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Photo of George H. Miller
George H. Miller
Director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

The Edward Teller Centennial

EDWARD Teller, whose centennial we are celebrating this month, was a remarkable man. All of us are greatly indebted to him for what he did for the nation and for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Teller had an enormous impact on physics and national security in the 20th century and was an inspiration for countless researchers here at the Laboratory and elsewhere.

Those of us who were privileged to work with Edward gained from his vast knowledge, creativity, deep insights, and enthusiasm for scientific discovery and its application. He had a way of always getting to the heart of a matter. Early in my nuclear design career, I was working on a new concept and got it on the test schedule. After the device went downhole, I began to worry about a potential problem. Several of us did a lot of calculations, which were inconclusive but indicated that the device would not perform as anticipated. I was advised to see Edward and walked in with a pile of computer simulation results. He waved them off and asked me to explain the problem. After about a minute, Edward stopped me and said, “There are three possibilities. If you are wrong about the effect of the flaw, you will be a hero because you will have demonstrated a new type of device. If you are correct about the flaw, you will be a hero because you correctly discerned a subtle effect that no one before thought of. The only way you can fail is to not try.” He then dismissed me.

The article Edward Teller’s Century: Celebrating the Man and His Vision celebrates Teller’s life. His career can be divided roughly into two overlapping phases. The first, covering the period from 1928 to about 1952, was devoted to science research and university life. Teller had a superb command of virtually all aspects of physics, an insatiable curiosity, and a powerful desire to understand the universe. He made key contributions in a host of physics disciplines, including statistical mechanics, quantum theory, molecular physics, condensed-matter physics, surface physics, magnetism, nuclear physics, and astrophysics. The second phase of his life began with the discovery of fission in 1939. Over time, Teller’s chief focus became the application of physics to defense and the cofounding of the nation’s second nuclear weapons laboratory. He held a strong personal commitment to strengthening international security and an unshakable optimism that advances in technology could improve the human condition.

Key events leading to the establishment of our Laboratory occurred in 1951. While at Los Alamos, Teller made a singularly important technical contribution to nuclear weaponry with an insight that made thermonuclear weapons possible. He was a driving force behind the successful testing of the hydrogen bomb. However, he was dissatisfied with the progress of research and development in that area and argued in Washington that a second laboratory was needed. Through the efforts of Ernest O. Lawrence and Teller, the laboratory at Livermore was established in 1952, combining a multidisciplinary team approach to research and development with expertise in basic sciences and a goal to transform discoveries into applications that would benefit the nation.

For more than 50 years, Teller had a profound influence on Livermore, serving as a visionary scientific leader and Laboratory director, mentoring many colleagues, establishing an onsite applied-science branch of the University of California, and championing the importance of national defense. Two early examples in his Laboratory career set the stage for what Livermore would become. Teller recognized the importance of scientific computing and requested that the most advanced computer of the time, the Univac I, be ordered even before the Laboratory’s official opening date. Today, we remain at the forefront of scientific computing. In the summer of 1956, Teller offered to deliver to the Navy, within five years, a compact strategic warhead for submarine-launched Polaris missiles. Fulfilling that promise required major breakthroughs, which established Livermore’s reputation for risk-taking and applying innovative science and technology to address the nation’s most pressing needs. We continue that legacy today.

Once, when asked about his personal legacy, Teller said, “Among the things I’m most happy to remember are Livermore’s accomplishments, although I cannot accept praise or blame for them except in the very general sense that I did what I could to help bring the Laboratory into existence.” Teller contributed far more than that to Livermore—and to the world. He has had a lasting influence on us all.


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