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The Scientist as Doctor Strangelove

By Deborah Shapley

( The author is Associate Editor of M. I. T.'s Technology Review. This article will appear in the March issue of that magazine. )

EDWARD TELLER, physicist, is also a specialist in inconsistency. After Hiroshima, when many scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb left weapons work-Teller urged the development of the hydrogen bomb. During the McCarthy headhunting years, when many of these same scientists publicly defended their accused colleague, Robert Oppenheimer, Teller gave a testimony which, in effect, crucified Oppenheimer and ended his public career.

Today, Dr. Teller is the bete noir of the younger generation of scientists. To them he is almost mythical-the mad scientist Dr. Strangelove who wants to build more and more "beautiful" weapons for the sheer, fantastic delight of controlling Dooms-day. Teller charged into the arena to meet these young critics during a day-long visit on December 27 to the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. Many times in his past, such confrontations have won Teller only unpopularity-even ostracism. But this time, the old bull won.

Teller has worked at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, Calif, since 1952. He is known for his hawkish views on weapons development, including the ABM. And he is known for his ability to put down questioners, other scientists, youth, doves-in short, anyone he disagrees with-in a booming, angry voice and thick Hungarian accent undimmed by 25 years of U. S. residency.

But during his ten-hour performance at the A.A.A.S., he departed from this posture many times. He was gentle, even humorous with his challengers. To an astonished group of scientists and press, he announced that during the war, Leo Szilard had urged him to circulate a petition against the bomb they were developing and that he, Teller, agreed with it. But Oppenheimer, director of the laboratory at Los Alamos, talked him out of it. So! Even the great weapons-champion had had doubts about the Bomb. Dr. Teller agreed to take with a small group of radicals late into the night, where he repeated a call for mutual understanding between all camps of science.

The young radicals who planned to make fun of Teller at the meeting were a national coalition called Scientists and Engineers for Social and Political Action (S. E. S. P. A.), which claims eleven chapters and 2000 "members." In Teller, who is far from popular among his own generation, they thought they had a sure target. They decided to award him their "Second Annual Dr. Strangelove Award" at a panel titled (ironically) "Is There a Generation Gap in Science?" Word of the impending action spread well in advance, and by early afternoon the Upper Summit Room at the top of the Conrad Hilton Hotel was packed with some 600 people. It was the best-attended panel of the entire A. A. A. S..

The afternoon's incongruities began with Teller's entrance into the room full of chatting, genial conventioneers-flanked by six bodyguards, apparently in response to threats of violence against him. But what followed was anything but violent. When he rose to speak, two S. E. S. P. A. men simply mounted the far end of the stage and stood silently, holding up the first of a series of placards introducing "The War Criminal: A Short Play by Edward Teller."

His first reaction was a stock Teller performance. Booming, he announced that he had always refused to talk "in the presence of propaganda," and sat down.

But then, suddenly, he changed his mind, muttering something about consistency and inconsistency. With the aid of a bit of rough-riding by Dr. Margaret Mead, chairwoman of the session, over some vocal comments from the audience, Dr. Teller resumed speaking. He said he was worried by the cut of government funds to science and the plight of the universities. "I want to understand the reasons and respond," he said, with the silent S.E.S.P.A. placards still in place.

He talked about how he entered science for the love of science. About his belief in the fundamental neutrality of scientific research (a new placard read: "The War Criminal as Poet: The Hydrogen Bomb came from the sun and the stars).')" About another typical Teller theme-war. "If there is a World War III, it will be more horrible than any of us can imagine. But it will not be the end of the human race. It will be the end of freedom, real liberalism, and reason." (The latest placard echoed: "The War Criminal as War Criminal: 'We Must Prepare for a Limited Nuclear War' ").

THEN CAME his revelation. Leo Szilard, he said, wrote him while he was working on the bomb at Los Alamos, asking his help to "prevent killing by the atomic bomb." Szilard asked Teller to sign and circulate a petition for a demonstration-only use of the bomb. "I fully and heartily agreed," Dr. Teller said. "Unfortunately, I did what I thought was supposed to do. I took the piece of document to the director of the laboratory (the late Dr. Oppenheimer), who told me, 'Szilard is using his influence as a scientist to influence political decisions. This is wrong. Don't you sign it. Don't circulate it.' I made the greatest mistake of feeling relieved of my responsibility-the most beautiful opportunity was missed. We could have proved that science could end a war without killing a single individual. Instead, we killed 100,000. And ever since then there has been a rising tide of anti-science sentiment." (The next placard was raised: "The Humility of the War Criminal: 'Scientists Are Fallible.' ")

Later Dr. Richard Noviek, of the Public Health Research Institute for New York City, presented Dr. Teller with the Strangelove Award "on behalf of his excellent imitation of Peter Sellers.' It was a ten-inch silver statue of a man aiming a gun and inscribed, "I was just following orders." Dr. Teller rose and announced with mock humility that he had received many awards in his lifetime, "many of them also undeserved." But he had never refused one. And then, muttering more about inconsistency, he refused this one and plopped it back down in front of Dr. Novick with a grand gesture. Even the radicals laughed.

