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The right decision was reached, but only by chance


Presenting the new ideas to the Atomic Energy Commission
Edward Teller Scientist
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By that time I was quite confident of real success. On the one hand the calculations were confirmed, on the other hand I had a new method where the difficult question of working the reaction out of equilibrium could be sidestepped. I now have reason to believe that the original plans would also have worked. They would have worked marginally, not in the sense that they would not have given very big yields, but in the sense that the prediction of their working was at that time quite obviously not possibly a very firm prediction. What we were now proposing; to compress and make the emission of radiation essentially less harmful, that was something we could count on. A conference was announced, in Princeton, for the advisers of the, of the Atomic Energy Commission. I was invited. I would have liked to bring along Ulam, but he really did not think that the consequence of our work would be a real success. He was not prepared to argue, so I had to go alone. I did. The day before, I talked with Oppenheimer, told him about our new approach, did not get a clear answer whether he was impressed or not. We went into the meeting. The recommendations of Los Alamos were made by the Head of the Theoretical Department, Carson Mark, and what he said was- The experiments were a success. By working on it in this way we have satisfied the request, the instruction from the White House. We have now done our job. We don't need to do anything more. The remarkable thing was that even at that time the leadership at Los Alamos, for reasons I do not quite understand, ignored the suggestion that was described in first approximation in the paper by myself and Ulam and then in an immediate more detailed follow-up paper produced by my office. I asked a word, I wanted to propose the new approach to get the hydrogen bomb going in equilibrium. Bradbury would not permit it. One man on the General Advisory Committee, he has a famous name, Smyth, the author of the Smyth Report which in '45 disclosed quite a bit about the working of the atomic bomb. Smyth said- Why don't we listen to Teller? I described the new approach. I don't think I took quite twenty minutes. The first remark came from Oppenheimer, who had heard about it the day before. His remark was, and it's on the record- This is such a good idea that we cannot afford to do anything but to follow it up. That was what had to be done and now with Oppenheimer's approval it was on the program in a manner that could not be changed.

The late Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller helped to develop the atomic bomb and provided the theoretical framework for the hydrogen bomb. During his long and sometimes controversial career he was a staunch advocate of nuclear power and also of a strong defence policy, calling for the development of advanced thermonuclear weapons.

Listeners: John H. Nuckolls

John H. Nuckolls was Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1988 to 1994. He joined the Laboratory in 1955, 3 years after its establishment, with a masters degree in physics from Columbia. He rose to become the Laboratory's Associate Director for Physics before his appointment as Director in 1988.

Nuckolls, a laser fusion and nuclear weapons physicist, helped pioneer the use of computers to understand and simulate physics phenomena at extremes of temperature, density and short time scales. He is internationally recognised for his work in the development and control of nuclear explosions and as a pioneer in the development of laser fusion.

Duration: 5 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008