Edward Teller Biography (1908-)


Teller was born in Budapest on January 15, 1908. He attended the KarlsruheTechnische Hochschule, the University of Munich, and the University of Leipzig. He earned his Ph.D. degree in theoretical physics at Leipzig in 1930.

Teller's earliest research interests involved the application of quantum theory to physical chemistry. His first paper, "Hydrogen Molecular Ions" outlinesa theory of the hydrogen molecule that is still widely accepted. From 1931 to 1933, Teller continued his research at the University of Göttingen. Following that period, he spent a year working with Niels Bohr at the University of Copenhagen.

By the mid-1930s, it had become clear to many European scientists that they could not continue to work in their homelands. The rise of fascist governmentsin Germany and Italy created a serious threat not only to their scientific careers, but also to their very survival. Teller was one of dozens of researchers who decided to leave the continent for the United States. From 1935 to 1941, he held the post of professor of physics at George Washington Universityin the District of Columbia.

During this time, Teller's research interests shifted to the newly discoveredphenomenon of nuclear fission. In 1941, he accepted an assignment to work onthe Manhattan Project developing the first atomic bomb.

Part of Teller's notoriety today has its origin in the interpersonal struggles that arose during the bomb research. Teller was especially enthusiastic about moving beyond the fission bomb to a larger and more powerful "superbomb,"one that made use of fusion reactions. For a variety of reasons, he was unable to convince other scientists or the United States government to go forwardon this project.

After the war, Teller became embroiled in the controversy about J. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance. Many scientists believe that Teller's testimony in the case was critical in having Oppenheimer branded as a security risk and denying him further security clearance.

Teller has long been an active and outspoken advocate of U.S. military preparedness. He has written, spoken, and otherwise campaigned for a strong defenseprogram. He regarded the election of like-minded Ronald Reagan as presidentin 1980 as a "miracle" for the nation. Only three years later, he had convinced Reagan of the need for and feasibility of a massive national defense program, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Nicknamed "Star Wars" for its futuristic plans, SDI continues to consume billions of dollars in research and development funds each year. In spite of the demise of the Soviet Union, the program is expected to cost an additional $90 billion between the years 1992 and 2007. Critics continue to attack the program, however, claiming it is based on overly optimistic projections, faulty science, and unrealistic expectations.

The Soviet Union's detonation of its first atomic bomb in 1949 rekindled United States' interest in Teller's "superbomb." The following year, President Harry S Truman gave approval for the development of that weapon. Although the accuracy of Teller's actual computations on the bomb have been questioned, heis widely acknowledged to be the "father of the hydrogen bomb."

Since 1952, Teller has been associated with the Lawrence Livermore Laboratoryat the University of California at Berkeley. He has received the Enrico Fermi Award (1962), the Albert Einstein Award (1977), and the National Medal of Science (1982).

Recent Updates

September 9, 2003: Teller died on September 9, 2003, at his home in Palo Alto, California. He was 95. Source: New York Times, September 10, 2003, p. A1.

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