Edward Teller

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Edward Teller was an eminent and controversial theoretical physicist. He was born as Teller Ede in Budapest (Hungary) on January 15, 1908. He died in his home on the Stanford campus (Palo Alto, California) on September 9, 2003. He had been a senior research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution since 1975 when he retired as professor of the University of California, Berkeley and as associate director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Edward Teller was one of the most controversial scientists of the 20th century because of his role as an advocate and conceptual designer of the hydrogen bomb, his outspoken defense of an unassailable nuclear arsenal, and support for President Reagan's Strategic Defensive Initiative ("Star Wars") ballistic missile defense program. During the McCarthy era he alienated many of his colleagues by his testimony in the 1954 security clearance hearings of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his former colleague and director of the Los Alamos Laboratory.


Edward Teller was born to Max Teller and Idona Deutsch, who both were assimilated Hungarian Jews. Edward's mother Idona was an accomplished pianist who gave up her aspirations to a concert career when she married Edward's father, who was a lawyer. As a young boy Edward experienced a short and fierce communist dictatorship under Béla Kun (March 21, 1919 – August 1, 1919); it has been suggested that his rabid aversion of communism in later life was rooted in this experience. The Hungarian communists were soon ousted by Rear Admiral Miklós Horthy who headed a fascist regime until the end of World War II.

In 1918 Edward entered the famous gymnasium "Minta" ("Model"; an advanced German type of high school founded by the father of Theodore von Kármán), where he met his later wife Augusta Maria ("Mici") Harkányi, who was a sister of one of Edward's closest school friends. The Harkányis were from Jewish descent but had converted to Calvinism. After finishing the gymnasium, Edward spent a few months at the university in Budapest, but January 2, 1926 he moved to Karlsruhe in Germany to study chemical engineering. Karlsruhe was at that time the seat of one of the most outstanding technical universities of the country; especially its chemical engineering was strong because of its close cooperation with I.G. Farben, in those days world's largest chemical company. In April 1928 Edward left the field of chemical engineering and moved to Munich to study theoretical physics under Arnold Sommerfeld, a great mathematical physicist who made important contributions to the development of quantum mechanics. Shortly after his arrival in Munich, Edward jumped off a moving trolleybus, stumbled, and got his right foot ran over by three cars of the trolley. The doctors were unable to save his foot, so for the rest of his life he had a prosthetic one, that did not keep him from being an able table tennis player. He also was a very good pianist.

When, after four months, Edward had recovered, he decided to switch universities again, mainly because he was disappointed by the personality of Sommerfeld, who was formal and distant, and to go to Leipzig to do his Ph.D. work under Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, who a year earlier had been appointed in Leipzig to the chair of theoretical physics. He finished his doctorate work in a period of just over a year and got his degree in January 1930, around his 22nd birthday. His Ph.D. work, on the excited states of the one-electron system H2+, gave rise to his first publication.[1]

Young scientist

After obtaining his doctorate Teller moved to the birth place of quantum mechanics, the University of Göttingen. In first instance he was hired by Arnold Thomas Eucken, the professor of physical chemistry, but later he received a cross-appointment with the group of James Franck in the physics department. In Göttingen, Teller worked mainly on subjects in theoretical molecular physics. For instance, with the Russian physicist Georg Rumer (Yurij Borisovich Rumer) and the German mathematician Hermann Weyl he wrote about chemical bonding theory from the point of view of group theory.[2] He worked with the German experimental spectroscopist Gerhard Herzberg on the effect of the vibrations of molecules on electronic transitions, which was one of the first papers that went beyond the Born-Oppenheimer approximation.[3] With the Czech physicist George Placzek he worked on the theory of Raman spectra.[4] He advised a Göttingen student, Rudolph Renner, on his Ph.D. research. This resulted in a paper (without Teller) about an effect that later came to be known as the Renner-Teller effect.

