Saturday, September 10, 2005

TOO FAST ON THE TRIGGER- Edward Teller and our nuclear legacy

Image Hosted by

Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Life in Science and Politics- Edward Teller and Judith Schoolery.
Perseus Group Books (2002)

Sometimes you get the feeling that Edward Teller is simply making too many excuses. Maybe he is making them to preserve his record for posterity. A man who measured his influence by the number of enemies he had, he probably would not make excuses to justify his actions to his detractors. Given this stance, Teller was surprisingly thin-skinned, and unintended slights could cut him to the quick.
Yet you also get the feeling that Teller is being apologetic, that he wants to, but cannot quite admit, that personal misgivings and ambitions frequently coloured his massive and extraordinarily powerful rational power of thinking, that behind the domineering presence, there is hidden a sensitive man, larger than life and generous with his friends, who simply was overwhelmed by his alter egos. Unfortunately, when you are as brilliant and vocal as Teller, your mistakes leave a much bigger mark on history than those of lesser mortals, and you cannot erase the voices that the will emerge from the void of the future that will judge you. Those voices would speak to the mute volume of memoirs that Teller penned towards the end of his years, as a heroic and unique survivor of an extraordinary time.

No scientist in the latter half of the twentieth century has exercised so much influence over governments and the arms race as Teller. No scientist has been maligned so much for his actions. And yet Teller’s life began in innocence, in fair Budapest in 1908, when the world was a much different place. When he died in 2003, it had profoundly changed, and Teller was no small contributor to that change. Teller’s childhood was marked by a deeply ingrained hatred of communism, inculcated by the regimes that were toppling democracy and enforcing the rule of force in Hungary. Teller was not alone in having these resentments; his compatriots John von Neumann, Eugene Wigner, Theodor von Karman, and Leo Szilard also felt them. All would become exceptionally brilliant scientists, all would flee from totalitarianism and immigrate to the United States, all would be instrumental in the making of the atomic bomb and the harnessing of the nuclear genie, yet nobody would demonstrate a temperament as volatile and emotional as Teller and nobody would have such far-reaching influences that would define a period of turmoil and imminent catastrophe. Teller’s descriptions of his childhood make heartwarming reading, they speak of a lost time and place, the idyllic and innocent paradise of central and Eastern Europe, which would get heartbreakingly devastated and permanently marred in a few years. Teller talks with painful affection about his childhood friends, many of whom perished in the concentration camps in World War 2. He tries to hide the agony of being different and special in a matter of fact tone, sometimes laced with humour, and with affectionate Hungarian poems; throughout his life, Teller retained a great appreciation of literature and poetry, and was a pianist of almost professional caliber.

Many months back, I compared Teller to Otto Octavius of Spiderman-2 fame, and I won’t go over all the details of his life, which I summarized in that post. Teller grew in fame and achievements through definitive decades of the century- as a graduate student with Werner Heisenberg, as a professor in England and in the United States, and finally, as the foremost and most enthusiastic proponent and designer of nuclear weapons that probably will ever be born. During this time, he rubbed shoulders, and also fell from the graces of, the greatest minds of the century- along with his fellow Hungarians, Teller stood with Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, and scores of others. He went down in history as Leo Szilard’s chauffer; he drove Szilard to meet Einstein, the meeting in which the eminent physicist wrote the now famous letter warning President Roosevelt of the discovery of nuclear fission, and the ominous possibility of the Nazis building an atomic bomb. After this incident, Teller, more than anyone else, worked to make US authorities aware of the gravity of the situation. It is an amusing irony of politics and history that is was not American scientists but ‘enemy aliens’ from Europe who egged the US Government on to pursue the development of atomic energy.

