Edward Teller, the Real Dr. Strangelove

He would be more vilified than any other American scientist in the 20th century, but he always dismissed his critics as naive or unpatriotic or unaware of what science actually is.

Aug 16 2013, 11:35pm

Edward Teller dreamed of nuclear devices that were bigger, smaller, faster, underground, powering airplanes and rockets, in orbit, on the moon, and always more of them. He would be more vilified than any other American scientist in the 20th century, but he always dismissed his critics as naive or unpatriotic or unaware of what science actually is. Scientists learned things and explored and built knowledge of the world. They weren't supposed to be responsible for the terrible things people in the world might do with that knowledge.

Still, he acknowledged his political motivations in staking a claim for nuclear weapons as the greatest deterrent. Amid Cold War paranoia and Soviet fears, the stakes were simply too high: for the free world, building the world-beating thermonuclear bomb was an unfortunate matter of life and death.

Teller pointed to his first-hand experience with tyranny. Before emigrating to America in the 1930s, he suffered under the Communists and then the Fascists, as they raised hell across Hungary. His scars weren’t just psychic: when he was studying at the University in Munich, Teller fell under a moving streetcar and lost his right foot, which was replaced with an artificial one. He hobbled for the rest of his life.

That only added to Teller’s “mad scientist” persona, one that would inspire Stanley Kubrick in the creation of Dr. Strangelove. Teller’s love for the bomb wasn’t the only thing that earned him the suspicion of the scientific community at large: Teller falsely insisted that Stanislaw Ulam, with whom he shares credit for the hydrogen bomb, made no significant contribution to the development of the weapon, and questioned the integrity of Robert Oppenheimer, who, as the father of the atomic bomb, was doubtful of the need for any larger weapons. Oppenheimer would lose his security clearance; Teller would lose his reputation. Nobel Prize winning physicist Isidor I. Rabi once said that “It would have been a better world without Teller.”

In 1949, after much hand-wringing, and over Oppenheimer's objections, President Harry Truman ordered the go-ahead on the hydrogen weapon. The decision had come after a string of nuclear detonations by the Soviet Union, and the revelation that Klaus Fuchs, a British scientist, had leaked early American hydrogen bomb designs to the Soviets. Teller would go to work at Los Alamos.

On November 1, 1952, the US would test "Ivy Mike," the first hydrogen bomb prototype, by blowing up an atoll in the Pacific Ocean called Enewetak. Teller would "witness" the test from a seismograph at his office in Berkeley, and would send a one-sentence telegraph back to his colleagues in New Mexico: "It's a boy." The Teller-Ulam design, which has never been fully declassified, is the basis of the nuclear weapons held by the five nuclear states—the US, the United Kingdom, China, France, and Russia.

An excerpt from "Dr. Teller's Very Large Bomb," courtesy of Michael Lennick and Foolish Earthling Productions.

Despite his love for the bomb and his petulant personality, Teller didn’t consider himself a war-mongerer. His zeal for the hydrogen bomb—by 1951, he had urged the US to run a dozen nuclear tests a year—didn't stem from a desire to kill armies but to end all nuclear war forever. One thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Teller’s bomb may be the only invention designed to make its own use obsolete. (In a time when countries are pursuing nuclear weapons of various kinds, that very idea is now considered obsolete.)

The debate over Teller’s legacy continues. His later years were characterized by a pursuit of other uses for nuclear weapons. He had pushed the US to launch Plowshare, a project that aimed to build canals and harbors using nuclear weapons, and urged President Reagan to launch the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as “Star Wars,” that would have launched nuclear-powered laser weapons into orbit.

Teller would dip into other areas of outlandish science—like geoengineering, in order to “give the earth a thermostat,” he said—but he also dreamed of other uses for nuclear too: he wanted to rocket bombs into the Moon for science, fly to Mars on nuclear engines, and use fusion, not fission, to create a limitless supply of nuclear energy—an endeavor that scientists are still pursuing today at the National Ignition Facility, which is located at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which Teller helped start.

In his 90s, Teller, then blind and reclusive and still living near the lab, worked with his former student, the engineer Ralph Moir, on one last project: designing a “safe” underground nuclear reactor that would run not on uranium but on thorium, a radioactive element that is all but unusable for building nuclear weapons. The final paper — published in 2005 in the journal Nuclear Technology—is one of many in recent years that have raised new interest in thorium (we profiled the movement in our 2011 documentary The Thorium Dream.)

Moir, who had studied under Teller at Berkeley and worked at Livermore, said that his former professor was dedicated to safer, proliferation-resistant nuclear power out of concern for the climate and the need to wean Earth off fossil fuels. But, Moir said, even while he pushed for more peaceful uses of nuclear power, Teller was not concerned about his legacy as the father of the hydrogen bomb, even if he thought that title was in poor taste. To the end, he insisted that he and other scientists were not morally responsible for their inventions.

Even if that idea conflicted with Teller’s own political convictions about the need for the bomb, it underscored a central paradox in science to this day — and made him the complex icon of the 20th century’s largest and most infamous scientific pursuit.