15 January 2008

The Real Dr. Strangelove

"Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret."
-Doctor Strangelove

On this date in 1908, Edward Teller was born.

The brilliant but eccentric Teller was born in Hungary, and was born with the name Teller Ede. His family was Jewish, and growing up in the politically tempestuous Hungary of the early 20th century made him deeply distrust totalitarian government. He studied under both Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr, and emigrated to the United States, along with his wife Mici. There he made several interesting breakthroughs, such as his prediction of Jahn-Teller distortions, and there he also began his interest in nuclear energy.

Teller joined the Manhattan Project in 1942. In an episode that speaks volumes about his level of confidence in his abilities, and hi scientific curiosity, he had a famous conversation with Fermi about the potential of the atomic bomb. They argued over whether an even more powerful blast would be possible by using atomic fission to set off a second fusion reaction. While the first atomic bomb was 3 years away, Teller had already begun imagining the Hydrogen bomb. He contributed in several ways to the development of the first atomic bomb, and always kept the H-bomb, or "Super" as he called it, in the back of his head.

He would go on to be known as the father of the H-bomb. The whole idea was largely ignored or marginalized until the Soviets tested an atomic bomb of their own. Teller's hydrogen bomb idea seemed like the obvious next step, and he was central in its design and execution.

Teller is remembered mainly for his H-bomb work, but is really a symbol of the optimism, sometimes blind, that we had towards atomic power in the 1950s and '60s. He was a leading advocate of peacetime uses for the atomic bomb, most famously recommending the use of a hydrogen bomb to create a deep-water port at Point Hope, Alaska. At some point in the early 1960s, cooler heads prevailed, but the plan, called Project Chariot, went farther than anyone likes to admit. He also pressed for the use of nuclear weapons in excavation for oil, a seemingly questionable bit of logic that also failed to see the light of day.

Teller remained a public figure well into the 1980s. In 1979, he took on what he perceived as an unfair attack on nuclear energy in the form of the film "The China Syndrome". He wrote an ad in the New York Times blasting Fonda and Ralph Nader for their rants against nuclear power, claiming that his tireless efforts against them had actually caused his heart attack. He wrote "You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg (referring to Three Mile Island). No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous."

Teller was a unique man, even among the eccentric brain trust that was the Manhattan Project. While many of his colleagues eventually saw the dangers of nuclear proliferation and became strong opponents of the use of nuclear weapons, he remained a stalwart supporter of them. He made enemies of Oppenheimer, Stanislaw Ulam, and Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi, among others, and his isolation made him that much easier to label a "mad scientist". But though I disagree with many of his views, to remember Edward Teller as "mad" would be grossly unfair. He was a fine physicist, a brilliant man, who believed that he was serving the cause of peace. I personally have always questioned the logic of peace through the most extreme destruction man has ever devised, but I also find it hard to imagine the terror of believing that a Nazi atomic bomb was possible, especially for an ethnic Jew from Hungary cursed with the knowledge of what such a device could do.

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