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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 (page: 2 / 5)

Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

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  Edward Teller

What did your parents make of your interest in numbers? Did they encourage you?


Edward Teller: When I was ten years old, my father, who had really no understanding of how and why I would be interested, did see that I was. And he had an older friend who was a retired mathematics professor. His name was Leopold Klug. And he is probably the man who had the greatest influence on my life. I did not see him often, half a dozen times, a dozen times. He was a retired mathematics professor, and he did two things. One is, he got me a book. The title was Algebra, the author was (Leonhard) Euler. Euler was a mathematician about whom it is said that in his passion to calculate, he went eventually blind. It was a very elementary book, starting from questions why to add, and why to multiply, and why minus one times minus one is plus one. All the way up to the solving of fifth order algebraic equations. The sixth order had not been solved at that time. And at the time of Euler, it was not known that the creations above the fifth order cannot be solved. That was shown much later, by a very young Frenchman, Pierre Galois. Klug gave me that book, and I read it. It was my favorite book.


He had a favorite subject, and that was projective geometry. Projective plane geometry. What happens if you take a drawing in a plane, and project it on another plane. What are the properties that remain unchanged? For instance, a line will remain a line. A triangle will remain a triangle. But an equilateral triangle will not remain an equilateral triangle. A circle may become a hyperbola. What is the similarity between these curves? What remains unchanged? I was ten years old, and the problems that came up were too difficult for me to solve, but not too difficult to understand. And there was a human element in it which impressed me.


I found that the grown-ups had a terrible time, everybody got tired of what he was doing. Klug was the first grown-up whom I met who loved what he was doing, who did not get tired, and who even enjoyed explaining things to me. That I think is when I made up my mind, very firmly, that I wanted to do something that I really did want to do. Not for anyone else's sake, not for what it may lead to, but because of my inherent interest in the subject.

[ Key to Success ] Passion


Edward Teller Interview Photo
I knew one other exception in the whole world to the rule that grown-ups were unhappy. My mother played the piano beautifully. She really wanted to be a concert pianist and she really wanted me to become a concert pianist, as a kid. Practicing piano was much too hard. Multiplying numbers was not.

Were there particular teachers in school who inspired or encouraged you?

Edward Teller: My interest in mathematics was soon discouraged. It so happened that we had a very good math teacher, who was a Communist. I remember having learned from him something that I never forget: the rule of nines. A simple point: you add up the numerals in a number, and if the original number was divisible by nine, then the sum of the figures also is. For instance, you take a number like 243. Two and four and three is nine. Therefore, 243 must be divisible by nine. Actually it is nine times 27. The rule is interesting because it's so simple. What was really interesting to us ten-year-olds is that our math teacher proved it. The proof is not terribly difficult, but it was one of the first simple and not quite obvious mathematical proofs that I encountered. That actually was a little before I read Euler's Algebra.


The Communists took over for a few months in Hungary, and our math teacher talked about some very strange things, which sounded strange to me, which I can't say I liked. I can't say that I passionately disliked them, but he was replaced as a teacher by a Fascist. And he was completely uninterested in mathematics, but interested in how to write equations so that the writing should be easily legible. I did learn something from him. I think my writing slightly improved. But my school mathematics vanished in a hurry, for which I blame him, only part. Because a real interest should not have been stopped that easily.


I got interested in reading fantastic stories like Jules Verne, and I got interested even more in reading about technology. After a few years, I also got interested in the lectures on physics. I had started to read Einstein's relativity, and did not quite understand what it was all about. I went to the teacher and he asked me to bring him the book. I brought it to him and I didn't see the book again for a year. When I passed the final examination, the teacher gave the book back, and said, "All right, now you can read it." This time I read it and I did understand it.


There was an absence in our teaching system, as there is, I believe, in most high school teaching systems, to consider mathematics and science as exact. "It is so, it is provable, it is indubitable!" All of it is true. But it misses the point. The interesting thing in the exact sciences is what is not yet known, what is in doubt, and that process of doubt, of contradiction, which actually occurs as science changes from century to century, should be reproduced in every student's mind. And I think, as a matter of fact, it is being reproduced in every good student's mind.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


Edward Teller Interview Photo
By the time I finished high school, I knew what I wanted to be, and that was a mathematician. My father had a very different opinion. He thought that in mathematics, as a university professor, it was impossible to make a living unless you are quite exceptional. I had to study something real. We settled on a compromise. I was to study chemical engineering.

This was not completely unreasonable. At least two older Hungarians who became very famous have done the same thing. The one was John von Neumann, the man who is really responsible for the development of fast computers. The other was Eugene Wigner, who played a big part in the early development of nuclear energy, particularly in nuclear reactors. My father introduced me to them and to a third person, a somewhat peculiar man about whom I will have much more to say: Leo Szilard.

At any rate, I went off to Germany to study. Having spent a few weeks in starting my studies at the Institute of Technology in Budapest, I went off to Germany, to Karlsruhe. At Karlsruhe was the Institute of Technology, sponsored by the very advanced group of chemical industries in Germany. That group employed a young man by the name of Herman Mark, who really was, in a very full sense, the originator of polymer chemistry. He also was a truly excellent lecturer, and apart from working for the German chemical industries, he gave lectures at Karlsruhe.


Herman Mark was half Jewish. His father, I believe, was a Rabbi in Temesvár (Timisoara), not far from the place where my mother was born. When Hitler came, the chemical industries very politely got rid of him, and he got a very good position in Vienna, teaching chemistry at the University. Then, when Hitler marched into Austria in 1938 -- that was almost ten years after I met Herman Mark -- he had started to grow a family. His son, Hans Mark, who is now my good friend, was a child. Herman Mark decided he had to leave, and he did not have much money. He had no position abroad. He thought of a trick. As a chemist, he could, without being too obvious about it, buy some platinum. And of that platinum he made wires, and he painted the wires black, and turned them into coat hangers, and they were real heavy. So the winter coats went on the platinum wire, and that is how the modest fortune of the Marks' left Austria under the nose of Hitler.


That was not the only ingenuity that the Mark family possessed. Herman Mark was interested, even when he lectured in Karlsruhe, in what was really new and essential in chemistry. That was quantum mechanics, a completely new way to look at the world, and at actual deep problems, which explain the stability of the atom.

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