In the early spring of 1933 all Jewish personnel of all German universities were fired, including Teller. He found a lecturer position at the Sir William Ramsay Laboratories of Physical and Inorganic Chemistry, University College London. Soon after his appointment he went on leave to Copenhagen (Denmark) on a Rockefeller grant. It was because of his appointment in London that a Rockefeller stipend could be granted to him—the Rockefeller foundation required recipients to have a permanent position. He stayed close to a year in Copenhagen working at the institute of Niels Bohr. During this period, Eduard (as he called himself at that time) married his old girlfriend Mici Harkányi in Budapest on February 26, 1934. Back in London in September 1934, Teller met Hermann Jahn, a British physicist of German descent, who worked at the Royal Institution. The two wrote a paper together containing material that may well be Teller's most famous contribution to basic science: the Jahn-Teller effect.[5] Briefly, the effect is that a highly symmetric non-linear molecule distorts to a geometry of lower symmetry when the electronic state of the molecule is degenerate, that is, when there is more than one electronic wave function describing the same state of the molecule. The distortion of the molecular geometry causes the degeneracy to be lifted.

Move to the USA

Soon after his return to London, Teller received an invitation to become full professor at George Washington University. His friend, the Russian emigré George Gamow, at that time professor of physics at this university, had recommended him to the university authorities, who were looking for an expansion of their physics department with a few theoreticians. After some deliberation—Mici and Edward had just signed a six-year lease on a house in London—they decided to cross the Atlantic and to continue their life in the US. The Tellers settled in Washington D.C., where they arrived in August 1935. Immediately Edward started a fruitful cooperation with George Gamow. In 1936 they published an important work in nuclear physics about—what is now known as—the Gamow-Teller decay of nuclei.[6] The work was followed by several astrophysical papers on red giants and rates of thermonuclear reactions occurring in stars.

In the summer of 1939, while Teller was teaching summer courses in physics at Columbia University in New York, he again met his old Hungarian friends Leo Szilárd and Eugene Wigner. The three physicists were quite excited about the recent discovery (December 1938) of nuclear fission (splitting of nuclei) and especially Szilárd foresaw the possibility of nuclear chain reactions that would liberate enormous amounts of energy. The three Jewish Hungarians decided that the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt should be informed about the possibility and capacity of the atomic bomb, especially because Nazi Germany could be expected to build one. They judged that Einstein, with his enormous prestige, would be the person to write a letter to the president. First Szilárd and Wigner visited Einstein, who was summering on Long Island, and when a second visit to Einstein appeared necessary, Teller drove Szilárd to Einstein and took notes (in German) and edited the letter. This letter, translated by Teller and Wigner and undersigned by Einstein, was handed on October 11, 1939 to the president by Alexander Sachs, a personal friend of the president. Historians are divided about the influence that Einstein's letter had on the decision to start the Manhattan Project two years later. For instance, Abraham Pais, an important biographer of Einstein's, believes that its influence was "marginal".[7]

On March 4, 1941 after Hitler had occupied much of Europe and a few months before he ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Tellers became US citizens.

Atomic bomb

In 1941 Teller moved to Columbia University to cooperate with Enrico Fermi on nuclear fission and in the early summer of 1942 he joined Fermi at the University of Chicago to work on the world's first nuclear reactor; Fermi had switched from Columbia to Chicago in April of that year. In June 1942, Teller was invited together with other prominent theoretical physicists to be part of Robert Oppenheimer's top secret summer seminar, an early stage of the Manhattan Project that was taking place in Berkeley. The participants reviewed the general theory of fission reactions, quickly concluded that a fission bomb was feasible, and provided the theoretical basis for the design of such a bomb. The conference convinced Oppenheimer of the benefits of having a single centralized laboratory to manage the research for the bomb project rather than having specialists spread out at different places across the United States. After Oppenheimer had found a remote site in New Mexico at Los Alamos suitable for the laboratory that he—as scientific director—would create, the work on the construction of the atomic bomb started in earnest. In April 1943 the Tellers moved as one of the first families to Los Alamos where Edward became group leader in the Theoretical Physics division. However, even at this early stage, Teller's obsession with the fusion bomb caused tensions with others, particularly with Hans Bethe, the division leader who pragmatically aimed for the development of a fission bomb before he would even contemplate the use of thermonuclear fusion reactions for weapons. Because of his obsession with thermonuclear weapons ("hydrogen bombs"), Teller's contributions to the development of the atomic bomb turned out to be less than could be expected from a man with his extraordinary talents.

After the atomic bomb explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki (August 1945) had ended the war with Japan, Teller left Los Alamos on the first of February 1946 to return to the University of Chicago where he would cooperate with Enrico Fermi and Maria Goeppert-Mayer; he remained lab consultant, however. The new director of Los Alamos, Norris Bradbury—who had succeeded Oppenheimer after the war—had offered Teller to stay on, but since the Los Alamos policy decision was made not to initiate a crash program on the development of thermonuclear bombs, Teller preferred to leave and return to basic science.