THAT evening, Dr. Teller agreed to meet with some of the S. E. S. P. A. people, and anyone else who happened by, in a tiny, gray, glaringly lit bedroom somewhere in the dim innards of the Conrad Hilton. His bodyguards were relegated to the hallway, playing cards, while a mixture of radicals and others, totaling twenty or so, crowded into the room which Teller, with his enormous frame, dominated easily. The session appeared to be chaired by a lady in heavy makeup whose main job seemed to be keeping tempers cool.

Like the afternoon panel, the evening discussion was a mixture of Tellers, old and new. He endured the same accusations of War Criminal, Stooge of the Army, and the like, and retorted with his typical comparison of the radicals with Nazi youth.

But then he stopped his principal attacker, a long-haired student in an army jacket, glasses, and jeans named Tom Ward, and forced him to answer the question, "Do you really care about what motivates me?" Ward said yes, quietly, and Teller began his life story-again.

He was born in Hungary in 1908, "a land full of misery but optimistic about the future." He studied physics in Germany, "but I knew what was coming." He sidetracked into a favorite topic: "Those who brought Hitler to power argued with the same type of venom I hear here." But then he retrenched, looking at Tom Ward: "One difference between you and them is that you behave differently when you stop and listen to the other side ..." And then he was back to the life story. He fled Germany went to Copenhagen, 1934, and on to London, 1935. To the U. S. in 1935 as a physics professor at George Washington University. "I then believed that scientists should stay out of politics."

The confessional Teller went on: it was Franklin Roosevelt in a speech to the Pan American Union a few days before Hitler invaded the lowlands in 1939, which convinced him to join the war effort. Not surprisingly, the speech was a call to scientists to aid in the defense "not of the U. S., but of freedom."

Teller kept returning to his prepared-and undelivered-speech topic of the afternoon: the need to end secrecy in defense research. He also talked about freedom of speech-and appeared to practice it despite the insults hurled at him. Of course the students wanted to talk polities. Teller maintained that he had no opinion on socialism or capitalism. But communism-well-that's something else. It seems that this friend of his was sent to Siberia. A good scientist, too.... Often the lady in makeup had to intervene between him and the students.

It was nearing 10 o'clock. The room had been a pressure cooker for over two hours by now. Teller was tiring; his face was whitening and there were puckers under his eyes. He had been brandishing his cane and stomping his feet all along-but now his pant leg was lifted, revealing the brace on his right leg. He leaned often on the cane new, as though the frail hotel chair wasn't going to survive under his enormous frame. The Old-World courtesies droned out:

" And now, if you don't mind, I really must go. Or I will turn into a pumpkin. Ten minutes more. Only. "

It was going to end. Everyone had agreed to stop arguing. There was almost a visible sigh of relief. The lady in makeup began an elaborate speech of thanks to Dr. Teller. She patted his arm and smiled at him dewily through false eyelashes. "There , that wasn't so bad, was it?" Old-World courtesies sputtered back in reply. She gave him a loud kiss on the check. He winced.

And, of course, never to be cornered, he suddenly gained strength for another verbal charge: "Dear lady," he boomed, "if I had known how difficult it would be I would certainly not have come! "She recoiled a bit at that. At which point the huge frame lifted itself up from the chair and lumbered out of the room, where the bodyguards surrounded him and took him away.

The lady in makeup joined an informal de-briefing afterwards with the students, while Tom Ward slouched in the corner, unsmiling and talking in a low voice with his friends. The lady was sentimental and nodded towards Tom. "Teller says that boy's full of venom, but I think he's full of heartbreak. Think of the records he listens to, the heartbreak he's had. Think of what that boy's been through! Teller will never understand that."

Different students reacted differently:

"He must be completely insane to do what he does and yet talk the way he did tonight."

"I came away with a new appreciation of the man. He told us his life story. Not that he should be felt sorry for, but I saw that he was a man."

"I think he said what was really on his mind."

"I think he came clean with us and that scares me even more."


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