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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: 3 / 5)

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  Edward Teller

How did you make the transition from chemical engineering to theoretical physics?

Edward Teller Interview Photo
Edward Teller: I had been conscientiously studying chemistry, but I had equally consciously continued to study mathematics. When I had been at it for more than two years, my father decided if I was so convinced that chemical engineering is not what I wanted to do, I should do what I wanted. So I decided to move from Karlsruhe to study with the most famous teacher of quantum mechanics, and that was Arnold Sommerfield, a terribly stiff, formal individual. I stayed there for one semester, then Sommerfield went to lecture in India.

At that time, I made the right choice and went to Leipzig. There was a young theoretical physicist there, Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg is the next person about whom I have to say that he had a very deep influence on me. I think he was all of six years older than I was. Because, after all, I did not study physics -- I studied chemistry and mathematics -- of that group at that time, I was easily the most ignorant. I don't know even that I was acceptable, except there was something at which I was moderately good, and that was ping pong. In that, I was the best! And Heisenberg was sort of an ambitious individual. He went on a tour, lecturing in strange places, including Japan. On the way home from Japan, on the ship, he practiced his ping pong with a Japanese, and after that I could not beat Heisenberg even once. He took these things extremely seriously, particularly when they were not serious.

Edward Teller Interview Photo
Actually we had those ping pong evenings once a week. There were all kinds of peculiar people there, even three Americans who later got the Nobel Prize: van Vleck, Mullikan, and Rabi. Maybe a dozen people all together. And they would talk about the whole world, including the incredible change that had been going on in physics. Niels Bohr had started to explain what makes an atom stable. In 1925, Heisenberg essentially completed the theory. Then, during the next two years, together with Niels Bohr, he explained what the new theory meant. Without any doubt in my mind, of all the strange and important things that I witnessed in my life, this was the most strange and the most important.



I believe that there are periods in the intellectual development of the world which are particularly great. And they are confined to periods not very long and to places not very extensive and, I believe, carried -- executed -- by relatively few people who knew each other, or must have known about each other. I mean, as examples: Renaissance painting or Baroque music; Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. That, in modern science, was something that occurred in central Europe. And to mention three names -- as great as the three I mentioned in music, if greatness can ever be compared -- I would say Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg. It was a collaboration, a very modest effort in money, a magnificent effort in its results, which was ended abruptly by Hitler. And although I know very explicitly that Heisenberg wanted to recreate it, he never was capable of doing so.


Edward Teller Interview Photo
What happened is something of which today's intellectuals are inexcusably ignorant. Some of us are trying to do our best to put relativity and quantum mechanics into terms that everybody can understand. One part that came to maturity in the pauses between ping pong games is also perhaps the most important from the point of view of general interest.

The name of this particular discovery is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It takes a strange position in regard to an ancient question, determinism. Is the future really predictable? If we knew the situation at the present with complete accuracy, then the laws of physics say that the future should be completely predictable.



What Heisenberg's uncertainty principle says is that it is impossible to know completely accurately what the present is. You can determine, as accurately as you please, the position of a particle, but then you cannot know its velocity, where it is going. You may determine its velocity, as accurately as you ever please, but then you have to renounce the attempt to know at the same time where it is precisely. And therefore, the future cannot be predicted. And all of this is by no means academic, because many things in the world, particularly living beings, are full of self-enforcing mechanisms, so that small causes can give rise to big effects. Light comes to my eyes in quanta. You have to make it very dark, so that one quantum should make a difference. But it can. And if I see one quantum -- incredibly little light -- in an experiment, just to mention a silly example, I may have agreed to raise my hand. A big action, big as compared to the one quantum that has caused it. And from there on, everybody knows, and people have written novels about it, and history is full of examples, how one little action can change the course of history. If, that time in Sarajevo, a certain vehicle carrying the Crown Prince had been delayed, there may not have been a World War.


I want to continue to talk about the Uncertainty Principle for another moment, using a religious figure.


The physicists -- the scientists in fact -- of the last century, believing in determinism, have put God on the unemployment list. He created the world, now it's running, nothing more to do about it. What we now believe -- no, in fact, what we now know -- is that the future is being created every moment by every atom, by every star, and by every living being. This gives a whole new outlook to life. And the question which I cannot answer now, because it is a little too complicated, is a most important one. How dare I say that the future is really uncertain? How dare I maintain that position and velocity cannot be measured ever, maybe at the same time? Maybe somebody will come up with some new idea.


I have told you that exact sciences are not exact. That they are full of surprises, but they also contain certainties. One can't make a perpetual motion machine. I know that with certainty. I claim to know with complete certainty that you can't predict the future. I believe that this was the very important thing I learned in my studies in Germany. I was then given a little problem by Heisenberg.


Heisenberg one day, actually not very many weeks after I arrived, asked me a little question. The most straightforward problem in the stability of atoms had been solved. We had a precise understanding of the hydrogen atom, in essentials. There were a couple of papers about a slightly more complicated system. Instead of one electron going around one nucleus, let one electron go around two nuclei, called a hydrogen molecular ion. Two papers published contradictory results. Which one is right? It so happened that the solution was relatively easy, and I knew the essentials in mathematics -- it was a pure mathematics question -- and went back to Heisenberg the next day and told him which way it was. Now, this means that we know how an electron can move around two nuclei, when it moves as little as possible. "What about the higher energy states? Why don't you figure those out?" That was a problem, and I started to work on it with an old computing machine. You had to turn the handle and it made a lot of racket. And I worked on it for more than a year, in the Institute building. Heisenberg was not yet married, and when he was not playing ping pong with the Japanese on a ship, his sleeping quarters was above the room where I made my calculations, and he occasionally came down, because I usually worked at night, and we chatted a bit. And one evening he asked me, "Haven't you done enough of it?" I said I could work on it another year. He said, "I think you have done enough of it. Just write it up. It will make a nice Ph.D. thesis." I sometimes suspect that I got my Ph.D. in order that the computing machine should not disturb Heisenberg's sleeping. At any rate, I got my Ph.D. I stayed on as an assistant, slightly corresponding to an assistant professor in the United States. Then I got an invitation to continue the same sort of thing in Göttingen, where I could meet lots more people, which I accepted, where I had a wonderful time until Hitler. In the spring of 1933, it became very clear that no Jew had a place in Germany.


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