The Day I Met Dr. Edward Teller

Dr. Edward Teller in 1987 (Wikimedia Foundation)

Dr. Edward Teller in 1987 (Wikimedia Foundation)

Dr. Edward Teller, the “Father of the Hydrogen Bomb,” is often known for his uneasy relationship with fellow Manhattan Project member J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” Their rivalry was not limited to the specific type of nuclear weapon each was the “father” of, but was most publicly aired when Teller was one of the very few people to recommend that Oppenheimer be stripped of his security clearance during the McCarthy era commie witchhunts—a motion that succeeded.

This effectively ended both Oppenheimer’s work with the government and Teller’s support from much of the scientific community. The rift was somewhat healed when Teller recommended John F. Kennedy’s 1963 presentation to Oppenheimer of the Enrico Fermi Award, but by that time Oppenheimer was largely retired to the US Virgin Islands, and Teller was just starting a long and prosperous career with US atomic programs.

Teller advocated using hydrogen bombs to create a harbor in Alaska, and also to use them to extract oil from Canada’s vast tar sands (neither initiative succeeded). He was an advocate for Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative with satellite-based X-ray lasers capable of destroying missiles.

Perhaps most significantly, he was a co-founder of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California in 1958 and served as its first director, and showed up to work there every day until his death in 2003 at the age of 95.

I was there at LLNL just two years before he died, on a consulting project. I only had a temporary and limited security clearance, so I had to be escorted everywhere I went. When I arrived, it was only weeks after the 9/11 attacks, and the whole facility had been hastily shielded behind concrete barriers and extra layers of heavily armed security personnel. It made me feel like a bit of a superhero, answering a call by a secret government lab and being escorted past guys with M-16s. (They weren’t very friendly, by the way.) I was like Gordon Freeman.

One day, at lunch, I was being escorted along a sidewalk between some buildings to a cafeteria, when one of the M-16 guys appeared ahead and put up his hand to stop us. “Oh,” said my escort, “it’s Dr. Teller.” A black limousine pulled up to a building’s back entrance, with at least three or four M-16 guys around, and a very small, very bent, very old man was helped out. Another guard took a wheelchair out of the trunk and helped him into it. I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

“Hi, Dr. Teller!”

The humorless M-16 guy took a step and tightened his grip on his gun, but I didn’t really notice. I just saw Dr. Teller nod his head in my direction as he was getting seated, and briefly put up a hand to wave.

So there. I met Edward Teller.

About Brian Dunning

Science writer Brian Dunning is the host and producer of Skeptoid.
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10 Responses to The Day I Met Dr. Edward Teller

  1. Jon Richfield says:

    I can’t say I really MET him, but I attended a talk he gave in Stellenbosch in the 80s, passing through. (Something to do with the SA nuke? Dunno.)
    He wasn’t wheelchairing yet at that time. Can’t say I actually liked him much; seemed a bit too used to talking without listening, but he certainly seemed very much with it and I couldn’t fault his logic when he did speak.
    Don’t think I would have liked to get in his way if he didn’t like me though. Didn’t strike me as sympatico.

  2. Reg says:

    Perhaps someone can convince me otherwise, but up to this point I hold Teller as one of the most despicable of scientists and a cold hearted betrayer of the human race.

    What a shame he only had a simpering fifth grade actor to convince.

    • John Denys says:

      Brian: Cool, you met a twentieth century science legend.
      Reg: In this anecdote who do you think is an actor?

      • Reg says:

        Ronald Reagan of course, the man who backed Teller’s Star Wars project. Not to mention Teller’s betrayal of Oppenheimer just so he’d not be tainted by those who were of two minds about the morality of both Atomic and Hydrogen weapons. Teller single-handedly pushed the world towards near catastrophe.

        • Pete A says:

          Thanks for correcting my misunderstanding of world affairs, Reg. I’ve long been under the impression that it was totalitarian regimes that pushed (and still push) the world towards near catastrophe.

          • Reg says:

            My pleasure Pete, we’re only in this forum because we all agree that there is more one way of looking at things. It may even be that you have been hoodwinked into adopting the my country right or wrong attitude. And of course you’d be wrong again.

            The day the US decided NOT to honor the agreement with Britain to exchange information gleaned from further investigation into atomic secrets, was the day the US itself became a totalitarian society.

            The starting shot in the race toward mutual annihilation.

            McCarthy’s division of the country into two camps contravened all assertions of freedom of speech and association and ultimately the whole country bowed its collective head in silent appreciation of this fact. Teller was a renegade with his own totalitarian aspirations and the rest of the scientific community recognized this. So you’ve been left behind Pete.

          • Pete A says:

            Reg, during my early years I was spoon-fed heaps of baloney and it’s a lifetime’s work to correct as much of it as possible. The hardest part is trying to identify the things I don’t know that I don’t know!

            I’m very grateful for your comments (and this forum) because you’ve enabled me to correct an important misunderstanding (mental model).

          • Reg says:

            Thanks, I appreciate your comments Pete, which is why I asked someone to convince me I was wrong.

            WWII was a shattering experience for me even though I was very young. It was like a giant jig-saw puzzle with the marginal influence of religion pointing to the stupidity of man as the reason for God’s punishment.

            General Eichelberger resided in our street and the sight of General MacArthur doing a tour built very little confidence in my young but analytical mind. That and the published lists of the -KILLED- which was later renamed – CASUALTIES- for its lesser impact. Amazing how a tiny change like that can leave an indelible impression that – all is not as it seems. I remember looking at the list and noticing there were about the same number of victims and wondering where the separate list of wounded had gone.

            So I’ve spent a long time on this jig-saw puzzle and I’m sure there are still some pieces missing. I’ve got pro and anti books on Churchill, Roosevelt and of course the EVIL Stalin and all the generals but some of the best information has come from German and Russian sources more recently.

            Getting back to Teller and the -group-, it’s important to know that the Germans had made very little progress in Atomic weapons and that in more recent publications there has been a tendency to exaggerate their position in order to justify and dramatize all the effort put in at Los Amos. The British had passed all their research on including those scientists available to help with new research, on the necessary assumption that the Germans may have been more advanced than was known.

            There is a jig-saw bit missing here which I cannot find. It’s about why the British were not offered a considerably greater input into the decision to drop the bombs on Japan, considering the original target as well as their scientific input. All of which it then had to duplicate once it was locked out of results derived in Los Almos.

            Teller worked with Fuchs and Fuchs was a Russian spy who most likely targeted Teller as a scientist with a loose tongue.

            The fear of German reprisals did not abate in 1944 as Germany moved into the field of V2 missiles with their potential of hurling the first atomic bomb on London or the D-Day fields of action. Fortunately the Russians served as a watch-dog. Their considerable progress and immediate threat to Berlin meant they may have become the first target of a German atomic weapon.

  3. My father’s mother’s brother (I’m southern and I should know better but a more exact description fails me) was a lowly tech back in the glory days of The Project. Coming from rural Georgia, he had one skill that was very much in demand on that “dry” army base: he could make moonshine that would knock your socks off.

    • tomwelsh3 says:

      I think that would be great uncle, at least that’s what I’ve always called my mother’s father’s brothers..but none of them could make moonshine…a talent virtually always in demand…..especially, as history demonstrates, in “dry” places.

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