Aug. 17, 2001

Teller receives rare historic medal for arts and science


Dr. Edward Teller, LLNL Director Emeritus, was honored this week with the Hungarian Corvin Medal, an honor bestowed by the Hungarian government for exceptional achievement in the arts and sciences.

The award was presented in a private ceremony before a standing-room-only gathering in Teller’s home at Stanford University. Delegates representing the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the Hungarian consulates in San Mateo and Los Angeles read the proclamation in Hungarian. They were obviously pleased as Teller, who was born in Budapest in 1908, responded in his mother tongue.

In the ceremony’s opening remarks, given in both languages, the diplomats explained that the Corvin Medal was revived this year by the prime minister, after having last been awarded in 1930.

"I am standing face to face with history," said Attila Varhegyi, one of the Hungarian delegates. "The name of Edward Teller is more than just a person, it’s a symbol for Hungary. Edward Teller is the most distinguished Hungarian living in the world today."

Maria Schmidt, of the Hungarian delegation, said that the prime minister considers Teller’s contributions toward ending the Cold War to be the primary force behind the fact that Hungary is again a free nation today.
"Everybody in Hungary knows Edward Teller’s name. He made progress not only for Hungary, but for the world," said delegate Szabolcs Kerek-Barczy.

One audience member said after the ceremony that as a child in Hungary, he knew the names of two famous Hungarians, the 19th century composer Franz Liszt and Edward Teller.

The presentation honored Teller’s work on the hydrogen bomb for having "helped end the Cold War without bloodshed." Teller himself, who has received a multitude of honors from around the world, said that this one accomplishment is what he believes to be his greatest achievement.

The Hungarian delegates spoke of Teller’s accomplishments not only as a scientist, but as a poet and pianist as well. "I am touched by the way he talks about the future of Hungary and often cites Hungarian poetry to support his arguments," Varhegyi said.

After the gleaming gold medal with his name engraved on the back was placed around his neck, Teller thanked Prime Minister Orban, and also recognized his fellow Hungarian scientists and their contributions to modern science.

"The 20th century was the most remarkable period in scientific discovery. But, I would have liked to have been born a quarter century earlier," Teller said. "Then, if a scientist believed in God, he had to admit God was unimportant. But through quantum mechanics, we know that creation is never complete.

"In science, what was impossible 50 years ago is now reality. The next century is unpredictable," he continued. "Further knowledge for everybody’s benefit; that is my high aim for the next century. I pray, wish and ask for your success."

Concluding the intimate ceremony, Teller humbly remarked, "What I have done was not easy to do, but I always did what I wanted. I thank you for this honor. I may not have deserved it, but I have certainly enjoyed it."

His final comments were followed by the national anthems of both Hungary and the United States.

Former Lab director John Nuckolls said after the ceremony that he truly appreciates Teller’s "mind, spirit, determination and creativity."

Nuckolls recognized Teller as a key to the founding of LLNL. "Without Teller," Nuckolls said, "there would have been no Livermore Lab. He gave the Lab a spirit of public service."

But Teller’s most important contribution, Nuckolls said, was, as President John F. Kennedy said, "the survival of liberty" in Teller’s work during the Cold War.

Today, Nuckolls said, Teller stands for openness in science, and opposition to secrecy.

"He has been a primary mover in the promotion of post-Cold War Russian-American (scientific) cooperation. And he still has much to contribute on the subject of scientific ethics."

Lowell Wood and John Holzrichter, longtime LLNL colleagues of Teller’s, offered heartfelt congratulations to Teller on receiving the award. "We salute your accomplishments, primarily in science, but also in the arts," Wood said.

Holzrichter particularly thanked Teller for his contributions in the field of education. Teller taught for several decades at UC, where he founded the departement of applied science as part of UC Davis at the Livermore site, and at Stanford, where he is still a member of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. "Considering the turbulence in Hungary during Teller’s life — in the 1930s under the fascist government, then under the communists after the 1950s, and that during most of that time he was officially considered a ‘non-person’— the fact that they now, as a fledgling democracy, honor him as a most distinguished Hungarian, is a very moving tribute," Holzrichter said .

The Corvin Medal comes with the right to bestow a three-year scholarship or grant of approximately $72,000 to the student or scientist of Teller’s choice. "Therefore contributing to the next generation of excellence in science," Kerek-Barczy said .

Only twelve living people can hold the Corvin Medal, Kerek-Barczy explained. Upon Teller’s death, the next recipient’s name will be engraved below his on the back of the medal. When the space for names has been filled, the medal will be retired to the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

Currently, two other Hungarians stand to receive the award this year: historian John Lukas and Nobel Prize-winning chemist George Olah, both of whom live in the United States.

The full ceremony airs on Lab TV Channel 4 Aug. 27 - 31 at 10 a.m., 1 and 4 p.m.