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.