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EDWARD TELLER | 1908-2003

Force Behind H-Bomb, 'Star Wars'

September 10, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Edward Teller, the brilliant, bushy-browed physicist who came to deplore his designation as the father of both the hydrogen bomb and the controversial "Star Wars" nuclear defense system, died Tuesday of complications from a stroke at his home on the campus of Stanford University. He was 95.

Teller died on the day he was scheduled to appear at a dedication ceremony for the University of California's new Edward Teller Education Center, near Livermore National Laboratory.

In a remarkable career that stretched from Europe to the heart of the U.S. nuclear program, Teller deeply influenced America's security and energy policies. A vigorous advocate of a strong national defense known (to his irritation) as "the father of the H-bomb," he became a friend and admirer of President Reagan. But his criticism of fellow nuclear pioneer J. Robert Oppenheimer alienated many scientists. Teller himself later wrote that his criticism of Oppenheimer, in 1954, caused a permanent split in the scientific community which he felt impeded weapons research and damaged national security.

Teller's very visible public profile also provoked criticism and satire. He was regarded by many as the model for "Dr. Strangelove," the caricatured nuclear warmonger made famous in Stanley Kubrick's movie. During the Vietnam era, radical anti-war demonstrators called him a "war criminal." In 1980, an anti-nuclear protester at UCLA shoved a cream pie in his face.

His admirers were equally passionate.

"The loss of Dr. Edward Teller is a great loss for this laboratory and for the nation," said Michael Anastasio, director of the laboratory. "He was a passionate advocate for science and the development of Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He put his heart and soul into this laboratory and into ensuring the security of this nation, and his dedication never foundered."

Less than two months ago, Teller was awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.

"In my long life I had to face some difficult decisions and found myself often in doubt whether I acted the right way," he said after receiving the award. "Thus, the medal is a great blessing for me."

Associate director emeritus of Lawrence Livermore and senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford until his death, Teller despised the "father" sobriquets. He once refused to proceed with a debate at California State Polytechnic Institute until he was assured that he would not be introduced as the "father of anything."

In a rare interview in 1988, Teller called the labels "ridiculous" and spluttered: "For heaven's sakes, I am not! I am the father of two children. Will you please avoid this father thing?"

That may have been his longest public statement about this private man's family: he is survived by a son, Paul and a daughter, Wendy. His wife of 66 years, Augusta Maria Harkanyi, known as Mici, died in 2000. He had four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

If his personal life was quiet, publicly he was the most political of scientists.

He was openly obsessed with nuclear power as the source of good for energy and defensive weapons, and those unbending positions alienated many of his fellow scientists.

His presence commanded attention whether he was speaking, teaching, persuading a politician or granting a rare interview.

Writer Michael Kernan described a typical encounter in the Washington Post in 1980: "The famous brows beetled, the melancholy gray eyes bored in, the doom-laden voice set out the words one by one, like great marble blocks."

Teller was born Jan. 15, 1908, in Budapest, Hungary, to a Jewish family. He was the son of a prosperous attorney, Max Teller, and Illona Deutch Teller. He studied at the private Mellinger School and the Minta Gymnasium in Budapest, and then enrolled in the Karlsruhe Technische Hochschule in Germany, where his father insisted he study something practical -- chemical engineering.

He also studied mathematics and became intrigued by the emerging field of quantum mechanics.

While continuing his studies at the University of Munich, Teller lost his right foot in a streetcar accident. He soon learned to walk with an artificial foot, and the handicap was almost never mentioned by Teller or anyone else.

Earning his doctorate in theoretical physics in 1930, at the age of 22, from the University of Leipzig, Teller wrote his thesis on the theory of the hydrogen molecular ion. That formed the basis for his work on the theory of the molecule, still the most commonly accepted description.

He spent the next two years as a research consultant at the University of Gottingen, but became alarmed about his career and his safety as the Nazis gained power in Germany.

"The hope of making an academic career in Germany for a Jew existed before Hitler came -- and vanished the day he arrived.... It was obvious I had to leave Germany," Teller told biographers 45 years later.

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