Teller’s journey into fame and infamy, into endearment and notoriety, began with his work on the Manhattan Project. In the summer of 1942, at Oppenheimer’s beckoning, he joined an elite and small group of physicists who worked out the basic physics of atomic weapons in Oppenheimer’s office at the University of California, Berkeley. While the other participants, including Hans Bethe, pursued the elusive goal of trying to achieve an explosion that would shine brighter than a thousand suns, Teller was distracted by the power of the sun itself; whether instead of fission, one could achieve nuclear fusion by using the energy of a fission weapon, thus harnessing the source of energy that has kept the sun burning for billions of years. Needless to say, this was distracting at a time when the fission bomb was far from being a reality. Another time, Teller raised the ominous possibility of the atmosphere getting ignited by an atomic explosion, a possibility that was quickly shown to be ‘almost impossible’ by the thoroughgoing Hans Bethe.
During the Manhattan Project, Teller was outraged when he was passed over by Oppenheimer to be director of the theoretical division, the key section of the project. Oppenheimer instead chose Bethe, who was much more consistent and meticulous, and not given to wild, if brilliant, fantasizing like Teller. When Teller refused to work on the complex implosion calculations that were necessary for the atomic bomb, the patient Oppenheimer formed a group for Teller to pursue his own ideas on fusion. This created a gap in the fission group, a gap that had to be filled with three or four other scientists to compensate for the brilliant Hungarian’s abilities. From this time on, in spite of some valuable contributions, Teller created more problems than solved them. His late-night piano playing did not help. As was aptly put, “Teller managed to keep more Nobel Laureates awake than he could have done at any other place in the world”.
Teller was brilliant beyond words, but highly erratic and inconsistent, volatile and moody, and somewhat sloppy in his calculations. These were qualities that would define his persona and his actions in crucial times to come. As a scientist put it, “Nine out of ten of Teller’s ideas are bad. He needs other more methodical people to bring the tenth idea to fruition, which is usually a stroke of genius”

After the war, while most of his colleagues withdrew from atomic research or pursued arms disarmament, Teller became a hawk and a vehement anti-communist. He was enormously helped by the political climate of the times, and rode on the emotions of the zealous anti-communists in the state department. In his pursuit of the hydrogen bomb, which he deemed necessary to prevent the Soviet Union from dominating the world, he became an obsessive fanatic. In spite of this, when he lobbied vigorously in 1949 for the government to support a crash program for development of that awesome and horrible weapon, he had no technical proof that it would work. The proof came in 1950, largely supplied by a brooding, reserved and brilliant Polish émigré mathematician, Stanislaw Ulam. The division of credit between Teller and Ulam as to the crucial idea which made the H-bomb work, is part of nuclear and historical folklore and debate, and I would not delve into it right now because it would be a colourful topic for another post. It is a constant controversy that never seems to die, although now most people believe that it was Ulam who at least was solely responsible for the initial idea; that of using the enormous compression supplied by an atomic weapon to efficiently and successfully cause nuclear fusion. Ulam seems to have thought of shock waves that would do this, while Teller quickly realized that the radiation from the fission explosion would do the job much more quickly. Whatever the case was, Teller has never given due credit to Ulam in public, and has proudly worn the epithet of ‘father of the H-bomb’ on his lapel (Bethe has drolly remarked that Teller should actually be the ‘mother of the H-bomb’ because he carried the baby for so long…)

It is also to Teller’s discredit that the US detonated their first fusion behemoth in 1952, thus frustrating the efforts of many to bring about a moratorium on testing that would have stalled Soviet H bomb development. Many also believe that Teller actually encouraged that development with his insistence on an early test; the radioactive fallout from an H-bomb test contains the characteristic signature of the design of the bomb, which could have made the Russians aware of the crucial idea of compression.

Teller’s damning testimony at Robert Oppenheimer’s infamous security hearing in 1954 also has become part of nuclear folklore that has rankled deep. While allegations that Oppenheimer actually hampered H-bomb development have now been shown to be false and misunderstood based on recently declassified documents (Priscilla McMillan, 2005), and while allegations about his loyalty were too far-fetched and preposterous to be considered anyway, Oppenheimer’s bizarre testimony a few years before about a left leaning friend that cost the friend his career, was apparently seen by Teller as a betrayal. Later, Teller justified his testimony against Oppenheimer as a reinforcement of his ideals of not behaving ambiguously with friends. He seems to have overlooked the fact that his testimony itself had a calculated ambiguity which turned out to have devastating consequences. In the years that followed, Teller’s true intentions and behaviour have never been explained, and he never chose to do that in interviews, but whatever the facts, recently Teller has been appearing more and more as the villain in a period which all too resembled the current age of neo-conservative coercion and informal totalitarianism.

In the years after the hearing, Teller suffered a fallout with most of his friends in the community, who had testified on the brilliant Oppenheimer’s behalf. But given the political climate of the times, Teller had no problem in endearing himself to hawks in the government who greatly valued his espousal of the development of grotesquely absurd and powerful weapons of destruction, and his belligerent anti-communist policies. Teller embraced and was one of the key forces behind both the putative anti-ballistic missile system of 1960 and the much debated Star Wars system of the 1980, both of which could not materialize because of the efforts of dedicated scientists and administrators who showed the technical and financial futility of the systems, and the escalation of the arms race that they would engender. But even today, proponents of National Missile Defense (the ‘son of Star-Wars’) seem to be in the shadow of Teller’s ghost.