Hydrogen bomb

For more information, see: Fusion device.
See also: Teller-Ulam design

By the summer of 1942, theoreticians in the Manhattan Project, notably Hans Bethe and Teller, believed that the design of a fission device was moving well under Robert Serber and his colleagues, and they turned their attention to fusion, considered a distraction by some. By the end of the summer, J. Robert Oppenheimer merged the theoretical group, called the "luminaries", with Serber's, to focus on what was becoming seen as a major effort. Teller, however, continued to have fusion as his major interest, and contributed relatively little to the Manhattan Project[8]

Almost a year after the end of WW II a secret conference was held at Los Alamos on April 18-20, 1946, in which the properties of thermonuclear fuels, such as deuterium and tritium, and a design by Teller of a thermonuclear device (the "Super") were discussed. Ironically, one of the participants in this seminar was Klaus Fuchs, who later turned out be a Soviet spy. All participants agreed that the ignition of the deuterium requires so much energy that it can only be delivered by a conventional atomic bomb.

But it was also concluded that prohibitive amounts of the very rare and expensive isotope tritium would be needed to start a fusion chain reaction of deuterium nuclei. Shortly after the conference, Teller drafted a conference report that came to an overly optimistic conclusion, saying that a hydrogen bomb was feasible, and that its development must be part of the highest national policy. The government, however, did not comply; for several years after the war no developmental work on thermonuclear devices was carried out in the USA.

In the late 1940s, many of Teller's colleagues of the physics department in Chicago had turned to the new field of elementary particle physics. This fundamental branch of physics did not appeal much to Teller whose taste of science had evolved toward applied problems, especially to those related to defense. After the Cold War broke out with the Berlin Blockade (June 1948 – May 1949) and Teller's country of birth was renamed the "People's Republic of Hungary" (May 15, 1949), meaning that it had become a communist state, Teller decided to return to the Los Alamos Laboratory. At first intending to spend a year on leave of absence from Chicago, he rejoined the laboratory staff in July 1949. A short time later the Western world was shocked by the explosion on the 29th of August 1949, of RDS-1, called "Joe-1" in the West, a 22 kiloton Soviet atomic bomb. President Truman, who did not want to seem to shoot from the hip, waited until January 31, 1950 before announcing that he had directed "the Atomic Energy Commission to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or super bomb." Although Teller could suspect that his design of the "super" would not work, he applauded the decision of the president.

At Los Alamos, Teller set Stanislaw Ulam and Cornelius Everett to work on model calculations of the super. During the summer of 1950 Enrico Fermi gave very insightful advice on these calculations. The conclusion of the computations was devastating to Teller: too much energy would escape the fusion fuel compartment, the super would simply smother out after ignition by an atomic bomb. Teller was furious and accused Ulam of obstruction. As related by a historian of the bomb project, Richard Rhodes, it occurred to Stan Ulam at the end of 1950 that deuterium under very high pressure might be explosive, a conclusion that Teller disputed.[9] Ulam thought of a design which he referred to as "hydrodynamic lenses and radiation mirrors" to concentrate the neutrons that are liberated during the explosion of the atomic bomb, so that they could provide the required pressure. After some hesitation, he told Teller of his idea. During their conversations Teller realized that the electromagnetic radiation escaping from the atomic bomb explosion would reach the fusion area before the neutrons and that X-rays could serve better the purpose of compressing the deuterium than a shock wave. The design of the hydrogen bomb that came out of these conversations was written up in a report dated March 9, 1951, and is usually called the Teller-Ulam design. According to Rhodes, Teller found it intolerable that someone shared credit for an invention that he, Teller, had been working and thinking on for about a decade.[9] Until the end of his life Teller gave interviews belittling Ulam's contribution and in his Memoirs, that appeared two years before his death, he denies flatly that Ulam's contribution was of any value.[10]

The Teller-Ulam design was the breakthrough that the thermonuclear program was waiting for and the Los Alamos lab immediately decided to implement it. A special team was formed of which Teller expected to be the leader. However, the Los Alamos director, Bradbury, appointed Marshall Holloway to lead it, mainly because he felt that Teller was too chaotic and unorganized to be a group leader. Angry and disappointed, Teller resigned and at the end of September 1951 he went to Berkeley, where he worked with Ernest Lawrence on establishing a rival national nuclear weapons laboratory. The laboratory was built in Livermore, California, 30 miles Southeast of Berkeley. It opened in 1952 and still exists; since 1971 it is called Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

In the meantime work in Los Alamos on the first thermonuclear device progressed steadily. The nuclear fuel of the device was liquid deuterium, which posed a technical challenge because it is only liquid (at moderate pressures) below −250°C. However, the technical problems were solved and the world's first thermonuclear explosion found place on Eniwetok atoll, November 1, 1952, 7:15 am local time. The power of the device, code named Ivy Mike, was about 10 million tons, about 800 Hiroshima bombs.

