The bomb-maker

Memoirs: a twentieth-century journey in science and politics

Edward Teller <em>Perseus Press, 640p

Edward Teller was born in Budapest into a middle-class Jewish milieu. He moved academically from chemistry via physics to quantum theory, as he moved geographically from Hungary to Germany and eventually to the United States. Isolated for a long time from day-to-day politics and emerging anti-Semitism by his class and profession, it finally caught up with him as the Nazis attacked first Jewish science, and then Jewish scientists. Teller was fortunate to leave for America. The fate of many of his childhood friends and family was either death in the ghettos and concentration camps, or half a century of communism and isolation.

When the first indications surfaced that the new physics offered the possibility of weapons of mass destruction and that there were German scientists in on the secret, Teller supported America's development of the atomic bomb. He was a central figure at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the product champion, after the war, of the much more destructive hydrogen bomb. In 1945, he was in favour of demonstrating the bomb for Japan rather than on Japan. From the perspective of many physicists, he was right. After the war with Japan ended, few scientists were prepared to work on new weapons of mass destruction. J Robert Oppenheimer, director of Los Alamos, wanted to return the site to the Indians and stop all further work on the hydrogen bomb.

Teller, who had an understandable anti-pathy and distrust of the Soviet Union, was bitterly opposed to such a moratorium. He fought to keep Los Alamos open, and he campaigned for a second nuclear weapons laboratory to bring competition to weapons production. The result was the creation of the Livermore Laboratory, in 1952, and a crash hydrogen bomb programme, precipitated by the first Soviet atomic test in September 1949.

If Teller lost friends because of his cold war warrior stance, this was compounded by his role in the withdrawal of Oppenheimer's security clearance. In the McCarthyite atmosphere of the early 1950s, Oppenheimer was investigated because of his fellow-travelling with communist sympathisers. Teller betrayed him by implying that his advice and opinions, if followed, would have crippled US defences against the Soviet Union. Teller's account of the truth of this incident is here singularly unconvincing.

It proved no more than a pause in his rise to power and influence. He admired and advised Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He was an early advocate of Star Wars and campaigned vigorously for its implementation.

His enemies have described him as "erratic and obsessed". This book, however, reveals a complex, if flawed, character: a man intelligent and sincere, but one, in the end, undone by his belief that science should take primacy over the compromise of politics.