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Megaton Man


In late 1951, on an overnight train from Chicago to Washington, Edward Teller dreamed that he was alone, in a battlefield trench like the ones that had so terrified him as a child in Hungary during the war. The nine men attacking his position exceeded by one the eight bullets in his rifle—a cold mathematical analysis even in the confused and foggy world of a nightmare.

Teller’s dream might be simply related to anxiety over his impending report to a subcommittee of the Atomic Energy Commission, where he was lobbying for the creation of a new weapons laboratory. Yet more deeply the dream expresses a lifelong sense of being embattled, besieged, alone in a righteous struggle against his many enemies and the forces of evil. Teller remembers being insulted by his ninth- grade mathematics teacher when he correctly answered a question based on material not yet covered in class. “What are you? A repeater?” said the teacher. The boy prodigy was never called on again, even when he was the only one to raise his hand. While working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, where he pursued his own projects rather than his team’s assignments, Teller “slowly came to realize…that my views differed from those held by the majority” in his fear of Communist Russia and in his fierce support of an overwhelming American military superiority extending far beyond World War II.

Soon Teller’s friendship with Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe, both eminent colleagues at Los Alamos, soured as they engaged in mutual criticism, a pattern that was to repeat itself throughout Teller’s life. After the successful construction of the atomic bomb and the end of the war, when Oppenheimer, Bethe, and many other physicists returned to university teaching and peacetime work, Teller felt that he was a lone voice in pushing the development of the hydrogen bomb; leading scientists, he believed, were “trying to prove a hydrogen bomb impossible.” He much resented Norris Bradbury, the new director of the Los Alamos weapons laboratory (replacing Oppenheimer), for dragging his feet on the hydrogen weapon, called “the Super” because of its potentially unlimited power and destructiveness; he claimed that Carson Mark, the new head of the theory division (the position Bethe had held), “made it a practice to needle me in a subtle manner.” Everywhere Teller turned, it seemed, were enemies and suspicions.

Teller’s fragile link to his colleagues was finally broken by his hugely unpopular testimony against Robert Oppenheimer in the McCarthy-era hearings of 1954, which deprived the brilliant and charismatic Oppenheimer of his security clearance and forever excommunicated Teller from most of the scientific community. Shortly after the hearings, when Teller spotted a longtime physicist friend at a meeting and hurried over to greet him, “he looked me coldly in the eye, refused my hand, and turned away.” Twice before, oppressive governments and anti-Semitism had driven Teller into exile, from Hungary in early 1926 and from Germany in 1933. “Now, at forty-seven,” he recalls, “I was again forced into exile.” Years later, after countless political intrigues, after battling with scientists and politicians alike for his proposed projects ranging from nuclear energy to nuclear explosives for excavations to an antimissile defense system, Teller writes that he finally learned a slogan for life: “Trust nobody.”

Of the great physicists who ushered in the modern age of the atom, only three remain: Edward Teller, age ninety-four, Hans Bethe, age ninety-five, and John Wheeler, age ninety. Gone are Ernest Rutherford, James Chadwick, Niels Bohr, Werner Hei-senberg, Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Eugene Wigner, Enrico Fermi, and many others. Compared to Teller, the meticulous Bethe and the self-effacing Wheeler have lived quiet lives in a monastery. In his towering public persona and impact, Teller is equaled by only a handful of twentieth-century scientists: Albert Einstein, Linus Pauling, and James Watson among them. In his siege mentality and violent controversies, Teller stands alone. One of the creators of the new quantum physics, a principal architect of the hydrogen bomb, founder and guiding force of the giant Livermore weapons laboratory, passionate advocate of nuclear power and antimissile defense, hypnotic teacher and lecturer, amateur pianist and performer of Beethoven and Bach, student of Plato—Edward Teller, whatever one’s attitude toward his politics, his bullying tactics and prevarications, must be regarded as a man of vision and staggering accomplishments.

An incident in 1962, which Teller proudly relates, illustrates his power. The occasion was his invitation to the Southern Governor’s Conference to argue against the pending Limited Test Ban Treaty. (Throughout his career, Teller staunchly opposed all nuclear weapons treaties.) On his arrival in Arkansas, barely awake from yet another night on a train, the Hungarian physicist was informed that President Kennedy had sent a worried message to the governors protesting Teller’s presentation on the grounds that there was no one at the conference to rebut him. Elsewhere, Teller credits the huge weapons stockpile he helped to create with preventing World War III. Now, crippled with arthritis and suffering from macular degeneration, Teller writes: “I am not about to stop working; I still have many projects to complete and an infinite number of problems to address.”

