Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, had a thing for nuclear bombs. He wanted them bigger, smaller, faster, used in ways that no one had thought of before or since, and always more of them. He suffered no fools, and though he would be more villified than any other American scientist in the 20th century, he always dismissed his critics as lacking in common sense or patriotism. Amid Cold War paranoia and fears of the Soviet nuclear program, the stakes were simply too high: for the free world, building the most powerful weapon in history was a matter of life and horrible death.
To make his point, Teller pointed to his first-hand experience with tyranny, first under the Communists and then the Fascists, who raised hell across Hungary before he fled in the 1930s for America. His scars weren’t just psychic: a streetcar ran over Teller’s foot during his early years, leaving him hobbling for the rest of his life.
That only added to Teller’s “mad scientist” persona, one that would inspire Stanley Kubrick in the creation of Dr. Strangelove. Teller’s love for the bomb wasn’t the only thing that earned him suspicion and hatred from the scientific community: Teller falsely insisted that Stanislaw Ulam made no significant contribution to the development of the hydrogen bomb, and attacked the political integrity of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb who was doubtful of the need for any larger weapons. Nobel Prize winning physicist Isidor I. Rabi once suggested that “It would have been a better world without Teller.”
But despite his love for the bomb and his petulant personality, Teller didn’t consider himself a war-mongerer. His zeal for nuclear – by 1951, he had urged the U.S. to run a dozen nuclear tests a year – didn’t stem from a desire to kill thousands: the hydrogen bomb would, he said, end all nuclear war forever. One thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Teller’s bomb was perhaps the only invention designed to make its own use obsolete.
But in an era of terrorist non-state actors and “rogue” nations pursuing nuclear weapons of various kinds, that very idea is now considered obsolete. The debate over Teller’s legacy continues, however. His later years were characterized by a pursuit of other uses for nuclear weapons. He pushed the U.S. to launch Plowshare, a project that, laughably, aimed to build canals and harbors using nuclear weapons, and urged President Reagan to launch the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative, widely lampooned as “Star Wars,” that would have launched nuclear-powered laser weapons into orbit.
Teller dreamed of other uses too: he wanted to rocket bombs into the Moon for science, fly to Mars on nuclear rockets, and use fusion to create a limitless supply of nuclear energy – an endeavor that scientists are still pursuing today at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory , the lab Teller helped start.
In his 90s, Teller worked with his former student, the engineer Ralph Moir, on one last project: designing a “safe” underground nuclear reactor that would run not on uranium but thorium, an element that can produce a nuclear reaction, but which produces much less waste than uranium and is all but unusable for building nuclear weapons.
I learned of the paper — published in 2005 in the journal Nuclear Technology — during an interview I did with Moir on the sidelines of the Thorium Energy Alliance conference. Motherboard was there to make our short documentary The Thorium Dream,, about the growing movement of engineers and amateur scientists pushing for a thorium-based nuclear fuel cycle.
Moir, who had studied under Teller at Berkeley and worked at Livermore, said that his former professor was dedicated to safer, proliferation-resistant nuclear power out of concern for the climate and the need to wean Earth off fossil fuels. But, Moir said, even while he pushed for more peaceful uses of nuclear power, Teller was not concerned about his legacy as the father of the hydrogen bomb, even if he thought that title was in poor taste. To the end, he insisted that he and other scientists were not morally responsible for their inventions.
Even if that idea conflicted with Teller’s own political convictions about the need for the bomb, it underscored a central paradox in science to this day — and made him the complex icon of the 20th century’s largest and most infamous scientific pursuit.