I had finished a Master’s degree in Computer Science at Stanford University and was working at a think tank (in the Bay Area) when I had a short conversation with a hungarian friend:
“So what have you been up to?” I said
“Oh, not much, reading a biography in Hungarian back to its own author”
“Really, who’s the author?”
“You probably don’t know who he is: Edvard Teller”
Did I know who he was! After reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb and becoming obsessed with understanding how the people that created the bomb transformed theory into weapons and with it the world. An interesting and lesser known aspect of the story of the bomb was the falling out of Oppenheimer and Teller and how the latter went on to build a hydrogen bomb despite nearly all scientists at Los Alamos wanting to stop at the basic plutonium/uranium bomb.
Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (in New Mexico) where the atomic bomb was designed and built under the Manhattan Project. Subsequently two atomic bombs were detonated in Japan during World War II. The original bombs were made of enriched uranium and plutonium. The same theory that allowed them to build the basic original bombs predicted that a far more powerful bomb was possible using a basic plutonium/uranium core as detonator for a hydrogen outer layer. After seeing the consequences of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, very few scientists wanted to pursue the Hydrogen bomb. Not Teller. Communism had destroyed his world back in Hungary and he was adamant that such a weapon was necessary for his adoptive country (the United States) to be the dominant world power. Teller had also felt sidelined by Oppenheimer in Los Alamos and this was his opportunity for him to shine.
I asked my friend if she thought she could arrange for me to meet Teller. “What for?” She asked. “I don’t know … I really just want to meet him. Maybe you can tell him I am writing an article for a newspaper?” I said. “Ok, I will ask”. I thought the chances of me meeting him were slim to none. The U.S. has never declassified the documents that detail the construction of the atomic bombs. I could picture myself asking Teller “So, how do you make a Hydrogen bomb?” and two huge bodyguards appearing out of nowhere to take me away.
A couple of days later, she called to say that I could come by Teller’s house on Thursday, at 1:30 PM. As Thursday came around I took my bike on the campus loop and arrived at a nice unassuming house, right next to some very pretty hills where Stanford students go hiking and running. I rang the bell, and after a few minutes a stern lady came to open the door. She showed me inside, and asked me to wait in a small room near the house’s entrance. As I walked the six steps or so down the corridor I could see a very old man, by himself, sitting sideways from where I was standing, in a wheel chair, eating his meal alongside a couple of other ladies going about their day. The image remained with me. He was hunched over his plate, eating with difficulty, with nobody helping him out. The light in the back of the room where he was eating gave him a surreal aura. I proceeded to enter the small waiting room and was asked to wait until Dr. Teller had finished eating.
While I waited I was treated to the trophy waiting room. There were two pictures with Reagan, several medal and prizes for scientific merit, some black and white pictures in the desert that I want to believe were in Los Alamos (I did not ask). I wondered if this is the way I get “prepped” to meet one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century. I had quickly bought his biography in English (the one my friend was reading back to him in the Hungarian translation) and I went over what I had had time to read so that I would ask intelligent questions. One early chapter really struck me. He had lost one of his feet to a cable car at a young age. He seemed to describe the incident as nothing more than a small mishap. It occurred to me that back then they probably had greater dangers and preoccupations lurking around that losing a foot seemed a bothersome but completely manageable accident. He went on with his life account in the next chapter, never mentioning it again. I really wanted to ask about that, but I thought it was a stupid question.
Finally, I heard some noises on the other room, which I figured meant he was being moved. I was summoned to a pleasant room with leather sofas to talk to him. I had prepared my yellow pad notebook to look as reporter-like as I could. I came in and tried to exchange pleasantries. Dr. Teller was agreeable enough, but always very curt and to the point. Not one extra, gratuitous word. From my notes, it probably went something like:
“Dr. Teller, very nice to meet you” I said
“I have been reading a lot about you and the history of the atomic bomb, thanks for agreeing to see me”
“Where are you from?” (without acknowledging my comment)
“Ah …” His interest seemingly piqued
I started asking very general questions about Los Alamos (Did he like the desert? How long was his stay there? etc) to which he gave very pointed, one-syllable answers. I was going through the motions, but what I really wanted was to have a deep discussion on the ethics of weapon building, the inside story on his fight with Oppenheimer and the scientific endeavor at Los Alamos. I was going nowhere. I thought pretty soon he was going to call one of the nurses to escort me out. Maybe he was too old for that of conversation? Or he did not remember? Or did not care to share with a stranger? I would soon find out.
