- Historic Sites
“We Knew That If We Succeeded, We Could At One Blow Destroy A City”
A final interview with the most controversial father of the atomic age, Edward Teller
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
[ Long pause .] I can now say yes. I have thought about this a great deal in recent years. In my testimony in the Oppenheimer matter I was prepared to say he was a loyal citizen. I did say that. But immediately before my testimony I received information that he had accused one of his friends of espionage, for which there had been no evidence. I received that information, and it induced me to be a little more open about the point that I did not agree with him in many details of what he was doing. I should have told the meeting that I had been influenced by that information I had gotten concerning the statements of Oppenheimer on his friend Chevalier. I wish I had.
Are you saying it was only momentary anger over what Oppenheimer had said about Haakon Chevalier that led you to speak as you did?
Not anger, more of a feeling of responsibility. I could not ignore such responsibility. I see now I should have given my source of information. I had been told not to repeat the source, but I should have ignored that and told it. The result was pain for Oppenheimer and for me. But it was not anger; it was worry and more worry. I was not alone in this. Oppenheimer was a good friend, a great and wise man who saw the world in a foolish way. Sadly, history has proven this to be so.
“I see now I should have given my source of information.... the result was pain for Oppenheimer and for me.”
You stood practically alone in the scientific community after the hearings, especially among your fellow physicists from Los Alamos. How were you able to re-establish relationships with your colleagues?
Not easily, and with some not ever; but with the help of some of my friends, most particularly Hungarian friends. For instance, Szilard and I were in sharp disagreement, yet he did not leave me in the slightest. Among the others, I lost far too many.
Well before the AEC hearings, you had already broken off from the Los Alamos group, going so far as to lobby the government for a new lab here at Berkeley to work on the hydrogen bomb following the breakthrough you shared with Stanislaw Ulam.
My work at Los Alamos was over. I had recommended we build a new laboratory, which most fortunately became a reality in Livermore. This became my new home. I’m still consulting there two days practically every week.
Yet the first full fusion test, the Mike shot, was a Los Alamos device. You’ve described sitting in a darkened room in the basement at Berkeley and watching the shot on a seismograph printout. Why were you not present for the birth of this child?
It was not yet the Super. It was a test of certain theories, mine and Ulam’s. We were at the very beginning of the project. The head of Los Alamos, Norris Bradbury, kindly invited me to attend. I had to stay in Livermore, but on the advice of a very excellent seismologist friend I had the seismograph set up and all the seismologists in Berkeley watching. I was indeed watching in the basement. The time came and went, and nothing was seen. It couldn’t have been. The shock that came through the earth, moving at sound velocity, took a quarter of an hour or more to arrive. The shock wave arrived precisely at the time when it should and had roughly the right shape. We found that what was seen was precisely what should have been seen. At that time I knew it was a success. Remarkably enough the people in Los Alamos did not know that because their representatives in the Pacific, where the shot actually took place, were not allowed to tell home until Washington made up its mind that it was clear. I was not allowed to wire anything classified, so I made up my own code. I did not mention any explosion, only that it was a boy. I’m glad to say the message was received, understood, and it was their first news that the shot was a success, though I have to apologize for its sexist character.
Have you been surprised by the growth of public interest in science since the end of the Second World War?
That is a very complicated question. My branch of science became public policy the moment the world knew of Hiroshima. Unfortunately, a proper discussion requires a background and education that for a nonscientist in particular is not an easy matter.
Are you saying a lack of grounding in physics or mathematics disqualifies citizens from participating in discussions of scientific matters that might affect them?
No. From the beginning of the twentieth century there has been great interest in science. Very particularly there were two pieces of enormous progress: Einstein’s relativity and quantum mechanics. These two ideas resulted in great understandings that in many respects contradicted common sense. The idea of limited light velocity, the idea that if two events are simultaneous or not, you cannot properly judge without saying how fast you are moving—these are completely foreign to common understanding. Quantum mechanics even more.
Yes, but lately it would seem that international commerce or even religion has had more impact than scientific knowledge on scientific policy. Does this concern you?