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“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
Yes. But in the nineteenth century if a physicist believed in God, he had to admit that God was unemployed. Unemployed because the world was created billions of years ago with a law that at that time physicists believed in, of cause and effect, according to which the whole future is absolutely determined by what we can see today. Quantum mechanics says that the future is not determined. We can’t find out about the future. Probabilities, perhaps, but not certainties. If quantum mechanics is right, and if you happen to believe in God, there is plenty for God to do. He is anything but unemployed. That should give you a bit of a feeling how important, for the general way of thinking, science has been. On top of that there came all the practical applications of which the nuclear explosions are a symbol. The result was a growing interest in science in the last half of the twentieth century. But there is a limit. The more we know, the more seems unknowable, certainly to laymen or those of religious intent. Those of the public who are interested are only beginning to understand how enormous the universe really is. I say enormous, and secretly I believe perhaps infinite.
How do you respond to the new reality that small, unaligned nations and even individual groups are attempting to get nuclear weapons and other means of mass destruction?
With extreme dismay, but not without hope and optimism. The danger is there, but these things are not easy to do. We found this out. For a small group nuclear weapons are very probably more trouble than they are worth. You can do more damage for much less cost with biological weapons. To my mind the danger is there for such weapons to start something like the great diseases that killed millions of people, yet this has not happened. Why not? These compounds are cheap, and there have been attempts, but the number of people killed were about a dozen or two. Why? I will give you two answers, one honest, one hopeful. The honest one is: I really don’t know. The hopeful one is: Our research in counteracting contagion has gone so far that for the terrorists to overcome it is not easy. You will see this is the case with nuclear weapons as well. Always there is a balance.
As you look back on an extraordinary career across most of a century, if you could write your own epitaph, what would you emphasize?
The love of science. I used to be a simple advocate for our government. I have changed. By being a little more curious about the world, I have learned that the difference between cultures is a varying thing, which can and should be reduced by emphasizing positive cooperation.
Dr. Teller, for my final question may I ask you if there is anything you regret?
Yes. [ Long pause .] Concerning Oppenheimer, I should have been more careful. I wish I was. But as far as people getting angry with me, I wish the outcome had been a little more gentle.