REACHING one's 90th birthday is in itself an achievement. Edward Teller came to that milestone with much more--important accomplishments, great honor, public recognition. For sure, the way has sometimes been rough; controversies have surrounded a good part of his life. But Teller not only endures, he has prevailed. Still actively pursuing new scientific ideas, still a leader in foreseeing problems in need of solution, Teller is irrepressible and influential. We had better take seriously his wishes for his 100th birthday, among them, "excellent predictions-calculations and experiments-about the interiors of the planets" that he wants Lawrence Livermore's scientists to give him.|
If there was a foreshadow of his career, it was late in appearing. Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1908, little Ede Teller did not utter a word until he was three years old. His grandfather was afraid he might be retarded. But in a case of all or nothing, when at last the child began to speak, it was in complete sentences. Shortly thereafter, he was inventing mathematical games to amuse himself. At the family dinner table with father Max, mother Ilona, and older sister Emmi, he would sometimes ask to be left alone because he had a "problem"-that is, he was pondering a mathematics question. At an early age, he read and understood Euler's text on algebra. Mathematics professors consulted by Papa Teller regarded Edward as exceptional in the subject.
Certainly, Teller's early educational ambitions were to study mathematics at the university. He was deterred in this by a father who, concerned about Edward's professional future, bade him to study chemical engineering. For two years Teller did this, but he was pulled away by the excitement over quantum mechanics, a new theory of physics that was changing the way scientists viewed atoms and molecules. Teller joined the fray and went to the University of Leipzig, where he studied under Werner Heisenberg.
Just before he entered Leipzig, tragedy struck: Teller, absentmindedly missing his trolley stop, jumped off the vehicle after it had restarted and fell under its tracks. He lost a foot to the accident and has since then depended on a prosthesis. The accident prevented him from engaging in many athletic activities, but his competitive spirit and determination allowed him to excel in one-Ping-Pong. Teller has said that he was not greatly afflicted by the loss of his foot; Werner Heisenberg has said that it was the hardiness of Teller's spirit, rather than stoicism, that allowed him to cope so well with the accident.
Teller met his wife, nicknamed Mici (for Augusta Maria), through his friendship with Edward "Suki" Harkanyi, her older brother. They married in February 1934, after a long courtship punctuated with separations caused by his university studies and appointments and a break of two years caused by a quarrel over Mici's decision to study at the University of Pittsburgh without first discussing any commitment to Edward. But their life together was foreordained. For over 60 years, Mici Teller has been an integral part of Edward's life at locales in Europe and across the United States. Early one year, Mici was uprooted from their home of three months and moved several times, from the Virginia suburbs to New York City, then to Berkeley, and, just as she found herself pregnant, on to Chicago and finally to Los Alamos. Paul, their first child, was born during the first summer at Los Alamos, and Wendy followed two years later.
Some scientists live only for their work. Teller, who greatly loves science, nevertheless has many other interests and pursuits. Among them is music. He is an accomplished pianist with an extensive classical repertoire. When relaxing at the piano with Mozart, he is unhappy about being interrupted, as happened one day when Leo Szilard phoned. Fortunately for Szilard, the reason for the call-confirming the fundamental basis for nuclear bombs, that neutrons bombarding elements could cause the release of more neutrons-was interesting enough to displace Mozart.
If Teller likes to have his Steinway (the "monster" purchased at a hotel auction in Chicago) moved to wherever he lives, he also likes to be surrounded by scientific colleagues and continually share ideas. Essential to Teller's scientific method are free exchanges that stimulate thought or check irrationalities. It is no surprise that he feels strongly about scientific exchanges or that he expresses himself well and is a natural teacher.
In his youth, Teller and his family experienced repression and persecution at the hands of the Communists after Bela Kun seized power in Hungary. One war later, they were persecuted by Nazis. After 1938, they were afraid to visit family and friends in Hungary lest they be detained by the instruments of Nazi power. Teller never saw his father again, and he was not to be reunited with his mother and older sister Emmi until 1959. Emmi's husband was lost to the Nazis, as was Mici's brother.
The political events that so affected Teller's life also affected his scientific career. His own inclination was to pursue pure science; war turned him into an applied scientist who used his expertise to develop weapons in the service of the United States. His work on the hydrogen bomb was an important accomplishment, especially when we found out that the Soviets were developing their own H-bomb. That work also made possible an invulnerable submarine-based nuclear deterrent. But somehow the confluence of Teller's achievement with the scientific debate over nuclear weapons in McCarthy-era politics led to the Teller-Oppenheimer conflagration that damaged both scientists.
Teller has survived and gone on. Today, as emeritus director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, he can look back on a very full life. But Teller, being Teller, mostly looks ahead.
-- Gloria Wilt