Monday, September 09, 2013

Edward Teller: anniversary, interview

Edward Teller died exactly 10 years ago. See the biography I wrote 100 years after his birth and other TRF articles mentioning Teller.

In this 30-minute interview taped on August 5th, 1974, he talked to James Day.

At the beginning, the father of the H-bomb claims that what exploded and changed after the war was technology, not science. He tries to explain to the host that the pure scientific discoveries had no major impact on the life of the society and this impact isn't the right criterion to measure their importance.

The theoretical breakthroughs are pillars of applications but they also have a remarkable spiritual value. Teller compares their era, the 1970s, with the second half of the 16th century. We're behaving as people who didn't know that the Earth was round. However, educated people living then knew it was round. However, educated people today haven't understood the key transformations that have occured in the physical sciences of their era. Clearly, this problem wasn't created by the 21st century; it was there in the 1970s if not earlier.

And he was talking about the educated people, not those 10% who believe that the moonlanding was fake. A whole group of teenagers laughed at Teller's daughter who dared to suggest that the moonlanding was real. Poor girl. ;-) It's a part of the credibility of television, Teller suggests, although I am not sure in which way it was meant. However, the moonlanding money wasn't spent for science; it was spent for some interesting technology and public amusement (the best investment to amusement: so inspiring).

The following answer by Teller is clever, too. The host "summarizes" Teller's previous statement by saying that the money could have been better spent for real science. Teller says that the money couldn't have spent in this way because we don't have enough scientists. Money does not buy science; money buys technology. Interesting thoughts that especially some of the greedy contemporary scientists living in the culture of entitlement should listen to. Also, Teller points out that the main progress in science during the previous 150 years had cost virtually nothing. (It would surely be hard to reconcile these statements with the construction of the LHC or ILC but the colliders are still anomalies of a sort.)

Teller's early years in Budapest are the next topic. The host tries to sell a young Teller as a chemical engineer or whatever. Teller protests, saying that he had wanted to become a mathematician but his father insisted on something practical. After two years of cheating – studying chemical engineering and maths at the same moment – his dad surrendered and allowed Edward Teller to do whatever he wished. When he was 20, he fell in love with the atom and insights about it.

The host tries to suggest that Teller was sort of Bohr's student in Copenhagen. Teller disagrees and says that he primarily learned things in Leipzig, especially from Heisenberg. Teller was closer to Heisenberg in many respects. Teller left Germany when Hitler emerged and Gamow prepared a job for Teller at the George Washington University.

It's sort of funny that almost everything that the host says is considered kind of fundamentally wrong by Teller. The host suggests that Teller, he believes, "had to" get to the Manhattan Project gradually, by many stages. Teller disagrees and says that they were rapid stages and it makes no sense to think about them as stages at all. You can guess what's actually going on in this exchange: the host tries to impose the politically correct position that one should be ashamed of having worked for the Manhattan Project while Teller was clearly not ashamed at all. ;-)

The discovery of fission opened the possibilities to practically apply nuclear physics; and Teller had some clue what was at stake concerning Hitler. So joining the project was clearly a no-brainer for Teller. Teller was said to be a companion of Leo Szilard who convinced Einstein to endorse the project. Teller said that he wasn't quite a companion as he was Szilard's intelligent and agreeing driver (who drove Szilard to sign the letter with Einstein). ;-) Teller's opinions hadn't quite crystalized by that moment. Einstein received Szilard and his driver (in slippers) and served some coffee and quickly signed it. An efficient guy, this Einstein.

Is a scientist obliged to consider ethical implications of his work? Teller said that he hadn't changed his mind greatly. It's a terribly mistake to take oneself too seriously. And it's a smaller mistake but still a significant one for others to take a scientist too seriously. A scientist has an extremely important job, to make or do science, which is wonderful and can't be done by a non-scientist. It's what powers the mankind and may drive the mankind in both directions. And some scientists are doing applied research but Teller was never really doing that before the 1970s.

Teller would choose pure science even at the time of the interview but he also noticed that after the war, applications were greatly neglected by the whole scientific community. He says that the U.S. was losing its leading role in the technology at the time of the interview – LOL, it's clearly another evergreen that's been around for decades.

The host asks why should the U.S. maintain its leading role anyway – isn't number two or number three just as OK? Teller says that it's just about some details like the standards of living and the survival. ;-) And maintaining things like free speech. Teller just realized he forgot to say that one of the things that drove him to the Manhattan Project was a speech by F.D. Roosevelt. FDR said that it was a duty for a scientist to contribute the weapons that are needed. And if he hadn't said it clearly, he implied it. ;-)

And Teller adds that because Solzhenitsyn isn't allowed to write in Russia, a country he loves, freedom is as threatened as it was in May 1940 when FDR spoke. Applications are important if you want to have energy and freedom. The host asks about the difference between constructive and destructive applications. Teller wants time to clarify some details first. Returning to a previous question, he says that scientists have to do pure research, applied research, and explain what the applications are and mean. The final decision on applications is made by the people in power, however – which includes the people at the polls in democracy that Teller believes in although it's problematic in some ways. Scientists explain, advice, but the decision belongs to the people. In totalitarian systems, it belongs to someone else.

