BEST known as a scientist and proponent of sometimes controversial ideas, Edward Teller is also a self-confessed teaching addict. Among the less controversial of his opinions is that this country needs more intensive science education to develop scientists and engineers of the future. He has done everything he can personally to see that students of all ages learn about and appreciate science.|
His belief in education and the exchange of information is so strong that since the 1940s, he has fought the secrecy that shrouds most defense-related scientific work by the government. He instead encourages openness and a sharing of ideas with the public and with other scientists around the world. By nature friendly and gregarious, Teller thrives on the free exchange of ideas and thoughts and believes that science as a whole thrives on openness. Moreover, he believes that while secrecy is not compatible with science, it is even less compatible with democratic procedure. His years in Europe, particularly Germany around 1930, perhaps demonstrated to him the importance of free speech.
Ever the Teacher|
During an interview on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Teller was asked what scientists could do to help the public overcome their suspicions about new technology and science. "It is not up to the scientists," Teller responded. "It is up to teachers. A good teacher does not have to be someone who deeply understands his subject. A good teacher is someone who can transfer the love he or she has for the subject to students."
A teacher for over 60 years, Teller always hopes that his students will come to share his love for science. He has long been concerned that not enough young men and women are choosing science as a career, so he has made every effort to educate and inspire young scientists. His teaching career began at London City College in 1934 and continued at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the University of Chicago, and several campuses of the University of California, where he holds the title of University Professor Emeritus.
From the first, Teller developed a reputation as an outstanding lecturer, always able to explain complex issues in simple terms and to synthesize myriad ideas. At the University of California at Berkeley, he taught a physics course to nonscience majors so popular that hundreds of students had to be turned away.
He recognized that an appreciation of science among nonscientists is as important as the creation of new scientists. In fact, science appreciation is so important to Teller that he devoted an entire chapter to the subject in his 1987 book, Better a Shield than a Sword.
In recent years, he has enjoyed reaching out to high school and elementary school students to stimulate their interest in science. In 1990, at 82, he taught a weekly class in physics to Livermore-area high school students and their teachers and parents. During the early 1990s, he continued to speak several times a year to area students. In 1996, his soft spot for youngsters interested in science was still apparent in an interview he granted to a seventh grader researching the Manhattan Project.
Creating a New Department
The War against Secrecy|
Not long after World War II, Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, and others protested continued classification of research. Many nuclear scientists even advocated sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviet Union, then our former ally and budding adversary, reasoning that openness on our part would allay the fears of the Soviets. Teller made the point that keeping scientific facts secret would hinder us but would hardly interfere with the work of a potential competitor, because scientific discoveries are almost always made by more than one researcher. However, the U.S. government rejected this and other overtures for openness.
Teller likened military secrets to industry's protection of engineering and production technologies. Industry limits access to a product until it reaches the market and researchers begin to produce the next generation. He saw no reason why military secrets could not be handled in a similar way, maintaining secrecy for a year to maintain the element of surprise and then sharing the new technology.
Teller also felt strongly that the country's citizenry should be as well informed about science as possible to allow rational discussion of public policy. Yet, as in the past, the public knows few hard facts about our country's defense systems or those of our adversaries, leaving decisions about our defense to the political winds.
But the classification tide is turning. In December 1993, then-Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary began to declassify many documents that had been kept at the secret level for decades. Teller played a key role in convincing O'Leary to declassify documents on laser fusion, pointing out that the secret classification of this work placed U.S. scientists at a disadvantage and impeded international cooperation. Because foreign governments did not restrict fusion research in their countries, the only victims of the secrecy were Americans.
A Way of Life|
Edward Teller never stops fighting the good fight. During a speech at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory's Special Guest Day in 1992, he reiterated his concern about education in the hard sciences and engineering. His thesis was that the U.S. cannot maintain its world leadership position and standard of living unless we act now to rejuvenate our scientific community. He also restated his belief that every student should receive lectures that instill an appreciation of science and technology. According to Teller, possessing a scientific understanding of the universe is important because science "has an influence on all of us, affecting our ideas of space, time, and causality." And understanding technology is important "because we live in it."
He also continues to urge the government to change its classification policy to one that enforces secrecy in a practical manner, that limits the lifespan of secret information, and corresponds with the American ethos.
Teller, a naturalized American citizen, clearly loves his adopted country. Both efforts-for better science education and greater openness-are driven by his concern for maintaining the American way of life.