Edward Teller, 1908-2003: 'Father of the Hydrogen Bomb'

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I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember with PEOPLE IN AMERICA from VOA Special English.  Today, we tell about Edward Teller.  He was one of the best-known American scientists of the twentieth century.

Edward Teller was often called the "father of the hydrogen bomb."  However, he reportedly did not like that name. Teller helped develop the first nuclear weapons.  Later, he was an activist for a strong national defense.  He was an important influence on America's defense and energy policies.

Experts say Teller's strong support for defense resulted from experiences that helped shape his opinion of world events.  One was the rise of the Nazi party while he lived in Germany during the nineteen thirties.

Edward Teller was born in Budapest, Hungary in nineteen-oh-eight. His father was a lawyer and his mother had strong musical abilities.  His parents and teachers recognized at an early age that Edward was excellent in mathematics.  Yet his father was unhappy when Edward said he wanted to be a mathematician.  He told his son that mathematicians had trouble earning money.  So Edward agreed to study chemistry.  He went to Leipzig, Germany for his university education.  While in Germany, Edward was in a streetcar accident. One of his feet was cut off.  He had to wear a man-made, replacement foot for the rest of his life.

One of Teller's professors in Leipzig was Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg helped invent the theory called quantum mechanics. This theory involves the study of matter and radiation at an atomic level.  It was one of the most important theories in twentieth century science. In nineteen thirty-two, Heisenberg won the Nobel Prize for physics for developing the theory. Later he worked in Germany's nuclear research program.

Edward Teller received a doctorate in physics from the University of Leipzig in nineteen thirty.  He was a professor at the University of Gottingen for three years.

In nineteen thirty-three, Adolf Hitler became Germany's Chancellor.  Hitler and his Nazi Party organized a campaign against Jews and other minorities.  This forced Teller and a number of other Jewish scientists to flee Germany.  Teller and his wife, Mici, came to the United States in nineteen thirty-five.  They became American citizens six years later.

By the late nineteen thirties, scientists in several countries were learning how to split the nuclei of atoms.  They discovered that this nuclear fission releases huge amounts of energy and could be used to create a powerful new weapon.   Some scientists in the United States feared that Germany was developing an atomic bomb and would be the first to use it as a weapon.  One of those who believed this was a friend of Teller's, Leo Szilard. Like Teller, Szilard was a scientist who had left Hungary and come to live in the United States.

Szilard believed that the United States should have its own program to develop atomic weapons.  He wanted to get American officials interested in such a program.  He decided to seek help from the world's most famous scientist, Albert Einstein.

In nineteen thirty-nine, Szilard prepared a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt for Einstein to sign. The letter urged the need for an atomic weapons program.  Szilard decided to visit Einstein at his summer home near New York City.  But Szilard could not drive a car, so he asked his friend Teller to drive them to Einstein's home. Einstein signed the letter.  It led to a secret American program to develop an atomic bomb.  This program was called the Manhattan Project.

To carry out the program, the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory was secretly established in the southwestern state of New Mexico in nineteen forty-two. This was during World War Two. The United States wanted to build an atomic bomb before Germany or Japan did.  Teller joined the project along with America's other top scientists.  He and his wife brought their one-hundred-year-old piano to the New Mexico desert.  Teller often stayed up late, playing music written by Mozart and other famous composers.

Edward Teller hoped to design a hydrogen fusion bomb, a device he called the "super."   The idea for the hydrogen bomb came from another scientist, Enrico Fermi. Fermi suggested that the fusion of hydrogen atoms might create an even more powerful force than splitting them.  Teller quickly accepted the idea.

However, the director of the Manhattan Project disagreed.  J. Robert Oppenheimer wanted his team of scientists to develop an atomic bomb, not a hydrogen bomb.  The Manhattan project succeeded in developing the world's first atomic bomb. Its energy came from splitting the nuclei of uranium atoms.

Edward Teller was among the scientists who gathered to see the world's first atomic test explosion. They watched as a huge cloud rose from the New Mexico desert on July sixteenth, ninety forty-five.  By that time, the war in Europe was over. The Germans had never come close to creating an atomic bomb. But the war with Japan continued.  In an effort to end the war, United States planes dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August sixth.  Japan surrendered within days to end World War Two.

After the war, Edward Teller taught at the University of Chicago in Illinois.  Many scientists who helped develop the atomic bomb returned to civilian jobs.  Some had problems with moral issues.

Years later, Teller wondered if the United States could have shown Japanese leaders the power of the atom without destroying the two cities.  Teller said he regretted that he and other scientists did not seek to demonstrate American power in some other way to influence Japan to end the war.  Teller said: "If we could have ended the war by showing the power of science without killing a single person, all of us would be happier, more reasonable and much more safe."

In nineteen forty-nine, the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb.  Suddenly, the United States faced its own threat of nuclear attack.  Edward Teller believed the country needed a hydrogen bomb for defense.  President Harry Truman agreed. Teller returned to Los Alamos and worked to develop the hydrogen bomb.  Scientists tested the bomb in the Pacific Ocean in nineteen fifty-two.

As the United States and the Soviet Union built more nuclear bombs, Edward Teller called for a second national nuclear weapons laboratory.  The Lawrence Livermore Laboratory opened near San Francisco, California in nineteen fifty-two. Teller worked as an advisor there.  He served as director from nineteen fifty-eight to nineteen sixty.  Then he became a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  In the nineteen sixties, opponents of the Vietnam War criticized Teller for his work in developing nuclear weapons.

Edward Teller spent the rest of his life on matters of war and peace.  He believed that the security of the United States depended on strong national defense.  In nineteen eighty, Teller said he believed nuclear war with the Soviet Union was possible.  He said: " I cannot just go back to physics because I believe that to prevent another war happens to be … more important."

In the nineteen eighties, Teller argued for a missile-defense system for the United States.  Teller strongly supported President Ronald Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative.   It called for space satellites armed with lasers to destroy possible nuclear missiles directed at the United States.

This program became known as "Star Wars."  Critics said it would cost too much money to develop and would not work.  It was never built.  However, President Bush has renewed the idea of establishing a missile-defense system to protect the United States.

Edward Teller received many honors during his life.  In two thousand three, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.  That same year, Teller suffered a stroke. He died at his home on the campus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.  He was ninety-five years old.  Until his last days, Edward Teller continued to support the idea of a system to defend the country against a danger he helped create.

This Special English program was written by George Grow and produced by Lawan Davis.  I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember.  Join us again next week for another PEOPLE IN AMERICA program on the Voice of America.