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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How did you make the transition from chemical engineering to theoretical physics?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dr. Teller, you've had a long and fascinating career. Could you talk about some of the highs and lows?
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.
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.
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.
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.