Teller and Fermi’s Idea

Edward Teller in the 1950s

In this, our eighth blog of this series of excerpts from my upcoming book From Berkeley to Berlin, we’re going to introduce a character important to the story, Edward Teller. He was one of a small group of eminent Hungarians who would contribute mightily to our national security in the years following the world war. He established himself early in life, into that select community of physicists who were laying the groundwork for twentieth century physics—quantum physics. His thesis advisor at the University of Leipzig was Werner Heisenberg, who was a huge icon of quantum physics, and may be best known to the public as the man the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is named after. Later, Teller met and befriended Enrico Fermi.

As a young man, Teller suffered from a severe accident in Munich, Germany, when a street car severed most of his right foot. He used an orthopedic insert for the rest of his life, and it left him with a small but distinctive limp. That characteristic of his has led some to claim that the Hollywood movie character Dr. Strangelove was Teller, because Peter Sellers uses a wheelchair and has a limp. Maybe, but Sellers’ use of the word “doomsday” and other references about nuclear war suggest the character Dr. Strangelove was really based on a RAND analyst named Herman Kahn, who wrote the book On Thermonuclear War.

I had the chance to meet Teller when I was a physicist designer for the X-ray laser. He was an extremely charming fellow, with an abounding energy to engage himself with physics. The Communist government that ruled Hungary after the world war constantly worried Teller about the fate of his family relatives still in Hungary, and that often translated as outright hostility to Communism and distrust of the Soviets.

I am going to confess now to a horrendous heresy. Most, if not all, histories of the early stages of the Cold War, claim that Teller was the creator of a nuclear weapons laboratory in Livermore, California. (Don’t believe me? Check out Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica, or practically any book published on the subject.) I’m afraid I am going to disagree. Certainly, Teller was an important player, but I hope to show you in blogs following this one, that the eight-hundred-pound gorilla behind creating a second nuclear weapons laboratory for the nation was Ernest Lawrence.

In this blog we’ll be introduced to the concept of thermonuclear physics; it will dominate much of the rest of this story. Enjoy this next highllight of From Berkeley to Berlin:

The Manhattan Project had needed a central laboratory to assemble the scientists needed to design an atomic bomb. Lawrence was the natural choice to lead the laboratory, and Brigadier General Groves flew out to Berkeley to ask him to do just that. But Lawrence was too committed to seeing his calutrons at the Y-12 Plant succeed, so he suggested Oppenheimer lead the new laboratory instead. Groves interviewed Oppenheimer and agreed with Lawrence’s recommendation. Lawrence’s next opportunity to create a nuclear weapons laboratory would have to occur a decade later. 

Oppenheimer chose a location for the Manhattan Project laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and he set about recruiting a staff of physicists, engineers, and technicians. Two physicists who arrived were Fermi and a Hungarian friend of his, Edward Teller. They carried with them an idea for a weapon vastly more powerful than the atomic bomb. Before departing for Los Alamos, while they were on a walk, Fermi asked his friend: “Do you think it’s possible to use an atomic bomb to ignite a fusion bomb?” Teller idolized Fermi, so he took his time thinking over the question, but within a week, he had an answer. Teller called his idea the Super; news media would later call it the hydrogen bomb. 

Nuclear fission powers the atomic bomb, while the Super is powered by nuclear fusion—a fusion reaction occurs when two ions have enough kinetic energy to overcome their electric repulsion, fuse together, and release energy. Thanks to a relation derived by the Viennese physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, kinetic energy can be expressed as a temperature. (Visitors to Vienna can see Boltzmann’s thermodynamic equation proudly displayed on his gravestone.) So instead of saying ions with high kinetic energy, we could have said fusion reactions occur at high temperatures. Expressing energy in that way led physicists to refer to nuclear fusion reactions as thermonuclear reactions. 

Boltzmann’s Thermodynamic Eauation can be seen above his bust

When Teller arrived at Los Alamos, he reported to Hans Bethe, who had been appointed the Theoretical Division leader; the division was responsible for providing theoretical designs of the atomic bomb. Bethe organized his division into several groups and appointed Teller to lead a group calculating the physical characteristics of plutonium. Teller balked at the appointment. He thought the task did not match his nature as a “new idea” person, but rather placed him more in the role of a plodding calculator. To use his own words, Teller thought of himself as a brick maker, not a brick layer. The two argued about the assignment until Bethe gave it to another physicist. The unfortunate interchange started an estrangement between the two friends. Fueling the disagreement was resentment felt by Teller that he deserved to have been appointed the Theoretical Division leader ahead of Bethe. 

Oppenheimer interceded and appointed Teller to be a liaison for Los Alamos, but Teller persisted, asking to also pursue thermonuclear physics. Oppenheimer relented and allowed him to form a separate group that would, among other things, design the Super. Problems with designing the Super arose early, and Teller once stormed out of a group leader’s meeting rather than admit to Oppenheimer that his Super program was experiencing serious troubles. Fermi noticed Teller’s abrupt behavior and came to Teller’s aid, laying the groundwork for a more effective design for the Super. Although Teller remained passionate throughout the war to develop the Super, there was little progress towards developing a weapon. In any case, Oppenheimer experienced a dramatic ethical reversal after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He told Teller there was no longer a need to develop the Super.

The Manhattan Project had given Los Alamos a code name, “Y,” but the secrecy demanded during the war had gone away, and after the war, it took on a more formal title: the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL).* LASL had a new director, Norris Bradbury, a mild-mannered physicist trained at Berkeley and Stanford, and he called for a conference in the spring of 1946 to “…review work that has been done on the Super for completeness and accuracy and to make suggestions concerning further work that would be needed in this field if actual construction and test of the Super were planned.”

Most of the presentations at the conference were by members of Teller’s former group in the Manhattan Project, and they outlined their progress to date. Teller ended the conference with the declaration: “It is shown that present knowledge of the physics of the Super is sufficient to indicate with reasonable certainty that an operable Super model can be made.” Two months after the conference, Teller wrote a summary, and in Part IV of the summary he laid out a plan of research and testing needed to make the Super successful. The summary concluded, “It is likely that a super-bomb can be constructed and will work.

Bradbury was not convinced by the report; he said, “this does not mean we will build a Super. It couldn’t happen in our time in any event.” He supported research on the Super, but he would not divert substantial resources to develop it. Amid this activity, there was a singular event overshadowing the Super conference. One of the conference participants was Klaus Fuchs, a theoretical physicist and naturalized British citizen who had been born in Germany. After the conference ended, he shared a patent for a design of the hydrogen bomb with the renowned mathematician John von Neumann. Three years later, Fuchs was arrested by the British for being a Soviet spy; he confessed in January 1950 and remained imprisoned for the next nine years. Through Fuchs, the Soviets knew everything the Americans knew about designing the Super.


* The acronym LASL became an alternate name used for the weapons laboratory at Los Alamos. It is popularly pronounced “lassle.” Much later Los Alamos was designated a national laboratory, LANL.

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