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The Mad Scientist
by Paul Greenberg 18 Sep 2003
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     The news of Edward Teller's death at 95 brought to mind Woody Allen's Zelig, the strange little man who had a way of turning up at every momentous event of the century:
     In 1939, Dr. Teller was one of the three nuclear scientists who got Albert Einstein to sign a brief but rather important letter to Franklin Roosevelt, the burden of which was that there might be something to this business about uranium's proving a source of energy. ("This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable -- though much less certain -- that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed . . . ."
     The idea may have sounded like science fiction at the time, but Dr. Teller and his friends not only had some knowledge about nuclear physics, they understood that politics and celebrity work in tandem. That is, they knew Einstein's name would carry more weight than theirs.
     It did. FDR was persuaded, and the result, after several years of secret and sustained national effort, was that awesome moment brighter than a thousand suns above Hiroshima -- and the end of the Second World War.
     In 1941, even before the A-Bomb was completed, Dr. Teller had lent his enthusiastic support to another of Enrico Fermi's (very) bright ideas, the H-Bomb. The critics called it madness, but it eventually proved necessary in a postwar world in which the Soviets were trying to develop the super bomb, too.
     Despite mystifying challenges, Dr. Teller's team won the race when, on Nov. 1, 1952, a mile-wide island in the Pacific was vaporized by a primitive H-Bomb 700 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Soviet policy grew more circumspect.
     The Father of the H-Bomb, they called Dr. Teller. He never liked the sobriquet; who would? But the A-bomb hadn't been a very nice weapon, either, only a necessary one. (The Germans had been trying to develop a nuclear weapon, too, but had taken a wrong turn under Werner Heisenberg, who had sponsored young Teller for his Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig in 1930.)
     As a scientist committed to the national defense, Edward Teller had two great advantages: native intelligence and sad experience. He'd observed both Communist and fascist regimes up close and personal in his native Hungary, and later fled Germany, where he was teaching physics at Gottingen, a step ahead of the Nazis in 1933.
     Call it a European education. It gave young Teller a viewpoint his equally brilliant but politically naive colleague and rival in the A-bomb project, American-born J. Robert Oppenheimer, never acquired. Edward Teller was both simple, devoted family man and Strangelovian scientist, strategist and political manipulator.
     An American patriot and European cynic, he personified why the forces of freedom emerged triumphant over all totalitarian comers in a bizarre, foreshortened century (1914-1989). At every critical juncture after another, his craggy visage, ominous but hopeful, shows up somewhere in the background of the victory photo. Call him Zelig. Thank God he was on our side -- and we on his.
     Long after he retired, if an Edward Teller could ever be said to have retired, he was urging his adopted country to develop more powerful, more futuristic, more frightening and assuring weaponry. He called it Peace Through Strength; others called it MAD, Mutual Assured Destruction.
     But it wasn't Edward Teller who was mad. In a world filled with madness, the wildest forms of deterrence proved eminently sane policy. As he once pointed out: "The second half of the century has been (made) incomparably more peaceful than the first simply by putting power into the hands of those who wanted peace."
     Deterrence worked. It still can. Almost half a century after he'd urged one American president to consider developing an atomic bomb, Edward Teller was back convincing another, Ronald Reagan, to propose building an anti-missile defense. Star Wars, his critics tagged it. It would never work, they said, just as earlier The Mad Scientist had been told an H-bomb was impossible.
     The prospect of having to match a Star Wars defense sent the Soviet system reeling, and Edward Teller lived long enough to see it collapse.
     Even after the Soviet Union was no more, Edward Teller remained an advocate of Star Wars. "The danger of ballistic missiles in the hands of 18 different nations," he observed, "has increased, and will increase, unless we have a defense. If we want to have stable, peaceful conditions, defense against sudden attack by rockets is more needed then ever."
     Once again, Edward Teller had warned us. Once again, we would do well to heed him.

2003 Tribune Media Services

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