Foundations of Chemistry

, Volume 14, Issue 1, pp 99–101

István Hargittai: Judging Edward Teller: A closer look at one of the most influential scientists of the twentieth century

Prometheus Books, 59 John Glenn Drive, Amherst, NY 14228-2119, 2010, 575 pp, $32.00, ISBN: 978-1-61614-221-6 (hardbound)


    • Department of ChemistryCalifornia State University, Fresno
Book Review

DOI: 10.1007/s10698-011-9133-x

Cite this article as:
Kauffman, G.B. Found Chem (2012) 14: 99. doi:10.1007/s10698-011-9133-x

Edward Teller, considered by some as the “Father of the H-Bomb,” the “Dr. Strangelove” of Stanley Kubrick’s 1967 award-winning anti-war comedy of that name, and one of the creators of the policy of mutually assured destruction (with the appropriate acronym MAD) between the United States and the U.S.S.R., probably contributed to the avoidance of a third world war. However, his aggressive personality and controversial activities have made it difficult to acknowledge and appreciate his achievements. He was a hero of the Cold War to his supporters, whereas he was evil personified to his detractors.

Because of his book, Martians of Science (Oxford University Press, 2008) about five eminent Jewish-Hungarian-American physicists (Theodore von Karmán, Leo Szilard, Eugene P. Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Teller), István Hargittai, Professor of Chemistry at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics and Head of the George A. Olah Ph.D. School of Chemistry and Engineering, was involved in the centenary of Teller’s birth (January 15, 1908). This motivated him to write Judging Edward Teller, dedicated to “victims of totalitarian regimes.” He discovered that of the five physicists the least satisfactory and most controversial material was that about Teller. Also, his background and Teller’s were very similar, and he was intrigued that during his years in the 1980s and 1990s as a visiting professor in the United States, he was puzzled that most of his American colleagues spoke of Teller in extremes.

According to Hargittai, “My deep interest in American affairs in general and in Teller in particular has made me wonder about the black-or-white approach to him even by some outstanding minds. My principal motivation for writing this book was to counter such a one-dimensional approach and create a portrait regardless of any preconceived image about Teller. Years of reading and writing about Edward Teller have brought me close to him, and I have learned to be appreciative of his virtues and to be conscious of his flaws” (p. 22).

Hargittai has used hitherto unknown material from Hungarian, American, and German archives as well as interviews with Teller and eminent figures such as Richard L. Garwin, Freeman J. Dyson, George A. Keyworth, and Wendy Teller (Edward Teller’s daughter). He has produced an insightful, balanced, book-length portrait of a multifaceted, enigmatic scientist who was active during a particularly turbulent period of history that saw two unprecedentedly destructive world wars.

Hargittai divides Teller’s life into three “exiles” that Teller professed to have experienced—(1) his emigration from Hungary at age 18 to Germany, which then seemed to offer better opportunities to a Jew than his homeland for an academic career; (2) his flight, on Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany, to England and eventually to the United States; and (3) the remainder of his career following his damaging testimony at J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security hearing. Perhaps only the second of these three should be considered a true exile.

Each of the roughly equal-length chapters is prefaced by one or more pertinent quotations and a brief summary of the chapter in italics.

Chapter 1, “Teller in Hungary: Origins and Background” (32 pp.), examines his first 18 years and asserts that being a Jew in Hungary in the 1920s was a significant factor in shaping his views and lifelong outlook. Chapter 2, “Germany: Road to Science” (30 pp., the shortest chapter), describes Teller’s training in chemistry, mathematics, and physics as well as the impact of his mentor Werner Heisenberg. Chapter 3, “Transitions” (31 pp.), delineates Teller’s move from Copenhagen to London and finally to the United States, a period during which he transformed himself from a somewhat unsure young man into a popular, respected member of the physics community. Chapter 4, “Atomic Bomb Quest” (42 pp.), reflects on Teller’s participation in the Manhattan Project and his negative traits that emerged at Los Alamos, which suppressed relations with some of his peers.

Chapter 5, “No Calm Before the Storm” (39 pp.), is concerned with the uncertainties of the immediate postwar years and Teller’s increasing involvement with the dilemma of the hydrogen bomb, his most all-consuming struggle. Chapter 6, “Fathering the Hydrogen Bomb” (37 pp.), presents the development of the thermonuclear bomb by Teller and the United States (a history muddled by his contradictory attributions of personal credit) and shortly thereafter by the U.S.S.R., resulting in a dangerous arms race by the two superpowers. Chapter 7, “From Worrier to Warrior” (33 pp.), introduces us to the next major goal of an increasingly anti-Communist Teller—the formation of a second nuclear weapons laboratory at Livermore, California and its controversial program, the penultimate step in the rupture of his relations with many of his peers. Chapter 8, “Double Tragedy: Teller and Oppenheimer” (40 pp., the longest chapter), discusses Teller’s testimony (he was the only major scientist to deny Oppenheimer clearance), at the Atomic Energy Commission Personal Security Board hearing, held on April 28, 1954 at the height of McCarthyism, which many regarded as a betrayal and sent him into his third exile, while contributing to Oppenheimer’s image as a martyr.

Chapter 9, “Fallout and Test Ban” (36 pp.), depicts Teller as a formidable debater in his fierce opposition to nuclear test bans. Because he considered the Soviets a greater threat than Hitler or the Nazis, he espoused a “clean bomb,” tried to assure the public that fallout was negligible, that birth defects were an acceptable price to pay for security, and even that nuclear winter was sustainable. Chapter 10, “A Monomaniac with Many Manias” (32 pp.), takes its title from the nickname bestowed on Teller by 1938 Nobel physics laureate Enrico Fermi. From 1954 to 1983 Teller considered himself a self-appointed guardian of freedom and seemed to thrive on controversy. He clashed with environmentalists, became engulfed in partisan politics, and became a member of the political-military establishment. Chapter 11, “Warring the Stars” (35 pp.), describes the now septuagenarian-turning octogenarian Teller’s zealous promotion of President Ronald W. Reagan’s flawed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which may have contributed to or at least accelerated the U.S.S.R.’s demise. Chapter 12, “Final Thoughts” (32 pp.), assesses Teller’s achievements and his legacy.

Meticulously organized and referenced (60 pp. of notes), Hargittai’s book includes 18 biographical summaries of leading persons figuring in the story in gray boxed sidebars, some longer than a full page (Yulii V. Khariton and Andrei D. Sakharov) as are Albert Einstein’s letter of August 2, 1939, urging President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to authorize research on a nuclear bomb (pp. 130–131) and the petition of July 17, 1945 signed by 68 scientists urging President Harry S Truman not to use the nuclear bomb on Japan without prior warning (pp. 154–155). It also contains a 20-page section of Biographical Names of most of the persons mentioned in the book with their dates and identification, a 3-page Timeline of selected events in Teller’s life, 48 glossy photographs, a Foreword (3 pp.) by Peter Lax, award-winning Hungarian-born American mathematician, an Afterword (4 pp.) by physicist Richard L. Garwin, IBM Emeritus Fellow, who had worked alongside Teller on the hydrogen bomb at Los Alamos, and a detailed (27 double-column page) index that makes it extremely user friendly.

I am pleased to recommend Judging Edward Teller, a comprehensive and personal yet objective composition that reveals the contradictory nature of a politically motivated scientist with all his strengths, brilliance, and shortcomings. Avoiding bias and preconceptions, Hargittai has critically examined Teller’s personality, family background, the experiences that directed his actions, and the ruthless actions that he took to achieve his goals. He also has corrected many of the contradictory myths that others and Teller himself promoted.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011