Hungarian-American theoretical physicist
He is known colloquially as „the father of the hydrogen bomb”, despite the fact that he did not care for this title. He is known for numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy ( (the Jahn–Teller and Renner–Teller effects) and surface physics.
Teller was born in Budapest, Hungary (then Austria-Hungary), into a Jewish family, in the year 1908 to Ilona (Deutsch), a pianist, and Max Teller, an attorney. When he didn’t speak until the age of three, his family began to suspect there was something wrong. His grandfather even said to his mother that she shouldn’t be too upset that her son was an idiot. A doctor suggested he may be mentally retarded, when in fact that cause of his late development was the fact that his father spoke Hungarian and spoke German very poorly while his mother was fluent in German, but had poor knowledge of the Hungarian language. This confused the young Edward Teller and he eventually decided his parents didn’t know what they were talking about. He was raised Jewish, but became agnostic later in life. His greatest interest were numbers, he would calculate large numbers in his head, for example the number of seconds in a year.
Teller left Hungary in 1926, partly because of the Horthy-regime and the numerous clausus rule that only allowed a certain number of Jewish people to attend university. He graduated as a chemical engineer from the University of Karlsruhe and received a PhD. In physics from the University of Leipzig the political climate of his youth was fraught with revolutions, contributing to his strong opposition of both fascism and communism.
As a student, he suffered a streetcar accident in Munich in which he lost his foot. He had to wear a prosthetic and had a limp all his life.
Teller’s Ph.D. dissertation dealt with one of the first accurate quantum mechanical treatments of the hydrogen molecular ion. In 1930 he met and befriended Russian physicists George Gamow and Lev Landau. Teller’s lifelong friendship with Czech physicist, George Placzek, would shape his scientific and philosophical views. It was Placzek who arranged for the young Teller to spend a summer in Rome with Enrico Fermi, thus orienting his scientific career towards nuclear physics.
Teller spent two years at the University of Gottingen, and left in 1933 through the aid of the International Rescue Committee. He stayed briefly in England, and spent a year in Copenhagen, working with Niels Bohr. In February 1934, he married Augusta Maria “Mici” Harkanyi, who was the sister of a longtime friend.
In the 1930s he immigrated to the United States and became an early member of the Manhattan project charged with developing the first atomic bombs.
In 1935, thanks to George Gamow’s incentive, Teller was asked to become a Professor of Physics at George Washington University (GWU), where he collaborated with Gamow until 1941. Prior to the discovery of fission in 1939, Teller was engaged as a theoretical physicist, working in the fields of quantum, molecular, and nuclear physics.
At George Washington University, Teller predicted the Jahn–Teller effect (1937), which distorts molecules in certain situations; this affects the chemical reactions of metals, and in particular the coloration of certain metallic dyes. Teller and Hermann Arthur Jahn analyzed it as a piece of purely mathematical physics. In collaboration with Brunauer and Emmet, Teller also made an important contribution to surface physics and chemistry: the so-called Brunauer–Emmett–Teller (BET) isotherm.
Wanting to contribute to the war effort, Teller took the advice of the well-known Caltech aerodynamicist and fellow Hungarian émigré Theodore von Kármán, and collaborated with his friend Hans Bethe in developing a theory of shock-wave propagation. In later years, their explanation of the behavior of the gas behind such a wave proved valuable to scientists who were studying missile re-entry.
Teller caused a controversy in 1954 when he testified against J. Robert Oppenheimer, a former head of Los Alamos and an advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission, at his security clearance hearing. Teller had disputes with Oppenheimer many times at Los Alamos over research issues, and during Oppenheimer’s trial he was the only member of the scientific community to assert that Oppenheimer was a security risk.
He also claimed that Oppenheimer’s opinion about the thermonuclear program seemed to be based more on the scientific feasibility of the weapon than anything else. He was however quick to add that Oppenheimer’s direction of Los Alamos was “a very outstanding achievement” both as a scientist and an administrator, crediting his “very quick mind” and saying that Oppenheimer was “just a most wonderful and excellent director.”
The hearings resulted in Oppenheimer’s security clearance being revoked. Teller’s former colleagues disapproved of his testimony and he was ostracized by the scientific community. However, Teller consistently denied that he was intending to damn Oppenheimer, and even went as far as to claim he was attempting to exonerate him. Documentary evidence has suggested though, that this was highly unlikely. Teller always insisted that his testimony hadn’t caused Oppenheimer significant harm and said that his words were an overreaction due to knowledge of Oppenheimer being approached by Haakon Chevalier to help the Russians and failing to report it.
Operation Plowshare and Project Chariot
Teller continued to be a polarizing figure as he was a strong advocate of nuclear energy for non-military uses, which the United States explored under Operation Plowshare. One of the most controversial projects he proposed was a plan to use a hydrogen bomb to dig a deep-water harbor more than a mile long and half a mile wide to use for shipment of resources from coal and oil fields through Point Hope, Alaska. The Atomic Energy Commission accepted the proposal in 1958 and it was designated Project Chariot. While the AEC was scouted out the Alaskan site and withdrew the land from the public domain, Teller campaigned for the economic benefits of his plan. However he was unable to convince local government leaders that the plan was financially viable
In 1962 Edward Teller received the Enrico Fermi prize from President John F. Kennedy.
Three Mile Island
When Edward Teller had a heart attack in 1979, he blamed it on renowned activist Jane Fonda. The actress lobbied against nuclear power after the Three Mile Island incident, while promoting her film, The China Syndrome, which deals with a nuclear accident. Teller insisted nuclear energy was safe and reliable and lobbied in favor of it. This stressful time in his life caused the heart attack. Teller wrote a two-page piece in the Wall Street Journal titled, “I was the only victim of Three-Mile Island.”
Teller remained a vigorous advocate of nuclear weapons even after many of his wartime colleagues expressed regret about the arms race. This made him an easy target for the mad scientist stereotype and is rumored to be the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. He received the one of the first Ig Nobel Peace Prizes (which is a parody of the Nobel Prize) in 1991 for his „lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it”
Teller died in Stanford, California on September 9, 2003, at the age of 95.