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Heisenberg, Bohr and the atomic bomb


The importance of understanding a statement and its opposite
Edward Teller Scientist
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I want to tell you another story about Bohr, a story that I want to tell you just for the sheer fun of it. For once, it has no meaning except to tell you what Bohr was. I listened to him once when he talked, mistakenly, about the oxygen molecule. One of my professors in Leipzig - Hund, Friedrich Hund - taught me about the simple molecules very accurately. Bohr did not know that and actually made some mistaken statements and I had to contradict. I wanted to be polite and I remember to have said to one of his statements- This is an exaggeration. Thereupon Bohr stares at me, quite mad- Teller says I'm exaggerating. Teller does not want me to exaggerate. Well, if I can't exaggerate, I can't speak. We then talked about the objective questions and I think it was cleared up. But Bohr's statement about contradictions, about the use of words, about exaggeration, has something to do with the spirit of the uncertainty principle and the spirit of the times. And also, the spirit of one of the clear statements of moral significance that Bohr liked to make. Everybody - young people at eighteen years - should know that no statement can be believed unless you understand the statement and its opposite. A contradiction is not only likable, a contradiction is basic to understanding.

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: 2 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008