Why am I talking about all this, instead of talking about Teller’s book? Because for a man as complex and influential as Teller, one hopes that he would be demystified at least to some extent through his own book, written at a time when he could be expected to have very different perspectives on the life he has lived and the times in which he participated. Many people think Teller is emphatically answerable to history. Many activists in the 60s and 70s even labeled him as a war criminal. They think that he should justify all the heretofore-mentioned actions. Many hate him and would like to see his reputation permanently soiled. Nobel laureate Isidor Rabi, one of the clearest and most authoritative consciences of the nuclear age, actually said that we would have been better off if Teller had never been born. Whatever Edward Teller says, his friends as well as foes would be most eager to hear.

Unfortunately, I believe he fails to make a case in the book, which is otherwise extremely readable and an important document that is an ode to a remarkable age, written by one it's most important observers and participants. Most of his statements are as ambiguous as the testimony he rendered for Oppenheimer (an incident on which he predictably spends more time in the book than on any other in his life). Quite upsettingly, the book appears as another series of excuses and partial and foggy explanations that would possibly serve to absolve him. But I believe that Edward Teller had always had a very big problem saying sorry. While he does make an effort at apology for a few of his actions, I think that the weight of history is too much upon his shoulders for him to shrug it off in a massive admission of culpability. This is unfortunate, since Teller craved attention all his life, wanted to be part of the establishment and wanted to appease his friends. In the end, he probably found it much easier to be part of the anti-establishment (which ironically is usually called the establishment). He would rather face history’s accusations than be ordinary. Which seems to be another misfortune, because Teller would not have been ordinary by any standards, even if he had chosen a different path in life. One suspects that if he had spent half the time he spent in weapons advocacy, in doing serious science instead, he would have stood in the same pantheon as Enrico Fermi and Hans Bethe, both Nobel laureates. The few books on physics which he has penned are a delight to read. His passion for physics and his astonishing understanding of it shines through untrammeled. He had ideas that were flowing, a tremendously fertile imagination, and an astoundingly creative mind. He made important contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, and collaborated with some of the most important scientists of the century.
But he was not a team player. He frequently let his emotions override his rational intentions, and then became inadvertently, a slave to the consequences fostered by them. He wanted to be in the driver’s seat all the time, where he could run the show surrounded by a bunch of yes-men. He was extremely ambitious, but finally ended up becoming more infamous than famous. He sank into the spiral generated by his own brilliance and his beliefs that came about by a complex combination of his fierce anti-communism, the traumas of his childhood, and his unique perception of the world around him. Fortunately, or unfortunately, he lived in a time and place where he could make an enormous difference. Maybe it is fitting that not Bill Clinton but George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, two months before his death.

And yet, in the end, what one remembers is the early part of the book, when Teller talks fondly about his time in Hungary, in Germany, in Rome and England, and in the United States. He talks about his lifelong friendships with Enrico Fermi, Ernest Lawrence, and John von Neumann. He warmly recounts the trip when he and his wife had to amusingly watch Hans Bethe's preoccupation with his future wife, Rose; apparently, Bethe had met Rose earlier, and in 'ten minutes' had fallen desperately in love with her, and the couple wanted to get to know each other as well as possible during the trip. Teller gives us rare peeks into the human side of revered scientific giants.
Again, through the thicket of emotions, prejudices, and justifications, one can catch glimpses of the sensitive Teller, the Teller who was generous to his true friends almost to a fault, was warm to his students, and was a model of scientific integrity. The Teller who was loved by his colleagues and friends before his altercations with them, the Teller who sounds like a champion of freedom when he talks about his ideas for world government, the Teller who proposed to his childhood sweetheart Mici in the presence of cackling geese on the banks of the Danube…one wonders what happened to that Teller in later years, why he lay dormant, what those years of mistrust and dissent did to him. One feels sorry for the great man, but one also feels a sense of unwanted resentment towards him. In the end, no matter how eloquently he advocates his causes, it would be best to say that Edward Teller was complicated, and leave it at that yet again. Let that encompass all of him.



Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

Very well written and extremely informative. Life of Edward Teller reinforces (atleast for me)the view that intellectual brilliance does not always equate to 'true wisdom'. Some brilliant minds are as much given to human fallibility as any of the lesser mortals, which is a pity indeed.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

True Vivek, although I think the problem also lies in people thinking that scientists are immune to the emotions that are experienced by 'lesser' mortals. In Teller's case, I think the problem is that he seems to be aware of his flaws and shortcomings, and still seems to have not curbed them. He seems to have repeatedly exercised his belligerent views and seems to have gotten carried away by his emotions. Such repeated errors don't suit a scientist of Teller's erudition.

1:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home