'Judging Edward Teller'

January 31, 2011

Hungarian-born physicist Edward Teller was among the great scientists of the 20th century, but his legacy is, at best, a checkered one. Made famous by his work on thermonuclear weapons -- Teller is known as the "father of the hydrogen bomb" -- Teller gained notoriety when he testified against his former colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer in the hearing that ultimately cost Oppenheimer his security clearance. Teller continued to embroil himself in controversy -- generally pertaining to thermonuclear weapons and other defense issues -- throughout his life.

In his new book, Judging Edward Teller (Prometheus Books), Istvan Hargittai explores Teller's life and his place in history, attempting to situate him as neither cold war hero nor irredeemable villain. Hargittai, who is professor of chemistry and head of the George A. Olah Ph.D. School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, answered Inside Higher Ed's e-mailed questions about his book.

Q: A great deal has already been written about Edward Teller. What prompted you to write about him -- and what does your book reveal that earlier works on Teller do not?

A: A few years ago I published a book about five Hungarian-American scientists [known as the Martians of Science] who contributed greatly to science and to the defense of the United States and the Free World. Edward Teller was one of them and I found him the most controversial. Moreover, although generally I have found the American people very tolerant, I have experienced considerable intolerance whenever Teller came up in conversation. People either hated him or admired him. And I could not find any balanced treatment of his oeuvre and life. Besides, there were many similarities in our backgrounds that added to my impression that I could provide such a balanced treatment. In my work I used a large amount of archival material that nobody had studied before me and that enhanced the reliability of my book.

Q: The appropriate relationship between science and politics -- and the involvement of scientists in politics -- has long been the subject of controversy. What light does Teller's story shed on this issue?

A: Teller himself advocated that the scientist’s duty ends with having made the discovery and it was up to society -- through its elected representatives -- to decide whether or not to use it and to what purpose. He then violated his own maxim throughout his life, as he did everything he could to influence the decisions of society. One of the lessons I learned from Teller’s story is that scientists have an added responsibility in helping society in making an informed decision, because scientists know so much more about the intricacies of modern science. However, this should not be done by directly influencing the politicians in their decision-making. Rather, scientists should help society becoming versed in the basics of modern science and informed about the possibilities and impacts of scientific discoveries.

Q: You write that deciding whether it was "right or wrong for science to serve war," in Laura Fermi's words, was a "crossroads" of sorts for Teller. What is your own position on this question?

A: The Martians were willing to put their scientific careers at risk when they took an active role in the defense of the United States and the Free World, and they deserve our admiration for this. I am not saying that science should serve war in general; I think it is right for scientists to contribute to the defense of democracy and the Free World.

Q. Should Teller have been awarded a Nobel Prize? If so, for which achievement -- and why wasn't he?

A: Had Teller been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics or in Chemistry, nobody would have been surprised because his contributions to these sciences equaled those of many of the Nobel laureates. Still he was not among the very top contributors to 20th-century science. As for the Nobel Peace Prize, he might have shared it with Andrei Sakharov for the hydrogen bomb. Neither of them would have deserved it alone, but the two superpowers both having possessed the hydrogen bomb made it possible to maintain peace for decades through the terrible policy of the mutual assured destruction (MAD). Note that Sakharov received the Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights activities, and that award he deserved to receive alone.

Q: You write that you believe Teller's "influence may have been overrated." In what ways do you think this is the case, and why?

A: Teller has been ascribed the decisions by the United States to develop the hydrogen bomb and to institute the Strategic Defense Initiative. However, Teller did not decide to develop the hydrogen bomb, President Truman did, and Teller did not decide to introduce SDI, President Reagan did. Ascribing these decisions to Teller means overrating his influence.

Q: If Teller's influence has indeed been overrated, why is it so important to continue discussing him?

A: Although Teller did not make the decisions for the United States, he had an extraordinary influence in the decision-making process. In case of the hydrogen bomb, he was the most vocal among a small group of scientists who recognized the dangers of letting the Soviet Union unilaterally gain possession of this most terrible weapon with the possibility of then blackmailing the Free World. In the case of SDI, Teller was the only scientist at the highest level who supported President Reagan’s SDI. This in itself deserves further scrutiny. But investigating and understanding Teller’s role has broader significance. In our modern world, whether it is weapons or other consequences of new achievements of science and technology, we are looking for the best ways of how scientists and governments should interact. Teller’s career contains important lessons in this respect.

Q: You conclude that it was "controversy and scorn -- deserved and undeserved -- that would form [Teller's] legacy." To what extent, in your view, are the controversy and scorn deserved, and to what extent not?

A: My whole book is about this, so I only give you a few examples here, but they are sufficiently weighty to illustrate my point.

First about scorn deserved: he was very subjective and arbitrary in his personal relations and had a tendency to destroy his opponents or whom he perceived as hindering the accomplishment of his goals. He belittled the hazards of fallout from nuclear tests and ridiculed those who called attention to its dangers. At the same time he considered birth defects (from the fallout that he so famously belittled) an acceptable price for scientific progress.

Example of scorn he did not deserve: for his advocacy of the development of the hydrogen bomb. At the time of the great debate among American scientists, in 1949, whether or not to advise the administration to develop the hydrogen bomb it was not known whether or not the Soviet Union would develop such a weapon. Today we know that at the time of the debate, the Soviets were already working on it. So, looking back, Teller deserves credit for pushing for the hydrogen bomb rather than condemnation for ostensibly forcing an unnecessary and devastating weapon onto the United States.

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