And the Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear

When the review copy arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to touch it; a horrid thing, it gave off poisonous vapors–like an alchemist’s toad. Finally, using tongs, I managed to get it up on the shelf alongside the autobiographies of Judas Iscariot, Dr. Strangelove, and Faust. (If it bothers you that these are imaginary works, consider that the great Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, was wont to suggest that dreams may count for as much–or more than as much–as our alleged reality.)

The toad-like book is the memoirs of Bohr’s sometime pupil, the Hungarian-born physicist Edward Teller, who achieved worldwide fame as 1) Betrayer of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and 2) Father of the Hydrogen Bomb. Since our Dr. Faustus is ninety-something and in failing health, his book may be seen as a last effort to prove that he’s not a heel. (Nuell Pharr Davis, canniest of the many Atomic Age historians, describes how, following the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearing at which his testimony helped strip Oppenheimer of his security clearance, Teller used to trail around after scientists in the lab weeping, “I’m not a heel. I’m not a heel.”)

The memoirs reveal that long ago, in another time and another place, Edward Teller–or ET, his children’s nickname for him–was a lovable human being. His first chapters are sunny reminiscences of his Budapest childhood: playing in the ruins of a medieval cloister on an island in the Danube, family outings to the nearby Tatras mountains, chess matches with Father at age four, perfecting his Ping-Pong game, trading jokes with his friends. (The jokes are my favorite part of the book.) Touchingly he bares his childhood fears–of the dark, of nightmares, of being teased at school. Against the darkness he pulled the covers over his head and did elaborate arithmetical calculations. In the daytime he coped by ignoring his tormentors, sometimes managing to laugh along with them:

I was assigned a translation of “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. I had read the poem earlier in English and liked it. But the word the translator uses for ‘Nevermore’ (soha mar, a choice clearly based on sound) made the translation all but senseless…the class made an excursion up the Danube. When we had settled down at the picnic spot, Mr. Alszeghy called on me to recite. So there I stood in the fine sunshine and diligently emoted nonsense, my hands crossed behind me. When one of my friends sneaked up and put a pencil into my fingers, I burst out laughing … The day was a milestone for me.

Harder to laugh off were the terrors of the larger world: Under the Communist dictator Bela Kun, Hungary experienced a Red Terror, followed by a White one under Fascist dictator Miklos Horthy, who vengefully executed thousands of Jews. ET’s parents packed him off to university in Germany, which in the pre-Nazi era was far less anti-Semitic than Hungary–advising him to make his life there.

ET says that he’s German, that his peak cultural experiences were Beethoven’s Fifth, Wagner’s Die Walkure (the first act libretto of which he learned by heart), and Goethe’s Faust. His Mother would have approved. She treasured her German relatives, spoke German at home, and wanted her son to be a concert pianist. Alas, the young ET hated piano lessons and failed a key music conservatory exam. “My enjoyment of music was induced by my mother,” he writes. “My interest in numbers was spontaneous.”

In Germany, free of mama, he dug fast motorcycle rides and uproarious late-night revels at which he’d make up cockeyed words to pop songs, e.g. “Mack the Knife,” the leitmotif of Brecht & Weill’s Threepenny Opera, at that time every hip European’s peak cultural experience. When he lost a foot in a trolley accident, Mother saw it as a great tragedy. But since it hampered neither his physics, his love life, nor his Ping-Pong game, it didn’t bother him.

At Leipzig, he lucked out: His thesis advisor was his pal, as well as mentor. He showed him that the piano could be fun, played a mean game of Ping-Pong, and excelled at philosophical puns. In between they did physics. And what physics it was! For the advisor-mentor-pal was Werner Heisenberg, who at age 22 had changed the universe of thought by formulating the Uncertainty Principle, which in ET’s clear eloquent words, asserts:

Quantum jumps [of atoms] occur according to statistical probability and are unpredictable…in direct contradiction to a causal, machine-like description of reality. One consequence of quantum mechanics is that the future becomes truly uncertain. Determinism is a myth.

A medieval guild-like system allowed young physicists to apprentice with masters at various universities. From Leipzig ET leapt to Göttingen and then Copenhagen. With the rise of fascism throughout the continent, he fled to England; from there his wife (he married in London in 1934) prodded him into taking off for the New World, where you could own a house, a car, and (she thought) have more fun.