Although Teller was not involved in the engineering phases of Ivy Mike, he subtly claimed its fatherhood. When he saw in Berkeley on the seismograph that the explosion had actually taken place, he sent a telegram to Los Alamos with the content: "it is a boy". When people later called Teller the "father of the American hydrogen bomb," he did not object.

The Oppenheimer affair

Before World War II, J. Robert Oppenheimer, professor at Berkeley and Caltech, was a theoretical physicist of good reputation. Later in the war, he became scientific director of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in the Manhattan Project; friend and foe agree that he did a very good job in building up and managing this laboratory. He and Teller had known each other well at Los Alamos, although there was some friction between them about the lab's priority of fission over fusion weapons. After the war, Oppenheimer became one of America's most influential scientists. For a long time, he was chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission that advised the Truman Administration about atomic energy and atomic weapons policy. Oppenheimer had complete security clearance for these matters.

Following World War II, the U.S. was gripped with the Second Red Scare. And a particular fear of spies in the U.S. government spread after Klaus Fuchs was exposed as a Russian spy in January 1950. This fear was fueled by the demagogic senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, who publicly accused many Democratic politicians and employees in the Truman Administration to be members of the Communist Party and its spy ring. In this atmosphere of suspicion some of Oppenheimer's enemies—his sharp tongue had made him many—conspired and managed to bring him before a government investigative committee. At the hearing of April 28, 1954 Teller testified:[11]

In a great number of cases I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer act in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand. I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated. To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better and therefore trust more. In this very limited sense I would like to express a feeling that I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.

The security hearing declared Oppenheimer not guilty of treason but ruled that he should not have access to military secrets and revoked his security clearance. As a result, his contract as adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission was canceled. To Oppenheimer, this verdict was very humiliating. Practically all of Teller's physicist colleagues were upset by his testimony that they regarded as completely unfounded, subjective, and opinionated. Some of them, such as Nobel Prize winners Isidor Isaac Rabi and Hans Bethe, never forgave Teller for it.

In 1962, Teller received a very high award, administered by the U.S. government's Department of Energy, the Fermi Award. A year later, Oppenheimer received the same award. Teller, who was invited to attend the 1963 ceremony, went up to Oppenheimer after the ceremony and offered his hand, which Oppenheimer shook. Afterward, Oppenheimer wrote a short, polite, but standoffish, note to Teller.

Later Life

Teller lacked neither confidence nor humor. In a reminiscence after his death, John Bunzel, told of asking him, “Do you know the difference between God and Dr. Teller?”. “No,” he said. “God doesn’t think He’s Dr. Teller,” I replied. He laughed out loud and then quickly said, “God is right.”[12]

As mentioned above, Teller was instrumental in the creation of the United States' second nuclear-weapons laboratory that since 1971 is called the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). Others active in the founding of the LLNL were Ernest Lawrence, Herbert York (its first director), and some senior US Air Force figures. For almost the next four decades it was one of the two U.S. laboratories for designing thermonuclear weapons. Teller was associate director of Livermore from 1954 to 1958 and again from 1960 to 1975, and he was its director in 1958–60. At the same time, he was professor of physics at Berkeley from 1953 to 1960 and later was professor-at-large at the University of California. In 1975 he retired and was appointed Director Emeritus at LLNL and senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative policy institute, positions that he held until his death.[12]

Arms control

See also: Arms Control

A staunch anticommunist, Teller devoted much time in the 1960s to his crusade to keep the United States ahead of the Soviet Union in nuclear arms. He opposed the 1963 Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear-weapons testing in the atmosphere, and he was a champion of Project Plowshare, an unsuccessful federal government program to find peaceful uses for atomic explosives. In the 1970s, Teller remained a prominent government adviser on nuclear-weapons policy. Because his anti-communism led him to believed that arms control was a Soviet ploy, he opposed the 1963 Test-Ban Treaty, SALT I and SALT II, and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.[13]

