(2004) Peter Goodchild, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25.00, hrdbk, 467 pp, ISBN 0-297-60734-0
Edward Teller was perhaps the most influential physicist of the 20th century. That I was blissfully unaware of this leaves me rather embarrassed, but at least this ignorance has now been corrected thanks to this fascinating new and apparently complete biography.
The life of Teller is traced from his privileged childhood in Budapest as the son of a professional Jewish couple through his various periods as a young man in Universities and Institutes across Europe to his later work developing the fission and fusion bombs in the USA. It is this latter period, of course, which is the primary content of the biography and the reason for naming Teller as incredibly influential. He worked with Oppenheimer at Los Alomos during the tail end of the Second World War and later founded the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory to further the development of the H-Bomb. His final years saw him as an advisor to President Reagan promoting the development of the Star Wars initiative.
Goodchild's biography is both fascinating and horrific. Much is made of the insecure aspect of Teller's childhood as cause for the man's almost paranoid phobia towards the Soviet Union. For me, however, the most memorable sequences are those which describe the cavalier attitude of Teller. There are chilling accounts of episodes such as the Arms meeting between Gorbachov and Reagan in Iceland; the rivalry between Los Alomos and Lawrence Livermore; Teller's refusal to stop nuclear testing of "weapons" because the bombs were to be used for "civil engineering". Perhaps most of all, though, the outright lies told to President after President.
Goodchild himself has a slightly schizophrenic attitude towards Teller and my impression is that generally speaking he favoured Oppenheimer's stance on nuclear weapons over that of Teller. Even though sections of the biography are given over to apologies for Teller's behaviour as a nuclear power broker in Washington, disgust leaks through. I'm not surprised. Kubrick is alleged to have based Dr. Strangelove on Teller and it is all too easy to see why these two are connected. I've promised myself that I will read this again, but I must first watch the film. I think you should too.
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