Oppenheimer soon lured Teller to New Mexico’s hush-hush Los Alamos Laboratory, where Oppenheimer was the director. At first he pampered his Hungarian colleague. When ET quarreled with his teammates, Oppenheimer allowed him to work on his pet project (the H-bomb), reporting his progress in private sessions. “A mental love affair,” according to a scientist quoted by Davis in Lawrence and Oppenheimer. But the honeymoon would not last.

So what broke them up? It must have been that weird place. The cat that got lockjaw from radioactive poisoning. The rabid dog (irradiation nurtures the rabies virus). The nervous breakdowns. The grisly radiation accidents. And Oppenheimer’s cult-leader personality. In the California manner he had taken a year off from physics to immerse himself in an ancient Hindu saga that he muddled up with the esoteric poetry of the 17th century English monk, John Dunne, a mish-mash that somehow afforded him the justification for killing 100,000 people at a pop, clapping his hands over his head and shouting that his only regret was not having dropped the Fat Man on Germany. Teller says that Oppenheimer once proposed that if the bomb didn’t work, they could contaminate the German food supply by crop dusting with Strontium-90. The humanitarian Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard refused Oppenheimer’s invitation to join the team, saying that anyone who went to Los Alamos would go mad.

There they were, stuck among Oppy followers who sported Oppy hats, imitated Oppy facial expressions, and darted about lighting each other’s cigarettes, Oppy-style, so that, as historian Robert Jungkt once said to me, a dimly lit Los Alamos party resembled a gathering of fireflies. ET wasn’t content to imitate–no, he had to surpass, had to father a bigger bomb. In The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes writes that at the end of the Oppenheimer security clearance hearing, ET was heard to mutter, “I knew I’d have to fight you, Robert, and now I’ve won.”

The scientists who had testified for Oppy ostracized ET. Comrade weaponeer scientists feared for his sanity. They had cause. In a letter concerning physicist I.I. Rabi, who had chosen to work on radar rather than Oppenheimer’s weapon of mass destruction, Teller wrote:

The worst of them is Rabi… Tomorrow I have to give a report. He will be there to heckle me. Last night I dreamed that there was a Raven and I did not dare go to sleep…Rabe is the German word for raven…

Now, nearly fifty years later, Teller is still seeking absolution for having testified that he would have preferred to have seen “the nation’s vital interests” in hands other than Oppenheimer’s. But he is to be condemned not only for having played Judas to Oppenheimer, but for adhering to the belief, in the face of unchallengeable evidence to the contrary, that low-level radiation is a beneficial agent of evolution, that it weeds out the weak to produce a super race. Together with his sponsors in the military and industry, he is to be condemned for the deaths of uranium miners, of victims of the atomic tests in the Marshall Islands and Nevada and of persons living in the vicinity of nuclear power reactors; for promoting the Star Wars anti-missile system so favored by the present administration; for promulgating false studies to cover up these deeds against humanity; for having sanctioned the persecution of scientists such as Linus Pauling, Ernest Sternglass, and Teller’s ultimate nemesis, John Gofman. In 1963, the Atomic Energy Commission recruited Gofman, a former atomic scientist, eminent medical doctor and nuclear chemist, to do studies on the effects of low-level radiation from U.S. nuclear power programs. In 1970 Gofman insisted on publicizing his findings that low-level radiation would lead to massive epidemics of cancer and genetic defects. Teller & Co. sent him to the U.S. equivalent of Siberia. Gofman’s studies and public appearances sparked an anti-nuclear movement that is presently revving up for new protests.

Teller says that he was moved by Goethe’s Faust. Perhaps he might want to consider Malcolm Lowery’s version of an unrepentant Faustian’s dying moments:

…he looked down…But there was nothing there: no peaks…no climb. Nor was this summit a summit…It was crumbling… while he was falling, falling into the volcano…this noise of foisting lava in his ears, horrible…no, it wasn’t the volcano, the world itself was bursting, bursting into black spouts of villages catapulted into space, with himself falling through it all, through the inconceivable pandemonium…through the blazing of ten million burning bodies…Suddenly he screamed…somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.

Anna Mayo has written about the nuclear industry for over 20 years.

You May Also Like:

Published at 12:00 am CST