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If you like Edward Teller's story, you might also like:
Freeman Dyson,
Murray Gell-Mann,
Leon Lederman,
Paul MacCready,
Paul H. Nitze,
Linus Pauling,
Norman Schwarzkopf,
Glenn Seaborg,
Charles Townes
and Elie Wiesel

Edward Teller also appears in the videos:
Science and Public Policy: Dawn of the Atomic Age and Nuclear Proliferation,

From Student to Scientist: My Life in Science,

Related Links:
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

PBS

atomicarchive

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Edward Teller
 
Edward Teller
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Edward Teller Interview

Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

September 30, 1990
Palo Alto, California

Print Edward Teller Interview Print Interview

  Edward Teller

You were there, at the Trinity site in New Mexico, when the first atomic bomb was tested. If you could take us back to that morning of July 16, 1945, what were you thinking? What did you feel when the bomb went off?


Edward Teller: We had a countdown that stopped -- where I was, ten miles from point zero -- at minus 30 seconds. Then silence. A long time. I was sure it misfired. I was lying on the ground as instructed, looking at it -- not as instructed -- (wearing) heavy welding glass. And then, at the right time -- or, I thought it was too late -- it was early in the morning, quite dark -- a very weak amount of light. I remember clearly, in the first second, my thought was, "Is this all?" Then I remembered I had this heavy welding glass on, and gloves, so no light could enter. So when this light -- maybe in two seconds -- started to fade, I tipped my hand and looked down at the sand. And you know, it was as though I had removed a curtain and bright sunlight came in. Then I was impressed. Then I saw the brilliant flash. Not looking at it, but looking at the sand next to me. And of course we all were very much aware of the point that, in a few weeks, this would not be just an experiment. And some of us, including me, did have real doubts whether this should be used without first demonstrating it.


Edward Teller Interview Photo


Talking about that moment, your fellow scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had led the project to build the bomb, quoted the Bhagavad-Gita: "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Does that capture the moment for you? How do you feel about that?


Edward Teller: I was, of course, very much impressed.


The feeling strongest in me at the time was one of worry. What will happen when this is used in earnest? To my mind, the quote from Oppenheimer is a remarkable example of the conceit of scientists, the idea that they create something new, the lack of recognition that all they do is find something that is already there. To discover is enough. To claim to be the source of something new, or imply it in any way is, I think, very thoroughly wrong.


See the first atomic detonations and hear J. Robert
Oppenheimer, leader of the top-secret Manhattan Project
describe his own reaction to the first atomic blast.


What we did in Los Alamos is to make sure that the United States would be the first to do something with this new power. We feared it would be the Nazis. But because of our efforts -- and I believe in part because of Heisenberg's reluctance, in part because of the lack of strength in Germany -- that fortunately did not happen. But we know that a great Soviet scientist, Kurchatov, had made great progress on the atomic bomb. And when our success made it clear that all this was possible, it took the Soviets, who in many other respects were much more slow, only four more years to catch up with us. What we did in Los Alamos, in fact, was make sure that the United States, rather than the Soviet Union, would have the first words to say in the atomic age. And there I think is an influence that we really did exercise, and it is very clear that what we did is something that had to be done.


How did you first become interested in science? Were you interested in science as a child?


Edward Teller: When I was maybe five years old -- maybe not yet five years old -- it is one of my earliest memories, that I was supposed to go to sleep and didn't. And I invented a game. I don't know how unique it is, I don't know how many other children ever did that, but I played with numbers. Of course, nobody ever told me to do such a crazy thing. I knew that there are 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in an hour, and 24 hours in a day, and 365 days in a year. I knew that. The circumstance that I knew it at that time -- I don't know why I should have known it, but I knew it. And I was trying to find out how many seconds in an hour, or in a day, or in a year. And that of course, obviously, I did in my head. And furthermore, quite naturally, I got different answers every time I did it. And that made the game more interesting.


I don't know why I did that, but I know I did it. And now, in the last years, I have started to puzzle why. That was the beginning of my interest, about that there can be no question. But where did that come from? I have an answer. I don't know whether it is the right answer.


I had a bilingual education. My mother spoke German much better than Hungarian. Her father's name was Deutsch. The books in our house, the literary books, were German. My father's German was quite poor. His legal books, of course, were Hungarian. I was taught German and Hungarian at the same time. The earliest words I remember is a mixture of the two. I am told that I did not speak until I was three years old, and then I spoke in complete sentences. Now I could try to pretend that I did not speak until I had something to say. In a way, this may be even true, in the sense that, to begin with, I'm sure I must have been awfully confused in what all these people talked about, using different sounds for the same objects. I did not catch on. The one thing with which I felt familiar were numbers. There, at least, was something that hung together.


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This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:32 EDT