Concerning the existence of a difference between constuctive and destructive inventions, Teller decided to answer No, there is no difference, but he gave up attempts to prove it. Instead, he offers two stories to sketch why he might be saying No. Nylon looks like a peaceful invention. Almost all of it went to parachutes for the military at some point. The inventor didn't know what was going on and when he learned, he had no control over it. The second example is even more important. The Third Reich needed to win the war by Christmas 1940 because they relied on the import of some gunpowder (or its component) from Peru which was constrained by seasons. But the Germans realized that Fritz Haber had found a method to bind nitrogen (Nobel prize for synthesis of ammonia) a year earlier. This fact added years to the war, a catastrophe. The same discovery is needed to produce fertilizers. Without them, not more than 2 billion people could be maintained. The survival of billions depends on the discovery. Scientists can't foresee all the future applications. They have to understand, apply, and explain.

The final question: Why a pretty small country like Hungary produced so many luminaries? One explanation is an optical illusion. Hungarians are more visible. The second explanation is that they escaped a shipwreck and don't want to be in another one. That, to some extent, sets them apart.

I would add this is a funny interpretation because most folks in Central Europe would probably think of Teller, von Neumann, and Szilard primarily as about Jews, not "Hungarians". It's a sort of a historical coincidence that in the relevant era, this prominent class of Central European Jews had a very high representation in Hungary. In the early 20th century, Jews made 5% in Hungary and 23% in Budapest. Today, there are still over 100,000 ethnic Jews in Hungary – I hope that this figure (and not 10,000 of practising Jews in Hungary) is a counterpart of the number 4,000 in the Czech Republic, for example.


  1. I was always a great admirer of Edward Teller, he von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam were not only great scientists and mathematicians but also had unusually sharp understanding of the political and social aspects of the world that they lived in.

    I am not really sure what the physicist Henry Furth's real feelings about Edward Teller were but the following famous poem is so clever that I think it deserves to be quoted here:

    Well up above the tropostrata
    There is a region stark and stellar
    Where, on a streak of anti-matter
    Lived Dr. Edward Anti-Teller.

    Remote from Fusion's origin,
    He lived unguessed and unawares
    With all his antikith and kin,
    And kept macassars on his chairs.

    One morning, idling by the sea,
    He spied a tin of monstrous girth
    That bore three letters: A. E. C.
    Out stepped a visitor from Earth.

    Then, shouting gladly o'er the sands,
    Met two who in their alien ways
    Were like as lentils. Their right hands
    Clasped, and the rest was gamma rays.

  2. The man was a first-class FANATIC!

    A fanatic in defence of freedom, which is the only way to be about it. A great man. A hero.

  3. LOL, Edward Teller obviously made the host of the interview who countinuously claimed wrong things look very stupid, like a school boy who has not done his homework ... :-D

  4. He was probably the only one at Los Alamos who wasn't a communist, other than Feynman--but then he let Klaus Fuchs borrow his car. ;-)

  5. Teller asks what are the consequences of the fact that atoms are "as unpredictable as human beings are supposed to be

    Nice phrase that, but I don't think it is true. Human beings are more unpredictable than atoms. Lubos might disagree.

  6. Hey lumo! Do you have a shareable/public email address? If not, send me a ping mail ( I have something to tell you.

  7. Ehm... Compared with John von Neumann Teller was a pinko:

    "During a Senate committee hearing he described his political ideology as "violently anti-communist, and much more militaristic than the norm". He was quoted in 1950 remarking, "If you say why not bomb [the Soviets] tomorrow, I say, why not today. If you say today at five o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?".

  8. Thanks for prompting me to view this video again - many years after my first viewing.

    E.Teller clearly was a very serious and impressive man.

    I can imagine that you Lumo might be in a similar seat (being interviewed) one day, at similarly matured age.

    Although you would surely have slowed down compared to the current speed of your current internal/mental metabolism/messaging-system I expect your answers and comments would then be as concise, enlightened and emphatic as Teller's except delivered at a speed more comparable to Richard Feynman's. ;-)

  9. LOL.. Dilaton, but I am actually convinced that it isn't just that it "looks" this way. He actually *failed* to do his homework (which is OK because it can be done during the interview).

    He was inventing stories about what Teller liked as a youngster, whom he learned from, from some random partial data that don't really imply such things, while he missed things he shouldn't have missed.

    I think that today, most people would even be afraid to point out that a journalist is a sloppy student of this sort - they would be afraid that the journalists would revenge for being isolated as bad ones and the revenge would include a whole bandwagon of hundreds of millions of gullible people who uncritically believe what they read.

