Longtime Livermore colleague Lowell Wood notes that there are many generalists who know a little about many things, but "Edward knows a lot about everything." Because Teller is expert in so many fields, he sees connections and relationships between disciplines.|
Says Wood, "Other scientists can be king of the hill for their narrow specialty, but Edward has the `intellectual bandwidth' to be pretty good in a lot of areas and tops in any area he chooses." In that respect, says Wood, Teller is similar to other 20th-century greats like Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and John von Neumann, who all made sizable contributions to more than one field (and who all at one time or another were close colleagues of Teller).
Livermore physicist Neal Snyderman attributes Teller's insatiable curiosity to the fact that he was present at the creation of quantum mechanics. "There was such excitement that you could finally understand matter. You finally had rules and then the great challenge of trying to understand everything."
Concerning Teller's famous assurance to the Navy in 1956 that Lawrence Livermore could produce a thermonuclear warhead small enough to be carried by a submarine, former Livermore Director Johnny Foster says that Teller had studied the technical challenges of miniaturizing warheads to a greater degree than people at the time appreciated. "Actually, Teller does a lot more thinking than talking." If he has a motto, says Foster, it is that "you've got to probe the limits."
In attempting to explain Teller's mark in so many disciplines, Weiss cites his "fantastic ability to absorb information." What's more, he says, "Teller's a very intuitive thinker. He has a lot of ideas, and every now and then there's a real shaker that changes physics."
Plenty of "Shakers"
Teller is especially interested in the contributions to physics that will be possible with the National Ignition Facility, now under construction at Livermore. "All of planetary physics and much of astrophysics, like the explanation of magnetic fields in sunspots, may well depend on the findings of NIF," he declared recently. Such findings, he said, could be even more important than the Laboratory's contributions to national security.
While much of Teller's attention in the 1980s was directed to designing defensive systems to safeguard the nation against ballistic missile attack, his focus in the 1990s has expanded to protecting the planet from possible catastrophes. One particular concern is the possibility of catastrophic damage to the Earth from an asteroid or comet, similar to the one that probably triggered the demise of dinosaurs. Teller has collaborated with several Livermore physicists, including Dick More, on the issue of determining whether a collision by a giant asteroid would disrupt Earth's magnetic field.
A 1995 workshop at Livermore on planetary defense drew more than 100 scientists from China, Russia, Europe, and the U.S. Teller emphasized to attendees the need for experiments to determine the composition and structure of comets and asteroids, and he discussed a strategy for mitigating hazardous objects so large as to be beyond the capabilities of nuclear explosives.
"Today, we know a meteorite killed 90% of all living things-dinosaurs and all kinds of other things. And that it was that meteorite that actually stimulated our own evolution. I have never been in favor of people dying out and a new world taking over. I would rather have evolution based on dreamed possibilities. So I advocate the building of telescopes, the prediction of collisions, and the deflection of objects, such as meteorites," Teller said.
The topic of asteroid collisions with Earth has recently caught the fancy of the public and moviemakers. The phenomenon illustrates the oft-repeated observation that Teller seems to anticipate society's needs for scientific and technological solutions, but more than that, he feels an overriding necessity to personally provide answers.
Over the past few years, Teller's concern for the planet has grown to devising ingenious fixes for possible environmental crises. He was the lead author of a paper presented at an international conference in Italy last year that outlined technological responses to drastic climate changes. He argued that current technology offers much more realistic options for addressing global warming than proposed drastic cutbacks in carbon dioxide emissions. One attractive approach, he suggested, involves diminishing by about 1% the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface, to counteract any warming effect of greenhouse gases. In like manner, the paper discusses prospects for "physics-based modulation" of sudden plunges in temperatures, similar to those in the past that resulted in mini ice ages.
Strongly related to Teller's concern with planetary protection is his interest in the origin of life and the forces that have shaped evolution. Snyderman suggests Teller is interested in biology because it involves fundamental chemistry, one of his first great interests, and because the origin of life presents "one of the great questions scientists are capable of answering but have not yet done so."
Safer Nuclear Power
If the industrial world's production of carbon dioxide is indeed causing global warming, then safe and affordable nuclear power, Teller believes, is a sure way to counteract that trend. His interest in safe fission reactors dates to the very beginnings of the atomic age. Shortly after its formation in June 1947, the Atomic Energy Commission established the Reactor Safeguard Committee, with Teller as its first chairman. Notes Snyderman, "Teller was involved from the very start of nuclear power more than 50 years ago. He believes it's the ultimate practical power source, but he also recognizes there's a public perception that must be overcome."
