Edward Teller Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Teller helped to establish the theoretical groundwork for the production of the first atom bomb; he was also instrumental in the development of the hydrogen bomb in the United States. In the public policy arena, Teller promoted the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and urged the United States to develop new technologies to assure a strong defense.

Early Life

Edward Teller, born in Hungary in 1908, was the second child of Max and Ilona Teller. His mother, née Ilona Deutsch, was an accomplished pianist and was fluent in Hungarian, German, French, Spanish, and Italian. Max Teller had a successful law practice in Budapest. As prosperous assimilationist Jews, Edward’s parents emphasized the value of education. Edward and his sister, Emmi, were taught English by a governess; against a background of political upheaval in Hungary, Edward completed four years of training at the private Mellinger School and eight at the Minta gymnasium, or high school, both in Budapest. Edward’s first year at the Minta was in 1918; it was the end of World War I and the beginning of the rise of Russian Bolshevism. A year later, the government of Hungary was in the hands of Béla Kun, a hard-line Communist and an inept leader. There was a reign of terror, and the Teller family was touched by food shortages and fears of violence. Kun was a Jew, and Max Teller sensed a growing resentment in his country of all Hungarian Jews; yet at the same time there was intellectual ferment in Hungary. Budapest, in the postwar years, produced Eugene Wigner, Nobel Prize-winning physicist; Leo Szilard, one of the pioneers of nuclear physics; and John von Neumann, one of the greatest mathematical minds of the century. Each, including Teller, would eventually emigrate to the United States.

Teller showed an exceptional mathematical ability, but his father insisted that his son study something practical. In 1926, just before his eighteenth birthday, Teller enrolled in the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany to study chemical engineering, which satisfied his father, and to take mathematics on the side.

Within two years, Teller was captivated by the field of quantum mechanics—a new way of theorizing about the inner workings of atoms—and continued his studies in 1928 at the University of Munich, not as a chemical engineer, but as a physicist. It was in that same year that Teller lost his entire right foot in a streetcar accident. He soon learned to walk with an artificial foot, but in later years his portly five-foot, nine-inch frame, great beetled brows, large ears, Hungarian accent, and uneven gait were the easy target of caricature. Teller could seem kindly but could as easily turn self-righteous and intimidating. Already, at the age of twenty, the gregarious Teller was developing a sense of self-assurance, of inner direction, that was counted by some as arrogance.

After the accident, Teller continued his doctoral studies at the University of Leipzig, studying under Werner Heisenberg, already famous for his “uncertainty principle” of quantum mechanics. Teller left the university in 1930 with a Ph.D. degree in theoretical physics; he stayed in Germany, working as a research consultant at the University of Göttingen until Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Teller realized that he had no hope of continuing his academic career in Germany, so, in 1934, with his theoretical work in physics already highly regarded, he began a year’s stay at the University of Copenhagen under a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship. This was a pivotal time in Teller’s life. He studied with Niels Bohr and became part of a group of theoretical physicists who were looking at the atom with new eyes. Bohr had revolutionized physics with the “complementarity principle,” which described the atomic structure as exhibiting both wave and particle characteristics; further, it stated that the two views of atomic structure, though seemingly mutually exclusive, were both correct.

In Copenhagen, Teller met the Russian expatriate George Gamow, who, two years later, invited Teller to George Washington University in Washington, D.C., as a professor of physics. Also in 1934, Teller married his childhood friend, Augusta Maria (Mici) Harkanyi, in a civil ceremony on February 26.

Life’s Work

Gamow is credited with encouraging Teller to focus on nuclear physics. In collaboration, they developed rules describing how certain subatomic particles could escape the atomic nucleus during radioactive decay. Both hosted a conference in January of 1939 that considered the possibility that an atomic nucleus, bombarded with subatomic particles, might actually split, releasing heat energy. Word had come from Berlin, via visiting lecturer Niels Bohr, that uranium had been bombarded with neutrons and that, chemically, part of the uranium had become barium, a lighter element. The uranium nucleus had been split, and a kind of alchemist’s dream had been realized.

In March of that year, Teller was interrupted at home, in the midst of playing a Mozart sonata, by an urgent telephone call from Leo Szilard. Szilard had answered a question posed at the January conference: If neutrons could split atomic nuclei, would those atomic nuclei in turn emit neutrons? The answer was yes, and Teller remembered this answer as an ominous turning point of atomic physics. A chain reaction, with the release of immense amounts of explosive force, just might be possible.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a speech to the Eighth Pan-American Scientific Conference in May, 1940, galvanized Teller into pouring his energies into the development of nuclear weapons. In the light of the recent Nazi invasions of the Low Countries, Roosevelt called on scientists to do what they could to preserve American freedom and civilization. Some months earlier, Roosevelt had established an advisory committee on uranium in response to a letter signed by Albert Einstein, detailing fears that Germany was making progress in developing nuclear technology. The letter urged the president to stimulate and coordinate the American research program. Teller himself worked closely with Enrico Fermi, first at Columbia University, then at the University of Chicago, to construct the first nuclear reactor, a demonstration of a controlled but sustained nuclear chain reaction.

The so-called Manhattan Project, conceived in 1942, served to bring the diverse research programs in nuclear fission (the splitting of the atomic nucleus) under control of the United States Army. In 1941, Teller and his wife had become American citizens; the next year, Teller joined with J. Robert Oppenheimer at the...

(The entire section is 2746 words.)