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Teller, Edward

bomb nuclear possibility atomic

(1908– ) Hungarian–US physicist: major figure in development of thermonuclear energy.

Educated in Budapest and in Germany, Teller was one of the many scientists who left Germany in 1933. In 1935 he settled in the USA, becoming professor of physics at George Washington University. In 1940 he, met with a Government committee to discuss the possibility of an atomic bomb; afterwards he worked with and Szilard in Chicago on the first atomic reactor, and then in 1943 he went to Los Alamos to work on the first atomic (fission) bombs. By then, he and others had considered the possibility of a fusion bomb (H-bomb), but he discontinued this work when the war ended in 1945. However President Truman approved H-bomb production in 1950 and the work was largely guided by Teller; a successful device was exploded in 1952.

The H-bomb depends on the energy released when light nuclei are fused to give heavier nuclei, following ‘priming’ by a fission implosion, using a design due to S Ulam (1909–85), to generate intense X-rays. Much of Teller’s work in the 1950s and later was concerned with the theory of nuclear fusion and its use for peaceful purposes; he also supported nuclear arms for the protective defence of the west. He served in a series of senior posts at the University of California from 1952 onwards, and in the 1980s did much to convince President Reagan of the need for the ‘Star Wars’ initiative intended to destroy incoming nuclear missiles from the USSR. After massive expenditure the programme contracted in the 1990s in the face of technical snags and the political collapse of the USSR. In so far as this collapse owed much to the cost of competing with the USA in military matters, the programme was arguably a success.

In the 1990s he led a group studying the possibility of using reflective particles placed in near-Earth orbit to reflect sunlight and so reduce global warming. They found that this was a feasible and cheap proposition.

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