book-reviews

Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics

by Edward Teller

Rating:★★★★

Edward Teller's memoirs could stand as several different books. The first, and most obvious, would be the biography of a young Hungarian scientist, crossing between some of the major European and then American physics laboratories of the 20th century, and meeting some of the giants of scientific history. Where else might you learn which of Heisenberg or Fermi was the better ping-pong player, or find an evocation of the priestly wisdom of Bohr?

The second use of the memoirs would be as a history of the development of the atomic bomb, and related developments in physics at the beginning of the century. In this regard, Teller is an introductory guide, but perhaps not the best of those available. His work on the project was curtailed to some theoretical and cross-pollination contributions, and there are more central actors whose records no doubt reveal more. I should note, however, that Teller's explanations of his research are usually quite good, so even a relatively ignorant layman can appreciate some of details of the work being undertaken.

The third use of the memoirs would be as a political history of the thermonuclear bomb. To be sure, Teller also gives scientific material from this project its due place, being himself so instrumental to the project, but the thermonuclear sections of the memoirs quickly become incredibly intertwined with the scientific politics surrounding their development. As Teller tells it, he, clearly more right-wing than most of his fellow physicists, was one of very few scientists actively interested in further developing the possibility of the thermonuclear bomb, and faced considerable opposition from opponents such as Oppenheimer, who considered it either impossible or undesirable. The details of this are sordid and somewhat confused, and it is hard to escape the impression that the author is being disingenuous about some of his earlier actions and testimony. Teller's position seems to have been born from a far greater apprehension of the Soviet state and its potential as a foe for the US. Teller's position on this, and his disgruntled testimony at the Oppenheimer hearings, effectively separated him from the majority of the US physics community in the 1960s and for a great deal of time afterward.

Finally, the memoirs can also stand as a polemic about the benefits of nuclear power. Teller makes a strong case that many possible uses of nuclear energy are dismissed not on objective merit but on the basis of a tremendous and irrational public fear of nuclear mishaps and radiation. It is somewhat sad to read of his frantic and futile efforts to launch Plowshare initiatives deploying cheap nuclear explosives for extensive civil engineering projects, knowing that they would never amount to much. Modern alarmism seems no less than when he wrote, to the extent that even the undeniable benefits of nuclear power plants are sometimes threatened.

Very readable, with plenty of scientific material, historic context and amusing anecdotes. Despite finding his account in some places suspect or incomplete, I nonetheless gathered some respect and sympathy for Teller, who so often seems to have spoken for his deeply-held convictions in the face of overwhelming societal pressure to do otherwise.