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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



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Edward Teller
Edward Teller
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Edward Teller Interview (page: 5 / 5)

Father of the Hydrogen Bomb

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  Edward Teller

Dr. Teller, you've had a long and fascinating career. Could you talk about some of the highs and lows?

Edward Teller Interview Photo
Edward Teller: I can give you a sample of each. The most terrible thing with which I was involved, or which I saw, was the death of my good friend Johnny von Neumann. He had cancer of the prostate, which went into his bones and also his brain. He was in Walter Reed Hospital, and I visited him there. I was told by his wife, and by him personally, that he wanted my visit badly. So I came back again and again, and all that for a particular and strange and incredible reason.

Johnny and I had a good relationship in talking about scientific problems. Comparing him with Heisenberg and Bohr and Fermi, and whomever else you want to mention, he was by far the fastest. I would even say the most ingenious. He used me as a test subject. Johnny, incredibly, was trying to find out whether he could get anywhere in discussions with me. The horrible thing is that he couldn't.

He was a person who lived by his thought processes. I think few people have fully understood that. He was as passionate a thinker as other people can be impassioned about power or sex or anything else. And when the thinking process slowed, that was a terrible experience. I went and saw him, and what does one do? It is a situation in which you cannot fake. Johnny was dying, and he was losing his very singularly strong and peculiar claim on life.

Edward Teller Interview Photo
Now, the high point. I am very fortunate, because it was more than a high point. It became clear to me that when work on defense becomes polarized on political points, and when scientific judgment requires full knowledge, unhampered by secrecy about the facts, the judgment from one laboratory is insufficient. A competition by two approaches is absolutely required. I argued for a second laboratory, and this is what we got: the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. When the conflict connected with Oppenheimer hurt me in a terrible way, because it meant the loss of more than one life-long friendship, then I found a new home and a good home in Livermore.

It has developed into a first-class laboratory, doing remarkable things in nuclear explosives, competing with the old laboratory at Los Alamos. Fortunately, and intentionally, the competition was more and more on the basis of full information on both sides, on the proper, friendly basis. Nowadays, I go back to Los Alamos without a remnant of any tension that would affect me. As to Livermore, in addition to the grand things we were doing about nuclear explosives, we have started very significant computations about things like weather prediction, a field that will become quite important in deciding about things like the greenhouse effect, the warming of the atmosphere.

Edward Teller Interview Photo
To cite another example, we have obtained, together with the Lawrence Laboratory at Berkeley, an actual microscopic picture of the outside of the double helix, the super-giant molecule that carries the information relevant to the inherited properties. To work, to be connected with that place, where there are not only excellent associates, but other kinds of people as well, where there are many good and reliable friends, that gives me a great deal of stability.

Have you thought at all about the effect your life's work has had, and will have, on mankind? Is that the kind of thing you think about?

Edward Teller: I told you, the future is uncertain. This means a lot of responsibility for all of us.

I have been working on something whose development I firmly believe was unavoidable: atomic energy, atomic explosions, nuclear explosions, fusion research. No one could have prevented its coming. It came slowly and ineffectually in Germany, because Heisenberg was, I more and more realize, completely and deeply opposed to it under the Nazis. Even though he was a good German. In the Soviet Union, all this came without resistance. It came strongly and -- in the full sense of the word -- in a competitive sense. The answer is so obvious that I hardly dare to ask the question: "What would have happened if Stalin got the hydrogen bomb, and we did not?" Let us not consider the difference between Stalin and Gorbachev as non-existent. There is a difference. I think I had a little influence, and if I claim credit for anything, I think I should not claim credit for knowledge, but for courage. It was not easy to contradict the great majority of the scientists, who were my only friends in a new country, having left almost everybody behind me in Hungary and in Europe.

If you were beginning now as a young scientist, what would you see as the cutting edge of scientific discovery?

Edward Teller: It seems to me that the next great question -- the next tremendous question -- is "What is life?" I am a materialist with a difference. The difference is that I realize that I have barely begun to understand what matter is. I know as much about matter as a person knows about mathematics when he just has learned how to count. The recent discovery of high-temperature superconductivity shows how easily surprised we can be by things that can occur in matter. When we know that something like life is around, the real understanding of that is something that becomes the more exciting the more chemical details we find out about how life works.

Edward Teller Interview Photo
There is another direction in which the surprises may be closer. I worked with a computing machine that made a lot of noise -- and perhaps as much as one decision or "flip-flop" in ten seconds -- more than 60 years ago. In Los Alamos, on Johnny von Neumann's advice, we used electrical apparatus. Not electronic, but electrical apparatus, which I like to call "monoflop" machines: one flip-flop a second. Johnny's suggestion of using electronics got us into the "megaflop" technology. And that developed so fast that we now have common machines which should be called "gigaflop" -- a billion per second. With the use of superconductivity, we are moving toward another factor of a million. Call it the "petaflop" machine: 1015 per second. To program for such a machine would be quite an act. In fact, nobody can do it. Only the machine itself. This self-programming is a particularly human characteristic. To think about that you have to try to attack the problem from a higher plane.

Many new technologies have created unnecessary and unreasonable fears, but the one high-tech instrument that is popular among our children is the computer. My two grandsons at Stanford seem to be interested in just that. I did not give them that advice; they did not need it. It is in the air. It is perhaps the actual point where the earliest surprises are to be expected.

Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, Dr. Teller.

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