Academy of Achievement Logo
Achiever Gallery
  The Arts
  Public Service
 + Science & Exploration
  My Role Model
  Recommended Books
  Academy Careers
Keys to Success
Achievement Podcasts
About the Academy
For Teachers

Search the site

Academy Careers


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:
Hoover Institution

Atomic Archive

Share This Page
  (Maximum 150 characters, 150 left)

Edward Teller
Edward Teller
Profile of Edward Teller Biography of Edward Teller Interview with Edward Teller Edward Teller Photo Gallery

Edward Teller Interview (page: 4 / 5)

Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

Print Edward Teller Interview Print Interview

  Edward Teller

When Hitler came to power, you knew you would have to leave Germany. How did you get out? So many wanted to leave but had no place to go.

Edward Teller Interview Photo
Edward Teller: The physicists in the world worked together very effectively, and those of us who wanted to leave had an easy possibility to do so. I arrived in London in the fall of 1934. There was a meeting at which the great nuclear physicist Lord Rutherford talked. What about? Nuclear energy. "Complete nonsense!" he said. "Nuclear questions are pure physics, they can never have any practical application." Within a few weeks, I found out the reason for Rutherford's passion.

I had met Leo Szilard many years before in Budapest. In London, he came to me and told me he had worked with the recently discovered neutrons. Since they have no charge, they can approach a nucleus, which no other nucleus can do. Thus, you might cause reactions in that nucleus that produces two neutrons. If that could be done, then nuclear energy could be used on a big scale. He had been to see Rutherford, and Rutherford threw him out. Rutherford did not calm down in the next few weeks. Neither did Szilard. He continued to work and to think of this possibility, four years before fission was discovered.

In the meantime, I got an invitation to come to the United States to work with a very wonderful Russian who had escaped from the Soviet Union, George Gamow. I worked at George Washington University, working out consequences of the new atomic theory, and had a really wonderful time. In many ways, that should have been the end of my career. Except, in January 1939, we had our usual interesting annual conference at George Washington University, to which George Gamow invited me along, and Szilard arrived with the news about the discovery of fission. It was big news.

We had a busy conference. And my wife and I got very tired by the end of the conference. But no sooner did we start to relax -- let's say 15 minutes after -- there was a telephone call, and my friend Leo Szilard was on the other end. "I am at the Union Station, come and get me." Well, Szilard was perhaps the last -- or one of the last -- men who had a great influence on me. That is, a great positive influence. No one could have had a greater influence on me than Hitler, who made it entirely clear to me that one could not ignore politics, and very particularly one could not ignore the worst evils in politics. What Szilard wanted was to say, "Here is what I have been waiting for! Here is what I have told you in London years ago: fission. Maybe in fission, when a big nucleus -- the biggest, uranium -- splits into two pieces, perhaps this fission, caused by one neutron, will emit two neutrons and then nuclear explosions will become possible." It made sense. And a few weeks later, there was Szilard on the phone calling in from New York. "I have found the neutrons!"

[ Key to Success ] Vision

By that time, I knew that what Rutherford called nonsense was actually a hard reality. And the possibility that Hitler would get there first was entirely reality, because fission actually was discovered in Berlin in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Szilard was the most persistent in pursuing this subject. Others tried and there was no interest in our government, at least in the lower circles any one of us could get to. But Szilard had imagination and -- as far as I ever could discover -- no inhibitions.

That summer, I was teaching at Columbia and Szilard came to me one day. "Can you drive me out to the end of Long Island to see Einstein?" You know, Szilard was very ingenious and could do anything except drive a car. And furthermore, he had false hopes that I would be a good driver. At any rate, I got him to Einstein. He invited us to a cup of tea, and Szilard took a letter out of his pocket and Einstein read it carefully and signed it, and made one relevant remark. "This is the first time," he said, "we would get energy directly from the atomic nucleus, rather than from the sun, which got it from the atomic nucleus." He handed the letter back to Szilard, and that was the second of August. The rest is known to everybody. I had played my essential role as Szilard's chauffeur. Szilard gave the letter to an acquaintance of his who knew the President -- who knew Roosevelt. The letter was signed on the second of August, a little more than four weeks before Hitler invaded Poland. The delivery of the letter was slow, but it got there, circumventing any interference by secretaries. And FDR saw it, end of October, after Hitler and Stalin defeated -- and divided between themselves -- Poland. The letter said the science is there. Nuclear explosives can be made, and the Germans were the first to know about it, they discovered it. I cannot think of a time where such a letter could have made more of an impact on Roosevelt than the time when he actually got it. He immediately issued orders and we got going.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

So after Roosevelt read Einstein's letter and gave the go-ahead for the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb, did you become involved immediately?

