used to be called "grasshopper mind." He was simply unable to concentrate on a single problem. This, incidentally, affected his teaching. Physicists who were in his classes inform me that they were awful. He never prepared his lectures. Goodchild notes that while at Chicago Teller had what Goodchild refers to as a "mid-life crisis." He was not getting along with his colleagues and was deeply depressed because work on the hydrogen bomb was not progressing. He was also not very satisfied with the physics he was doing. But I think this frustration goes back much further.

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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

Teller came to this country in 1935 from England, where he had been granted haven after the Nazis removed anyone with a Jewish background from teaching in a university. (This was particularly ironic in Teller's case, since he had come to Germany in 1926 to escape anti-Semitism in Hungary, and had stayed on to finish his PhD.) Until then, he had not done physics. His thesis, which he finished under the guidance of Werner Heisenberg in 1930, was in physical chemistry. From Goodchild's description, it sounds like pretty mundane number-crunching. In fact, Heisenberg had to tell him that he had done enough and could stop. The problem was apparently so open-ended that it was not clear to Teller if he had solved it. This is usually not a good sign.

For several years after his arrival in the States, Teller continued to work in physical chemistry and was considered a bit of an outsider by the physicists with whom he came into contact. One of them was the wonderful Russian eccentric George Gamow, one of the most creative physicists of the twentieth century. Gamow had escaped from the Soviet Union and had relocated to George Washington University, where he was the chairman of the department. Like almost everyone else, he had been impressed by Teller's brilliance and brought him into the department. Teller himself has said that while he was there one of his main jobs was to sort out Gamow's ideas. Ironically, later in his career there were people who performed the same service for Teller. At least one paper that he wrote with Gamow, on radioactive decays of nuclei in which electrons are produced--so-called beta decay--is a kind of classic. Who contributed what to this paper I do not know.

There is another thing that people who knew Teller at this time agree on. He was a charming, collegial man. The Teller household was practically a hotel. Other physicists loved to talk to him about their problems. He would say, "I don't understand it, but I will explain it to you." Very few people after Los Alamos would have called him "charming and collegial." What changed? When I was writing a New Yorker profile of the physicist Hans Bethe, who knew Teller from his European days, I discussed this with him. To me the answer was clear. When Oppenheimer first thought of a nuclear weapons laboratory he had the naïve idea that if the explosive material was available it would take just a handful of his colleagues--students and the like--to make a bomb. He soon realized that he was going to need a full-scale laboratory and that this would have to be organized into divisions. Among them was the theoretical division--the T-division--and to run it Oppenheimer appointed Bethe. Teller never got over this. He was still angry about it in the memoirs he published in 2001, at age 93. He died two years later. All of his insecurities as a physicist were reinforced by what he perceived as a terrible slight. From that point on he refused to do the work of the laboratory. His hostility toward Oppenheimer can, I think, be traced to this decision. I also think the fact that he did not find real satisfaction in the physics he was able to do contributed to the lack of balance he showed when it came to politics. Everything became personal. Bethe, for example, while certainly as concerned as Teller about the security of this country, was able to examine alternatives objectively. It was unthinkable that Bethe would falsify the scientific basis of a weapons program, something that Teller did routinely, simply to get his way. I have always thought the fact that Bethe had a deeply satisfying scientific career--he won the Nobel Prize in 1967--gave him the balanced outlook that Teller never achieved.

The part of Goodchild's book--most of it--that I found truly excellent had to do with Teller's activities after the war. Goodchild has put this together more fully than anyone else, and I learned many things that were new to me. There are three major themes, each one of which would take a long essay to adumbrate. They are the hydrogen bomb, the test ban treaty and Star Wars. I will give the elements briefly.

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