Edward Teller, the Real Dr. Strangelove, Peter Goodchild

Edward Teller is a giant in the history of the 20th Century. He is a central figure in the story of the Physicists coming down from the ivory tower to create the weapons that defined the second half of the century as the “atomic age”. Teller is maybe most commonly examined as an antagonist in the epic and theatrical tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer (about which, more someday…), and his attitude does reflect a contrary view to Oppenheimer’s, but his influence continued long after Oppenheimer was pushed off the stage.

Teller began his career as a brilliant physicist who collaborated with many of the early investigators of quantum mechanics, and contributing a couple of key results himself. Pushed out of Europe by the anti-semitism of the ’30’s, he came to the U.S., and when war came, he naturally and enthusiastically joined the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons.

In the Manhattan Project, Teller was somewhat sidelined because he hoped to bypass fission weapons and begin developing a fusion weapon (the H-bomb, or “super”) immediately. After the war he continued to work on the H-bomb project, although conflicts with his former colleagues at Los Alamos led him to push for the creation of the new national lab at Livermore, which he joined. Later in his career he became a political advocate for weapons research, weapons testing, and later for the SDI or “Star Wars” defense system created under Ronald Reagan.

This biography paints a portrait of a genius, committed to the security of his adopted country, but with two great flaws. Goodchild is really only explicit about describing the first of these, but he might have had both in mind as he draws together multiple threads of Teller’s life to demonstrate them both.

First, Teller allowed his personal insecurity to poison his relationships with other scientists. When young he was tormented and ostracized by his classmates for his bookish personality. As described by Goodchild, Teller never outgrew the insecurity he developed in response to that experience. Particularly during the Manhattan Project days, he reacted to limitations placed on his H-bomb project not as deliberate policy decisions but as personal attacks by the project leadership, particularly Robert Oppenheimer. Even before much of the physics community shunned him for his role in denying Oppenheimer a security clearance, he was convinced that a clique he called “Oppie’s men” was responsible for various setbacks in his efforts to promote the H-bomb. According to Goodchild, a good portion of this conviction derives from Teller’s jealousy at Oppenheimer’s erudite personality and ease of developing friendships. Goodchild further develops this theme in Teller’s relationships with several scientists other than Oppenheimer.

Second, in his late career Teller developed a horrifyingly consequential scientific hubris. He felt that only scientists, with their understanding of the technical details, could properly direct the development of nuclear technology. Lay people had no basis for contributing to the nation’s decisionmaking process when it came to his specialty field. This led him to advocate expansion of nuclear weapons testing in opposition to the public who would suffer from fall-out, and diplomats who hoped to achieve test and weapons limitation agreements with the Soviets.

The most emblematic incident of this hubris described in the book unfortunately isn’t connected directly to Teller, though it does seem to represent his attitude and that of his circle. The Livermore leadership felt that improvements to the H-bomb were a valuable end in themselves (of course they may have also considered that their livelihoods depended on the nation’s commitment to those continuing improvements) and they expected the public to fall into line to support their work. They hoped to demonstrate peaceful applications for the bomb by using it to excavate an artificial harbor at Cape Thompson, Alaska. However, when they arrived to present their plans to the local Inuit people, they found them much better informed than they had expected, and not particularly enthusiastic about the detonation of multiple nuclear bombs in their hunting grounds. Rather than address the people’s concerns with legitimate scientific evidence, they attempted to snow them with a variety of shaky (and downright false) facts. Although this anecdote actually involved Livermore leaders other than Teller, Goodchild shows how it is representative of Teller’s own attitude with, for example, his description of Teller’s reaction to public fears about the health effects of radiation.

Both of these flaws seen in Teller are particularly valuable as lessons to many of us in the technical community. The personality type that’s recently been described as “borderline autistic”, the introverted and asocial, but focused, personality that dominates tech, can easily fall into either of the traps demonstrated by Teller. Luckily very few of us are responsible for developing weapons of mass destruction.

I found Goodchild’s book well-written, clear, and engaging. The focus is well-balanced between technical, political, and personal narratives of Teller’s life. He also manages to analyze Teller’s life sympathetically, but without overlooking the flaws that made him of one of the most troubling figures of 20th century history.

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