During the past decade, Teller has worked with Wood and other Livermore scientists on a new kind of nuclear fission reactor. The papers describe a nuclear reactor that has no moving parts and can operate without human intervention for three decades. Such a reactor, the authors state, "may be widely acceptable because its safety features are simple, inexpensive, and easily understood." If widely employed, the reactor could directly reduce present-day worldwide carbon dioxide emissions by twofold, thereby providing "a solution to all aspects of global warming."
The advanced reactor would be deployed 200 meters underground and capable of delivering electrical power up to 1,000 megawatts. It would be connected to the plant's electrical generator subsystems situated aboveground. The residual radioactivity would be sealed within the reactor's core and thereafter allowed to decay in place. Heat from the radioactivity would prevent water from reaching the system.
The novel concept has drawn interest from scientists from other national laboratories and even from Ukraine and Russia. Foster, who is familiar with the design, says that although much engineering work is required, the concept is sound and deserves further work. "What energy source are we going to leave our children?" he asks.
Teller also has a long-term interest in applying nuclear energy (both fusion and fission) to space exploration. Wood recalls working as a graduate student with Teller on designs for fission space propulsion engines in the 1960s and on more exotic, fusion-driven designs in the 1970s. Teller's current concept is a rocket engine, based on a uranium solution reactor, that would make possible travel from Earth to Mars in one day. As might be expected, Teller's interests in space range far beyond visiting the solar system, extending to the great questions of modern cosmology, including the physics of black holes and gamma-ray bursts.
Interest in Superconductors
Colleagues say Teller's enduring interest in magnetism is a natural extension of his early background in chemistry. One offshoot of that interest is his work with Livermore physicist Brian Wilson to advance the current theory of high-temperature superconducting materials. First discovered in 1986, these materials carry currents without the loss of any energy and in some cases generate immensely powerful magnetic fields. A satisfactory explanation for how high-temperature superconductors work still eludes scientists.
Superconductivity is also of interest to Teller because the promise of supercomputers is dependent on the use of materials through which current can flow with little or no resistance. Teller was among the first to see that the future of computers in science lay in creating models of physical events.
What accounts for Teller's fertile mind and extraordinary productivity even at age 90? "Physics must be the fountain of youth," says Snyderman. "He's incredibly sharp. I can't keep up with him." Snyderman, like Weiss, has for years met weekly with Teller to discuss whatever topic is on his mind that day. He admits that Teller has most of the original ideas. "He's always thinking about the future, and yet he keeps coming back to old problems. If he's not satisfied that a problem has been completely resolved, he keeps returning to find a practical and elegant solution. The only authority to Edward is logic."
Snyderman says that he usually emerges from discussions with Teller "in such an excited mood." Nuckolls finds Teller today much as he was when Nuckolls arrived at Livermore in the mid-1950s: "extremely creative and intuitive, with an insatiable curiosity." Citing Teller's "incredible intensity," Foster observes that Teller is "not happy if he isn't driving himself to exhaustion. Occasionally he oversteps it, and then he's in the hospital." Foster describes taking his son to visit Teller at Stanford Hospital. Wood was also visiting at the time, Foster recalls, and within 15 seconds, the three scientists (including a bedridden Teller), to the amazement of the younger Foster, were vigorously arguing physics, weapons systems, and ballistic-missile-defense issues.
At the same time, Foster describes a man who is "just so gentle." Friends and associates all say they wish the public could see the Teller they know, a man of warmth, humor, and playfulness. Indeed, Wood says the single most striking feature about Teller's life is the difference between the popular public image of the cold scientific genius and the reality of a very warm, concerned human being.
Taking a Stand
Teller continues to take strong, and occasionally unpopular, stands on issues involving science and technology. In 1995 he said, "We scientists are not responsible and should not be responsible for making decisions. But we scientists are uniquely and absolutely responsible for giving information. We must provide the decision makers with the data. On the basis of this, they will have the best chance to make the right decisions."
Teller never wavers from what he believes must be said, says Wood. "Politicians may not agree with him, but they know they are listening to the voice of integrity." He points out that Teller had already "shaped the course of men and nations" by the time he reached the age of 70 in 1978. And yet, Teller became a tireless advocate for strategic defense during the following decade, willingly enduring much personal criticism from both politicians and fellow scientists.
Foster says that Teller has thought through the proper relationship of scientist to society more carefully than anyone else he knows. "If there's a big national issue dealing with science and engineering, he'll address that issue, work hard, and make his contribution regardless of politics. . . . He'll go up against impossible odds. You'll tell him that he doesn't have a chance, but he'll say that he's a champion of lost causes."
"It's striking to see a person at the age of 90 interested in moving forward," says Wood. "It's a combination of physical strength and good genes, but more important, a strength of character and of purpose. Teller chooses to make the effort despite his failing physiology.
I think that's quite remarkable."
-- Arnie Heller