Edward Teller: I didn't. I liked what I was doing much too well. My good friend Szilard was in it. So was a mutual friend, Eugene Wigner.

In the spring of 1940, I got an invitation to a Pan-American Congress -- to which I was determined not to go -- in Washington, next door. And Roosevelt was going to speak and I still was not going. But the day before his speech, Hitler invaded the Lowlands and it was very clear that the decisions in the World War were now immediately impending. And Roosevelt was going to speak about that, so I was going. The first and only time that I saw Roosevelt, and that was from a distance. He talked about the fact that the time to fly from Europe to the American continent was not so great, that small nations are not secure, neither are big ones, that the scientists may be blamed for the horrible things that are happening. "But," said Roosevelt, "I am a pacifist, and you, my friends, are pacifists, but I am telling you, if you are not going to work on the instruments of war, freedom will be lost everywhere." That was the question on my mind. And I had the impression that Roosevelt was talking to me. And of course that was stupid to think so -- me of 2,000 people -- but yes, me. Because, of a couple of thousand people present, it may have been he and I and none other who knew about the possibility of the atomic bomb. I read the letter that he read, and I knew the actions that he had already taken to start work on nuclear explosives. When he finished talking, my mind was made up. And I remember looking at my watch, he had talked 20 minutes.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Not much later, I found myself in New York, and later in Chicago, where Szilard and John Wheeler were working on the nuclear reactors. Then to Los Alamos, and then the decisive work came when my good friend Johnny von Neumann visited, and the discussion between him and me led to the proposal of implosion. Pushing materials -- uranium -- together, with the power of an explosive behind it, can result in as much as double the usual density of uranium, which, for a number of not very difficult reasons, will make the production of nuclear explosives possible in the earlier future.

This, in the end, after the defeat of Hitler, led to the situation, in the spring of 1945, when it became clear that the nuclear explosives would be available. It was then that I had a letter from Leo Szilard, suggesting that the first nuclear explosive used in the war should be used for demonstration and not for actually hurting the enemy. I went with the proposal to Oppenheimer who said, definitely, "No." Unfortunately, I took his advice, partly because it involved no action. I was very sorry about having taken his advice, particularly when I learned later that he -- contrary to the statement that we physicists should stay away from such decisions -- has explicitly advocated the earliest possible use of the explosive.

Edward Teller Interview Photo
The rest of the story is also known. Our job on the atomic bomb was not quite finished, and we had started on the fusion bomb; not based on the splitting of heavy nuclei, but on the uniting of light nuclei, hydrogen nuclei. There the work stopped, until the Soviets produced their first nuclear explosion. By that time I had worked on the possibility of the fusion bomb, initiated by the fission bomb. Some of us, and I perhaps more persistently that others, were working on that. The time had come to concentrate on that. We did, and in a short time we succeeded. It was high time, because the Soviets succeeded also, under the leadership of a very excellent and a very courageous physicist, Andrei Sakharov, whom I later met and whom I learned to like a lot.

The story of the nuclear explosions has been told and it's not my purpose to repeat it in any more detail. In 1983, Reagan asked the relevant question, "Isn't it better to save lives than to avenge them? Wouldn't it be better to develop defenses against rockets, rather than concentrate exclusively on retaliation?" That was the beginning of the concerted, organized work on the Strategic Defense Initiative. We already had been working in our Livermore Laboratory on concepts of that kind. Particularly my young friend, Lowell Wood, who is by now probably older than I was when the hydrogen bomb was completed. He looks very young to me.

Edward Teller Interview Photo
I want to come back at the very end to what I have learned in life. That the future is uncertain. That indeed, what we say, what we do in each individual case, may move the whole world. And that puts an exceptional responsibility on our shoulders. We now know for a fact that there are good ways of defense against all kinds of rockets. This fact depends on Johnny von Neumann's great discovery of fast computers. They can now perform a billion individual computing acts per second, which can be increased possibly by a factor of another million. Ultimately, that is the reason why the difficult task of preventing a rocket from reaching us can be accomplished. That is why there is every reason to believe that we can hit a bullet with a bullet, and that high technology, instead of merely producing bigger bangs, can produce a defense by accuracy against the most dangerous kinds of attack. At this moment, this is the center of my interests.

Three years ago, almost four years now, a peculiar but great event took place in conductivity, building on the kind of work that I performed on photomechanics during my time in Leipzig. This phenomenon will probably be the agent that will make computing processes even faster and that might be a further powerful reason why defense can win and make the world more secure.

Edward Teller Interview, Page: 1   2   3   4   5   

This page last revised on Dec 10, 2013 01:32 EST
How To Cite This Page