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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey In Science and Politics by Edward Teller with Judith L. Shoolery Perseus Publishing 628 pages, $35. …vci . hen the review copy arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to touch it; a hor rid thing, it gave off poi sonous vaporslike 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 muchor more than as much The toad-like book is the memoirs of Bohr’s sometime pupil, the Hungarianborn physicist Edward Teller, who 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 weepThe memoirs reveal that long ago, in another time and another place, Edward Telleror ET, his children’s nickname for himwas 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 PingPong game, trading jokes with his friends. \(The jokes are my favorite part childhood fearsof 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 lation 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 Hungaryadvising 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 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 latenight 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 PingPong, and excelled at philosophical puns. In between they did physics. And what physics it was! For the advisormentor-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 Gottingen and then And the Shark Has Pretty Teeth, Dear BY ANNA MAYO 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7/5/02