Field of Science


Been there, watched Spidey 2. I did not expect too much from it, and you cannot expect to see Oscar winning elements in such movies. It was good but not great. I liked the first one more for its novelty. But what interested me the most was the character of Dr. Otto Octavius. The most striking fact that I noticed was that he almost intentionally seemed to be modeled after Dr. Edward Teller. Since Teller was one of the most important scientists of the century and not really a household name, I wish to say a few words about him.

For those of you who may not be familiar with this name, Teller, who died a few months back and was well in his nineties was one of the most brilliant physicists of the century. (In)famously known to the public as the 'father of the hydrogen bomb', Teller was born in Hungary. An intense fear and revulsion for Communism was instilled deep in him as a child, evoked by the revolutions then shaking the country. Teller, like many other eminent scientists of his times decided to seek newer lands in his quest for science and freedom. A streetcar accident in Leipzig in Germany resulted in his foot being amputated, but only gave further impetus to his determination to make it big in life. At the time, the new Quantum Mechanics was being successfully applied to many problems, and Teller plunged right into it, getting a PhD. with the famous physicist, Werner Heisenberg. After some notable research, he finally, like many others, emigrated to the United States and became a Professor at the University of Washington, where the chairman of the Physics department was the eccentric Russian genius, George Gamow. The Second World War forced Teller to think about the application of physics to military problems, and he developed many useful theories, including a theory of armor penetration with his friend, the eminent Physicist Hans Bethe (who later won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of the reactions that fuel the sun). Bethe, then as now at Cornell University, is 98 and still going strong. In the summer of 1942, Robert Oppenheimer invited him to participate in a group discussion at Berkeley, where they would discuss the plausible theory behind contruction of an atomic bomb. Teller, as someone who always would think about fantastic ideas that would not always be tangible, thought of whether a fission bomb could possibly used to bring about nuclear fusion. At the time, the fission bomb itself was far from being a reality, and Teller's ideas were rightly perceived to be far fetched. Another amusing incident concerns Teller's fear that the atomic bomb would produce enough heat to light up the entire atmosphere and destroy the earth. However, after due calculations, Bethe found out that this would not happen. The culmination of that discussion and other events led to the establishment of the famous bomb laboratory at Los Alamos, and the Manhattan Project. During the course of that development, Oppenheimer made Bethe the head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos, a move which greatly irked the volatile Teller. However, it was an insightful move, just like so many others in the future, on the part of the brilliant Oppenheimer, because Bethe's more steady and persistent approach to solving problems was more important to the project than Teller's brilliant but rash ways of jumping to conclusions and conjuring up novel ideas. After that event, relations between Oppenheimer and Bethe, and Teller were always strained. Oppenheimer deserves credit for putting up with Teller's idiosynchrasies, including his playing the piano late in the night and disturbing neighbours. However, Teller made some valuable contributions to the project, especially in the development of the implosion method. The end of the war and the dropping of the atomic bomb evoked feelings of great guilt in most of the scientists, especially Oppenheimer, and most of them vowed not to work anymore on atomic weapons. But not Teller. He was convinced that the US would need to develop as many atomic bombs as it could to keep the Russians in check. Most importantly, he began to relentlessly push the effort for building an H bomb. The first Russian atomic bomb in 1949 spurred Truman to order a crash program to build the H bomb. Although Teller's ideas about bomb design, confident as he was about them, were certainly unworkable in the beginning, a feasible design soon began to take shape because of the contribution of other brilliant scientists. Especially notable in this regard was the Polish emigre mathematician, Stanislaw Ulam (who later was a prime contributor in the development of Monte Carlo methods). The first US H bomb was finally exploded in 1952. Even after this event, Teller continued to push for more atomic power. 1954 saw a significant watershed in Teller's life, when Oppenheimer was convicted of having Communist sympathies during the McCarthy Communist scare. Oppenheimer went on trial, and was almost unequivocally supported by scores of scientists and administrators, who testified in favour of his brilliance, his leadership and his loyalty to the United States. Teller was among the exceptions who said that it would be better if they took away his security clearance. The board finally ruled against Oppenheimer. This resulted in Teller becoming alienated against most of the scientific community, and he began a period of exile. However, there were those in Washington who liked his belligerent anti communist views, and they continued to seek his advice. Teller even managed to start a whole new laboratory in California specially devoted to weapons research. All this only pitted the scientific community more against him. From 1960 onwards, Teller made important contributions to physics and weapons research. Presidents sought his advice and he was active on the political scene. In the 1980s, he again became well known for his advocation and conception of the 'Star Wars' missile interception system developed by the Reagan administration. Many scientists argued that the Soviet Union could easily incapacitate the system and that it was just a big waste of money. But Teller's influence was considerable. In the 1990s, he continued to write, speak and support weapons development. In the last few years, he very rarely made public appearances. Edward Teller was a maverick scientist, without a doubt extremely brilliant, creative and original, but volatile and sensitive. Unintended slights could hurt him, and he managed to make a few enemies and lost many friends because of his belligerent views.
I personally am in two minds about Teller. He was a good man by heart, but just like many others, emotionally sensitive. And he made many mistakes which were obviously dictated by his strongly opinionated views and his emotions. One of the greatest tragedies which I personally feel Teller faced, was that even today, most people remember him as the 'Father of the H bomb'. This is unfortunate because Teller made many important and lasting contributions to Atomic and Molecular physics. Among other contributions, he gave one of the most accurate quantum mechanical descriptions of the Hydrogen molecule. He developed a theory of energy levels in crystals which is very important for Chemistry and Solid State Physics. He also co authored a paper on the adsorbtion of gases on surfaces, which is one of the highest cited papers in Chemistry today. Its a pity that most people remember him for his weapons research and not for these fundamental contributions.
I was surprised how much Otto Octavius resembled Teller, even physically, right from the bushy eyebrows, to the penetrating sense of humour. Octavius was also working on the dream which made Teller famous; fusion. Like Teller, Octavius can also be dark and brooding, not prepared to accept defeat. Teller and Ocatavius, they both represent the conscience of the scientist who has been given a gift. He has to decide how he uses the gift. Whatever the verdict, one thing is for sure; Ocatavius in the movie and Edward Teller in History, will always leave their mark upon the world.

Note: Teller's autobiography is "Memoirs; A twentieth century journey in science and politics"

1 comment:

  1. You can see Videos of Edward Teller talking about his life story on Peoples Archive. I found it particularly interesting seeing him telling of his remorse about the Oppenheimer hearings and the aftermath of Hiroshima...


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