Edward Teller – Father of the Hydrogen Bomb
Edward Teller was an award-winning Hungarian-American physicist who played a key role as a member of the Manhattan Project, the team of physicists assigned to develop the first atomic bomb. His subsequent development of the first thermonuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb, earned him the epithet “Father of the hydrogen bomb.”
The Early Years: Birth & Education
Teller was born into a wealthy and prominent family in Budapest, Hungary. His early years were marked by big changes in Hungary. During that period, Budapest was regarded as one of the greatest cities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and most of its people spoke German and adopted German cultural practices. The events of World War I ended the Empire and Hungary became an independent state.
As a child, Teller was very intelligent and gifted in mathematics. Although he attended good schools, the challenges that the newly-independent country of Hungary faced frequently disrupted his studies. At that time, Hungary was under the rulership of Miklós Horthy and the leader’s “numerus clausus” limited students’ access to education.
Eventually, he left Budapest and moved to Karlsruhe, Germany, where he studied chemical engineering. While there, Teller developed an interest in physics with a focus on quantum mechanics; and because of his newfound interest, he decided to transfer to the University of Munich.
Sadly, Teller was involved in an accident shortly after moving to Munich. He decided to jump off a moving streetcar but fell and had his right foot severed by a wheel. He was left with a permanent limp and wore a prosthetic foot for the rest of his life. Teller was in a lot of pain, but his dependence on painkillers affected his thinking and he employed alternative means to deal with the pain, including using the placebo effect, where he would tell himself that he had taken painkillers when he hadn’t.
Teller persevered and his injury didn’t stop him from continuing his studies. He studied under the renowned physicist, Werner Heisenberg after transferring to the University of Leipzig and earned his doctorate in 1930.
University of Göttingen & his emigration to the United States
Teller worked as a research consultant at the University of Göttingen after receiving his doctorate. He also wrote his first thesis on “Hydrogen Molecular Ion.” His life in Germany was relatively comfortable, but it was soon disrupted when the German dictator, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came into power.
Jewish by birth, Teller knew he had to flee Germany and with the help of the Jewish Rescue Committee, left the country for England and later, Copenhagen, Denmark, where he worked under the Nobel Prize winner, Niels Bohr. While there, he married his girlfriend, Augusta Maria “Mici” Harkanyi.
At that time, Mici had been studying in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and expressed her wish to return to the United States (US). In 1935, the young couple received the opportunity to go to the States after Teller was invited by fellow political refugee, George Gamow, to teach at George Washington University. They moved later that year, and six years later, Teller became a US citizen.
Together with Gamow, the pair came up with the Gamow-Teller rules, which were used in studying how subatomic particles behave during radioactive decay. Teller started getting comfortable in his new life but was once again interrupted by the events happening in Europe.
World War II and the Manhattan Project
Initial advances in nuclear physics had been moving at a slow pace in Germany. However, German scientists made a breakthrough in 1939 after discovering nuclear fission. Teller and other physicists who had fled Germany were fearful that Germany’s bloodthirsty dictator Hitler would have access to such a powerful weapon. Their fears grew further after learning that Heisenberg, who Teller had studied under at the University of Leipzig, was spearheading that nuclear program.
To prevent this catastrophe from happening, one of Teller’s colleagues, Leo Szilard, called on Albert Einstein to alert then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Roosevelt then called on the physicists to develop a solution.
In 1941, Teller became a member of Enrico Fermi’s team at the University of Chicago. Fermi had recently won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938 and was a renowned physicist. He later accepted an invitation from a fellow physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to work on the theoretical development of the atomic bomb, as part of the early works of the Manhattan Project. Teller later moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where under Oppenheimer’s leadership, built the first atomic bomb.
Teller was instrumental in the development of the atomic bomb. During that time, some of the scientists on the team were afraid that the bomb would be too difficult to control and that it could eventually destroy the entire globe. However, Teller’s studies and calculations determined that while the atomic bomb was going to be extremely powerful, it would only affect a particular area.
The team conducted a successful test in Alamogordo, New Mexico and a few weeks later, dropped the bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. World War II ended after Germany and Japan surrendered. Following the war, Teller attempted to convince the senior scientists at Los Alamos to develop a thermonuclear weapon which would be more powerful than those used against Japan. However, he was not successful.
Read More: Timeline of Important Events of World War II
The Development of the Hydrogen Bomb
Teller left Los Alamos in 1946 and taught at the University of Chicago’s Institute for Nuclear Studies. He also worked as a consultant at Los Alamos. Three years later, in 1949, the Soviet Union started invading other Eastern European nations, including Teller’s home country of Hungary.
The Russians successfully tested their first atomic bomb and the President of the US, Harry S. Truman instructed the team at Los Alamos to create a fusion weapon. By 1952, the team had tested the first hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. Having previously advocated for the development of the hydrogen bomb after World War II, Teller felt justified in his initial request. However, many other scientists that had worked on the Manhattan Project, including Oppenheimer, strongly opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb and further nuclear proliferation. As a result, the scientists were split into two factions.
Relationship with Robert Oppenheimer
The division among the scientists at Los Alamos made it nearly impossible to work together on the development of future nuclear weapons. Teller felt that it would be better to work at a more independent lab and sought the support of the US Congress to establish another lab. His calls were fruitful and the second institution, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, was established in California, where he was appointed director.
Despite the separation, Teller’s relationship with Oppenheimer continued to sour, especially after the latter was accused of being a communist and disloyal to the United States. Teller’s act of testifying against Oppenheimer at his hearing made him controversial and unpopular within the scientific community.
Although Teller never directly accused his former colleague, Oppenheimer’s security clearance was waived. Many scientists blamed Teller for playing a role in the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance after calling him a “security risk”, especially since Oppenheimer had initially rejected his requests for a thermonuclear development program.
Later Years: Death & Legacy
In his later years, the physicist still continued to support the US having a strong national defense system. He also wrote several books, including “Basic Concepts of Physics” and “The Pursuit of Simplicity.” Most of his books were written on nuclear energy and defense.
He served as a senior research fellow from 1975 at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute for the Study of War, Revolution and Peace.
Edward Teller died at the age of 95 in 2003. The scientist had outlived his wife Augusta H. Teller, who died from lung disease in 2000.
Throughout his life, Teller was faced with a lot of criticism, especially for his part in the development of nuclear weapons, earning him a “mad scientist” reputation. He received one of the first satirical Ig Nobel Peace Prizes for his “lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it.” In director Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film, “Dr Strangelove”, Teller was rumored to have been the inspiration behind the titular main character.
Despite his critics, he won several awards, including the 1958 Albert Einstein Award, the 1980 Eringen Medal, the 1983 National Medal of Science, and the 1989 Presidential Citizen’s Medal.
The physicist was a member of several scientific bodies, including the US National Academy of Sciences, the American Nuclear Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The asteroid, 5006 Teller, was named after him. Two months before his death, the physicist received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George Walker Bush. Along with the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honor in the United States.
Edward Teller: Fast Facts
Born: January 15, 1908
Place of birth: Budapest, Austria-Hungary
Died: September 9, 2003
Parents: Max and Illona Teller
Education: University of Leipzig, University of Munich, University of Karlsruhe
Spouse: Augusta Maria Harkanyi
Most famous for: Development of the hydrogen bomb
Notable Honors: Presidential Medal of Freedom, Enrico Fermi Award, Eringen Medal, National Medal of Science