His new memoir, far more comprehensive than his 1962 The Legacy of Hiroshima, testifies to his astonishing stamina and mental facility, as well as sharp wit. Some of the recollections in Memoirs are directly contradicted by the accounts of other people; some are merely embroidered or skewed. Fortunately, a host of critical accounts, such as Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun and William Broad’s Teller’s War, and a great many documents allow us to make some judgment about the real Edward Teller. What I have come away with, after sifting through the numerous inconsistencies and contradictions, is that there are two Edward Tellers. There is a warm, vulnerable, honestly conflicted, idealistic Teller, and there is a maniacal, dangerous, and devious Teller. Moreover, like Dr. Jekyll, Teller is disturbingly aware of his darker side. Indeed, that self-awareness, visible in Memoirs even beneath its fabrications and self-congratulation, is what accounts for Edward Teller’s angst and gives him his true tragic proportions.


Edward Teller was born on January 15, 1908, in Budapest. His father was a lawyer and associate editor of the major law journal of Hungary. In a footnote, Teller comments that his father, a quiet and reserved man, “did all of the routine work” on the journal while the chief editor “added the flair.” One cannot refrain from speculating whether Teller’s own later style, avoiding routine work and spraying out original ideas, might have been some unconscious reaction against the tedium of his father’s life.

Teller recalls that “finding the consistency of numbers is the first memory I have of feeling secure.” That security was challenged again and again. When the Communists briefly took over Hungary in 1919, Teller’s father was considered a capitalist and the family became social outcasts. This ordeal was the eleven-year-old Teller’s first taste of communism. Years later, in 1939, Teller’s hatred of communism became fierce when his friend the Russian physicist Lev Landau was sent to prison by Stalin for imagined disloyalty and emerged a year later a broken man. And in 1962, at the height of the cold war, Teller would write: “In Russian Communism we have met an opponent that is more powerful, more patient, and incomparably more dangerous than German Nazism.”

Teller detested his years at high school, where his classmates laughed at him and nicknamed him Coco, meaning a simpleminded clown. When Teller wanted to transfer to another school, he was turned down because he was not Catholic. “I began to wonder whether being a Jew really was synonymous with being an undesirably different kind of person.”

The young Teller became possessed by science. In the fall of 1929, he moved to Leipzig to begin his doctoral work under Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics and already a legend at age twenty-seven. Here, Teller joined an international group of twenty eager young men. Once a week, Heisenberg’s disciples met for an evening of ping-pong, chess, and tea. Seven days a week, they argued about physics, art, and life.

Teller and Heisenberg formed a close bond. The mentor and his apprentice took turns playing preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavichord on the excellent grand piano in Heisenberg’s apartment. After World War II, when most of the scientific community harshly condemned Heisenberg for his attempt to build an atomic bomb for the Nazis, Teller alone claimed that Heisenberg was innocent, writing generously and perhaps naively that “it is inconceivable to me that Heisenberg would ever have pursued such a [weapon]. He loved his country, but he hated the Nazis.”

During the next few years Teller married his childhood sweetheart, spent a year in Copenhagen working with the great Niels Bohr, and a couple of years at University College London. In his memories of these early scientific associations, Teller shows himself to be a keen observer of people, including himself. Teller, and indeed all physicists, revered Bohr, the father of the first quantum model of the atom, a gentle man who spoke so softly that he could scarcely be heard:

Bohr invented paradoxes because he loved them. I imagine that I understand those paradoxes, but I failed to understand Bohr. In human terms, understanding means being able to put yourself in the place of a fellow being. In those terms, I can understand Heisenberg; if my abilities were much greater than they are, I could imagine myself in his position. In no way can I imagine myself in Bohr’s place.

Two recollections of this youthful period in Copenhagen reveal Teller’s recognition of his own hotheaded nature and his tendency to inflate the truth, problems that would cause him and others grave difficulties throughout his life. When Teller once pointed out a silly overstatement that Bohr had made in a casual remark, the Danish physicist replied: “If I can’t exaggerate, I can’t talk.” The ninety-four-year-old memoirist Teller writes: “I have quoted [Bohr] in many discussions in defending my own right to exaggerate.” But Teller’s exaggerations would be of more consequence, linked as they were to the nuclear arms race and costing billions of dollars. Teller recalls discussing Aristotle’s classification of different types of personality with Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, a German physicist who was later to work with Heisenberg on the German A-bomb. “Carl Friedrich,” he writes, “correctly named me, not as sanguine as some of my critics have claimed, nor as melancholic, as I sometimes feel, but as choleric, a flaw I struggled against in my youth.”

At the invitation of the physicist George Gamow, Teller came, in 1935, to the United States, where he would spend the rest of his life, first at George Washington University for five years, then at the University of Chicago, the Los Alamos Laboratory, the Livermore Laboratory, Berkeley, and finally the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford. In 1935, quantum mechanics was still a new discipline, the key to understanding the atom, and Teller was one of perhaps a hundred theoretical physicists in the world who were steeped in the subject. Already, he had done pioneering calculations of the structure and vibrations of molecules.

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