I decided to wrap my so far failed interview asking him if there was anything he was nostalgic about. He mumbled for a long time, and then he came back at me with a viciousness that I had not foreseen: “Of course there is. What do you want me to tell you? That I miss my wife dearly. Yes I do. That I miss being active? Yes, I do. Yet, here I sit. There is no point in you asking me that or me answering it.” I was inquiring for details about the birth of the atomic bomb or a long lost scientific collaboration, but he understood it as an intromission on his private life. Fortunately for me, the incident made him more animated and he started to open up a little bit more, as if now that I had offended him, I was a more worthy adversary.
I asked him about Richard Feynman (whom I greatly admire) who was one of the youngest physicists at Los Alamos: “I did not know him much. We shared a hotel room in Albuquerque once. What comes to mind when I think of him, is that he was a very musical fellow. He would drum in the wooden walls and had a certain rhythm in the way he moved.”
I asked about communism, trying to be provocative. “Is there anything good in communism?” He answered, “I don’t know. I have hated it so much all my life, that I probably never have had the peace of mind to visit its tenets with an open mind.”
That was pretty cool. A reflective answer from someone I thought had no space for that. I asked about his supposed proposal to use a hydrogen bomb to create a bay in Alaska to which he responded “Hmmm … what else?” Completely ignoring my question. He either did not want to talk about it or did not consider it important. The reason why I consider it important is because that would have been the only public use of a Hydrogen bomb. By championing Project Chariot he was pursuing a civilian use for his creation. We continued down the path of more and more interesting questions and as I was preparing to finish, he pointedly started asking me questions. “Have you read my biography?” I lied and said yes, since I had not had time to go beyond a third or so of the book. “Is there anything you want to ask me about it?” He said.
Yes, there were several things, or at least it was the excuse to continue talking. Sensing a big elephant in the room, he asked me: “How about Oppenheimer. Do you want to ask me anything about him?”. I had not mentioned that name during our entire conversation, treating it as Voldemort “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”. But I jumped on it:
“How was Oppenheimer like?”
“Affable, a great leader” This part I do not have in notes but I remember him saying something to this effect
“Why did you testify against him?”
“I believe in his heart of hearts he had embraced communism, even if he was not a communist”
“Did you ever speak to him after the trial?”
“No, I do not think so”
After those trials, Oppenheimer lost his security clearance, mostly based on Teller’s testimony. His testimony is very vague: “In a great number of cases, I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer act – I understand that Dr. Oppenheimer acted – in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand.” He never openly said he was a communist. He adamantly claimed that he was not fit to receive a security clearance. The scientific world shunned him for that betrayal. He was prone to feuds. By the time a Hydrogen bomb was ready to detonate, he had already fallen out with the rest of the team and had to follow the detonation from a basement in Berkeley University. He also blamed his own heart attack on Jane Fonda’s activism against nuclear energy (after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident).
After the Oppenheimer topic, we moved into science. I had been reading about quantum computing, and I wanted to know what one of the founding fathers of quantum theory had to say about it:
“Have you heard of quantum computing? What do you think about it?” I coyly asked
“Yes, I have heard of it, but do not understand it, can you explain it to me?”
“Sure …” ME???? Explain it to him???? “It starts with the way we store information. Bits can only store a 0 or a 1. Quantum bits can store both at the same time”
He cut me off: “Why would you call that computing?”
I went on: “Well, once you have that, then a whole host of new type of algorithms becomes possible”
He did not look convinced. “Like what?”
I continued with something that started to sound like babbling: “You can search all elements of an array in one iteration, instead of having to go one by one. You can do this because the bits can be in both positions at the same time. I think. I am not sure if it is another quantum property … but you can do things faster. Because new types of algorithms …”
“You have not said anything” he interrupted me.
I looked at him and obviously realized I was way in over my head. He graciously dropped it and started asking me questions about relativity: “What is the one thing in Einstein’s theory that makes relativity what it is”. I mumbled several incorrect answers. He kept drilling me. Finally, I really need to go.
It was a great experience. A 90-year-old mind, way sharper than mine. I got a glimpse of what a great mind his had been. I most likely disagree with most of his politics, and was disgusted with the way Oppenheimer was treated after developing the atomic bomb for the U.S. Talking with Teller made me realize that even great minds feel lonely at the end of their lives. For all his intelligence and most distinguished career, this old man seemed to be craving someone who half understood what he had to say. In a way I expected someone as consequential as him to have a more “palatial” old age. Teller was incredible gracious to me. Whether he did so because I piqued his interest or because he was lonely, I did not care.
He called the nurse and she showed me to the door. She said, almost pleadingly: “Very nice of you to come. Please come visit whenever you want”. I thanked her and thought to myself that I would do that as soon as I wrote this up. And here I am, doing it 15 years later.
Dr. Teller died in 2003, a couple of years after the events.