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Physical Attraction

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Feb 7, 2019

You can get too caught up in praising the beauty of science and conflating that with praising the individual. I think we should recognise and appreciate brilliance, but stop short of hero-worship. It’s reductive. It diminishes people. It removes important parts of who they were. It can, in its worst excesses, be downright dangerous.

Nevertheless, that’s not a problem I have today, even though I’m going to tell this story partly biographically. Because Edward Teller, for all his brilliance in physics, is not the kind of person you’d want to worship as a hero. Yet it’s Teller, for good or ill, rightly or wrongly, who is most associated with the first successful large-scale harnessing of the power of fusion by human beings: the hydrogen bomb.

If you’ve ever seen the film Dr Strangelove, or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb”, you’ll know something of the popular perception of Teller. If you haven’t, you should immediately find a copy and watch it. From the moment that Teller was brought onto the Manhattan project, he was pushing for it to expand – not just to create a bomb that would harness the power of nuclear fission, but a fusion bomb. A hydrogen bomb, that would – according to theoretical calculations – be thousands of times more powerful. It would begin a long career in physics and the military that would see Teller consistently and endlessly advocate for more and more powerful weapons – total nuclear supremacy over the Soviet Union. It was an obsessive quest that led some of his oldest friends and colleagues to turn on him, in the end. The physicist Isidore Rabi later said: “He is a danger to all that is important. I do really feel it would have been a better world without Teller.”



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