    This absence of the feedback - someone who politely says that a journalist is being a completely sloppy person or imbecile whenever it's the case - is the reason of the lowering quality of journalists.

  10. LOL, right. I also don't think that Teller's opinions would be in any sense extreme - or extremely violent. The story with the Szilard was similar. He wasn't sure, a driver, and drove Szilard to Einstein's house who would sign the development of the nuclear bomb right after the coffee.

    Teller was painted as an evil extremist mostly due to the hearings about Oppenheimer. Well, Teller was asked whether he considered Oppenheimer dangerous in those super-top-influential positions due to his politics, and Teller said Yes. I would have also said Yes because it's clearly the right answer. As a youngster, he would be in lots of movements that were later correctly classified as movements attempting to make a communist revolution of a sort. But even after the war, he would pay lots of money to the "progressive" movement directly through some of the Communist Party members he knew. And he said lots of things. If an honest person in the U.S. who thinks that the regime in the USSR is something that U.S. can't risk to resemble, of course that he must answer Yes.

    This doesn't mean that Oppenheimer was a bad physicist or an evil person. He was just unfit for positions that are de fact supersensitive top-tier jobs in a democratic country.

  11. Teller stabbed Oppenheimer in the back at the security hearings because he was jealous and because Oppenheimer opposed Teller's big push for the fusion bomb. I do not believe that Teller thought that Oppenheimer was in any way a security risk. The Manhattan Project was administered in a brilliant way by Oppenheimer. Teller was pissed totally when Oppenheimer made Hans Bethe head of Theoretical Physics Division. Bethe and most others were appalled by Teller's testimony against Oppenheimer. Teller and particularly Lewis Strauss were out to get Oppenheimer, and Strauss set J Edgar Hoover to wire-tap and basically get anything he could to destroy his credibility and reputation.

    Ulam also was often annoyed with Teller's constant grab for recognition, and their relationship was often strained.
    Richard Rhodes' first two books about the bombs--first "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and then "Dark Sun" about the US and Soviet development of the H bomb, are detailed and revealing.

  12. I wouldn't call Hans Bethe a left wing activist. He wouldn't talk to Teller ever after the testimony.

  13. Dear Luboš, life is too short to spend it twisting oneself into a pretzel to conform with groupthink. I was a big fan of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld who was never afraid to dress down a reporter and tell them precisely where they were wrong and how to screw themselves :)

  14. I would say that atoms are more unpredictable than human beings (if you know someone well, usually you can predict his or her behaviour fairly accurately) but that atoms are unpredictable in a predictable way (we know the distributions) while human beings are unpredictable in largely unpredictable ways.

    But anyway, this is not the reason why "history is not a science" since prediction plays no role in history (by definition).

  15. Dear Gordon, one may both edit and delete comments - and also keep them. You didn't have to delete it.

    I don't know what is the actual evidence that "jealousy" was behind it - I can't even imagine what could possibly be the evidence. Moreover, if Teller's efforts to construct the H-bomb that were blocked by Oppenheimer were a part of the reason why Teller testified as he did, I would still think that Teller's motivation was OK because it was important for the U.S. to be ahead of the USSR in the WMDs. Oppenheimer probably disagreed that the U.S. should be ahead - and this is a part of the problem here.

    His directing of the Manhattan Project was OK but the U.S. had a different enemy then and the USSR was an ally. No one accused Oppenheimer of being pro-Hitler. However, the postwar situation was different. The enemy was the USSR and there may have been doubts about Oppenheimer's leadership of a science branch of the U.S. military if the enemy was someone who didn't really seem to be Oppenheimer's enemy.

  16. Yes, it is really bad that too many people put more confidence into science journalists, independent from what nonsense or misleading things they write, what kind of trolls they cite or interview to write a report, etc ... :-/

    I too oven observe that the "broader" audience who knows nothing about a physics topic accuses scientists and experts who know what they are doing of being dishonest and actively telling lies to secure their funding and jobs etc, for example in comments below popular articles ... :-/

    Of course we all know some trolls, who are to blame for or at least responsible for a large part of this bad situation, by name and not even eliminating them would reverse the damage they have done ... :-/.

    On Matt Strassler's blog, a pompous arrogant dimwit journalist once even proudly stated that he does not have to know anything about the topic he reports about, because he has the right to write what he wants ...!

  17. It is quite evident from reading Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and "Dark Sun" that Lewis Strauss was out to get Oppenheimer and set in motion an elaborate witch-hunt involving J Edgar Hoover. I do not believe that Oppenheimer was in any way interested in Communism or political ideology after the Manhattan Project.
    I do agree that he was mercurial and potentially unstable. They could have simply removed him as head of various committees and kept him as a "consultant" and not revoked his clearance instead of a public show trial and humiliation. The behind-the-scenes dirty tricks by Strauss are revolting. Many people made the mistake of being sympathetic to the communists when young (not me)--the brain isn't yet fully myelinated :)