Edward Teller: the Man Behind the Myth

You would be astounded to read the transcripts of the Non-Proliferation hearings in the US senate in the 1950s. If you never thought US senators grovel, you must read their exchanges with Edward Teller.

I worked at Lawrence Livermore Lab for twenty years. I sometimes rode the elevator with Teller. I attended his talks. I rode up a lift with him about an hour after Arafat shook Rabin’s reluctant hand on the White House lawn, almost exactly 10 years ago. I nearly bit my tongue off, refraining from asking him what he thought about it. He didn’t look happy that day.

A close friend claims Teller had expressed a desire to be buried in Israel. Funny, for a man described by wire reports as being “of Jewish origin”, i.e., not Jewish, and a great patriot. No word of that in any of the reports of his exuberant Americanism. I guess, as always, the key question is “patriot of which country?”

Presumably, Teller is a citizen of Israel; but, there’s no way he could have kept his ultra-high security clearance with dual citizenship. Finessed, I suppose, like so many other dual loyalty cases in the US. Teller has family in Israel, and I suspect he had more than a little to do with Israel’s successful and clandestine nuclear weapons program.

Teller was reputedly ultra-brilliant, though he never impressed me so. I found him to be typically naïve; unwilling to accept that other, less technical people, were entitled to their skepticism of his claims. His attitude (borne by so many in my field) is what killed nuclear power in the US. I also found him sometimes exhibiting tunnel vision; as when I heard him decrying the ban on DDT because of all the deaths mosquitoes would cause. Apparently, he had not conception that other pesticides or methods could be used against mossies. I doubt he worried much over bald eagles. Bald egos, certainly.

As for his “Star Wars” role, the best story about him from my days at “the Lab” date from when Teller’s outlandish claim — that the entire US could be defended by a single, desk-sized orbiting weapons system — was held up to ridicule. It got around that a new unit had been devised; a unit of optimism, called the teller. The problem was, like the farad, one teller was so huge that ordinary events required only nanotellers or picotellers.

Teller hand-picked most of the Lab’s early key scientists. Then he left the seat of power to work ex officio. His legacy remains in a place where every sort of iconoclasm is abetted, except disdain for Israel. That will get you fired. I saw it happen to many good employees.

Perhaps most intriguing is the manner in which Teller gained so much control at Livermore. He was junior to the much more powerful (and superior physicist) Ernest Lawrence, after whom not one, but two US national laboratories are named. (One at Berkeley, the other at Livermore.)

Lawrence died young and, in my view, in mysterious circumstances just after a trip to Europe. I believe it possible he was assassinated; paving the way for Teller to take over and shape the Livermore Lab.

Lawrence is claimed to have stolen the idea for his Nobel prize-winning invention, the cyclotron, from — whom else? — Jewish physicist Leo Szilard. The claim seems ludicrous, and the US government certainly enshrined Lawrence’s memory well. But, we can expect, in time, Lawrence to succumb to disrepute, while Szilard’s legacy is growing, day by long, long day.

Courtesy www.fpp.co.uk