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The Day I Met Dr. Edward Teller

by Brian Dunning

August 20, 2014

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Donate 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.

by Brian Dunning

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