Even though he didn’t like the title, Edward Teller is known by all as “the father of the hydrogen bomb.” Although he was only part of a team who developed the bomb, Teller’s name has been associated with it throughout his life and beyond. Moreover, this association turned him into the cautionary tale of how science can be misused but also how brilliant people can do extraordinary harm, whether they intend to do so or not.
Teller’s life was full of tragedy and misunderstandings, so read on to find out 10 interesting facts about Edward Teller!
Interesting Edward Teller Facts
1. Teller had a Jewish background and was affected by discrimination
Edward Teller was born in Hungary in 1908, into a Jewish family. During Miklos Horthy’s regime, he chose to leave Hungary for Germany in 1926. There he went on to study mathematics and chemistry, crediting Herman Mark with his inspiration to become a physicist.
2. His choice to move into physics wasn’t well received
Teller’s father didn’t agree with his choice of switching study domains into physics. He didn’t see this as the path to a well-paying and secure job, and therefore he travelled to the University of Karslruhe to change his mind, an important fact about Edward Teller. It appears that Teller’s professors actually changed his father’s mind, as he then gave his permission for Teller to become a physicist.
3. He lost his right foot in an accident
Later during his studies, Teller lived in Munich and was on his way to do a hike in the Bavarian Alps when he jumped on a streetcar, and then off it again while it was still in motion. He fell and got his foot severed almost entirely by the wheel. This left him with a permanent limp and he sometimes used a prosthetic foot.
Interestingly, he was taking painkillers after the accident, which he found to be interfering with his thinking. He said he used his willpower to deal with the pain instead – and even used the placebo effect by convincing himself that he had taken painkillers but just drinking water instead.
4. He got out of Germany at the right time
Luckily, Teller managed to leave Germany for England in 1933, once Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in January of that year. Teller often said that religion was not relevant to him, but his origins would put him in peril, so he left with help from the International Rescue Committee, a fortunate fact about Edward Teller. He first went to England, then Copenhagen, then finally back to England again, before eventually leaving for the United States in 1935, with an invitation to become a Professor of Physics at George Washington University.
5. Teller worked on the Manhattan Project from the start
In 1942, Edward Teller was invited to be part of the summer planning seminar at the University of California, Berkeley, which would be the origins of the Manhattan Project. Robert Oppenheimer was leading it and, in early 1943, the Los Alamos Laboratory was established in New Mexico, with the aim of designing an atomic bomb.
6. He never got on with Oppenheimer
In spite of being very similar personalities and having similar backgrounds, Oppenheimer and Teller never got on. Oppenheimer was already a well-established and respected scientist by the time he met Teller. Teller never fully trusted him and was then further irritated with Oppenheimer when the latter decided to make someone else, Hans Bethe, the head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos.
7. He put his own advancement ahead of true scientific advancement
Edward Teller comes across as strongly egotistical when we analyse his behaviour, despite his scientific contributions. For example, after World War II was over, Teller kept on pushing for the development of the hydrogen bomb, his idea. His initial design was flawed and he knew this, but he kept pushing for the design to be developed and taking advantage of the worsening political situation during the beginning of the Cold War, an interesting fact about Edward Teller.
8. Teller stole credit for the hydrogen bomb
History has shed more light on this fact. The first successful idea for the hydrogen bomb actually belongs to Stanislaw Ulam, who first came up with calculations which showed Teller’s original flaws and then thought of the key process of radiation implosion that would enable a sustained nuclear fusion. Realising the merit in this idea, Teller stole it and refined it himself, and never actually admitted to Ulam’s original contribution even to the end of his life. This is especially puzzling because Teller ended up downplaying his own role in the development of the hydrogen bomb.
9. Teller led to the downfall of Oppenheimer
In 1954, Teller’s greatest controversy took place when he was asked to testify at Oppenheimer’s security clearance hearing. He was the only member of the scientific community opposed to giving Oppenheimer his security clearance, saying that the latter would pose a risk to US security. He also accused Oppenheimer of hindering his efforts towards an active thermonuclear development program, which was proven untrue.
Oppenheimer’s security clearance was revoked and Teller was shunned by the scientific community. Teller denied that he had intended to harm Oppenheimer, but historic details have surfaced to prove the contrary.
10. Teller warned about climate change
Edward Teller was one of the first scientists to mention climate change and its potential risks, an interesting fact about Edward Teller. In 1957, he gave a speech at the American Chemical Society where he warned about how the large amount of carbon-based fuel burnt since the 19th century would increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which would act like a greenhouse and raise the temperature.
Teller was an enigmatic figure and obviously a brilliant scientist; however, he remains in history as having contributed to one of the worst weapons as well as having sabotaged his fellow scientists out of pettiness and selfish reasons. There top 10 facts show him as the controversial man he really was.
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