Ballistic missile defense

During the Reagan Administration, he was a major influence in the president's proposal of the Strategic Defense Initiative, an attempt to create an anti-ballistic missile shield against nuclear attacks by the Soviet Union. For such a scheme, Teller proposed what he called third-generation nuclear weapons, designs that would amplify neutron and electromagnetic radiation liberated by thermonuclear explosions. In the 1980s, he advocated, as a key to a ballistic-missile defense, the development of space-born X-ray lasers driven by atomic bomb explosions. These ideas were both technically and politically unworkable and had little effect on the balance of power.[13]

Intelligence role

In 1968, Teller had informal discussions with Carl Duckett, then Deputy Director of Central Intelligence for Science and Technology, which led to the basic United States intelligence community assumptions about the Israeli nuclear program.[14] It was the weight of Teller's name, not any substantive information he had, which caused the intelligence community to forward their estimate of Israel having nuclear weapons to Lyndon B. Johnson.[15] As late as 1967, even though there had been substantial evidence of a nuclear program, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms would not authorize this information to go to the President. It was Teller's influence, not his providing hard information, that affected U.S. policy.


Teller received numerous awards during his career, including the Fermi award and the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him in 2003 by President George W. Bush. See Ref.[16] for a complete list.


Late in life, he had a series of strokes. "His hearing was seriously impaired, and he could no longer read because he had lost his eyesight. His mind, however, remained sharp and active. His dementia made it difficult for him to remember much of what happened yesterday, but he could recall in considerable detail what had occurred 50 years ago."[12] A final stroke killed him in Palo Alto, California, on September 9, 2003.


  1. Eduard Teller, Zeitschrift für Physik, Über das Wasserstoffmolekülion [On the hydrogen molecule ion], vol. 61, pp. 458–480 (1930)
  2. G. Rumer, E. Teller, and H. Weyl, Eine für die Valenztheorie geeignete Basis der binären Vektorinvarianten (A basis of binary vector invariants suitable for valence theory) Gött. Nachrichten, Math. Phys. Klassse, Sitzung am 28 Oktober p. 499 (1932)
  3. G Herzberg and E. Teller Schwingungsstruktur der Electronenübergange bei mehratomigen Molekülen (Vibrational structure of electronic transitions in polyatomic molecule), Z. Phys. Chemie B21, 410-446 (1933)
  4. G. Placzek and E. Teller, Die Rotationsstruktur der Ramanbanden mehratomiger Moleküle (The rotational structure of Raman bands of polyatomic molecules), Zeitschrift für Physik vol. 81 pp. 209-258 (1933)
  5. H. A. Jahn and E. Teller, Stability of Polyatomic Molecules in Degenerate Electronic States, Proc. Royal Soc. vol. 161, pp. 220–235 (1937)
  6. G. Gamow and E. Teller, Selection Rules for the β-Disintegration, Physical Review, vol. 49, pp. 895-899 (1936)
  7. A. Pais, Subtle is the Lord ..., Oxford University Press, Oxford UK (1982). p. 454
  8. Richard Rhodes (1986), The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Touchstone, ISBN 0684813785, pp. 415-421
  9. 9.0 9.1 Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995).
  10. S. Uchii contrasted Rhodes' version (given in Dark Sun) with Teller's version (given in Memoirs) of the invention of the H-bomb; S. Uchii, "online Review of Edward Teller's Memoirs," Philosophy and History of Science, Kyoto University Newsletter, vol. 52 (July 2003).
  11. Priscilla McMillan, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer: And the Birth of the Modern Arms Race (Viking, 2006), 213.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 John H. Bunzel (2004), "In Memoriam: Edward Teller: A Personal Remembrance", Hoover Digest
  13. 13.0 13.1 Harold Brown and Michael May, "Edward Teller in the Public Arena", Physics Today 57(8) (August 2004), 51–53 (DOI: 10.1063/1.1801868).
  14. Nuclear weapons Israel Website of the Federation of American Scientists. The site quotes several sources. (Retrieved February 1, 2010)
  15. Israel profile: Nuclear Chronology 1960-1969, Nuclear Threat Initiative (Retrieved February 1, 2010)
  16. LLNL page about Edward Teller listing his prizes and honorary degrees. Accessed: 2010-02-02. (Archived by WebCite® at [1])