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Should the hydrogen bomb be built?


The decision to go ahead with the hydrogen bomb
Edward Teller Scientist
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Well, it was a great surprise. I probably did not believe as firmly as most of my colleagues that it would take the Soviets many years to do what we had done. I was probably a little less surprised than most that they had succeeded four years after we did. But still, I was surprised and I felt something ought to be done. The first thing was then and there, in Washington, to call up Oppenheimer and I got a very brief reply from him- Keep on your- keep your shirt on. I felt that I didn't quite know what else to do, but what you would call my shirt did not feel quite comfortable. I went back to Los Alamos, discussed the question with some people, no real proposal, no real action. A few weeks later I get a phone call from my good friend Luis Alvarez in Berkeley, a close collaborator with of Ernest Lawrence and during the war we had worked together- Ernest and I want to come down and talk to you in Los Alamos. Most welcome. Very soon afterwards, a phone call from Bradbury- I hear you have visitors from California. Would you mind if Manley sat in on your discussion. Manley was his deputy, good man- Of course, Doctor. So there was Ernest and Luis Alvarez and Manley and I, and Ernest wanted to know about the hydrogen bomb. I told him. I told him in detail how we planned to make a very big explosion, not allowing est- equilibrium to be established, but having discussed it very thoroughly, having some preliminary calculations on it, and having decided not to do anything more about it. Ernest says to me- You must do this. You must go ahead. And then, he was going down to Albuquerque, taking a plane- Come with me. I came with him to the hotel and there Ernest used a method of persuasion on me which was very peculiar and exceedingly effective. He was prepared to go to bed, took off his shirt and washed it. The washable shirts around '49 were something of a novelty and Ernest told me- Listen, if you want to go ahead with the hydrogen bomb, you will have to have a lot of discussions, you have to do a lot of traveling, and I find traveling much more easier since I don't need to carry half a dozen shirts along, but can wash them every night as I did just now. You cannot tell me that this was among physicists a standard argument, but Ernest managed to convey to me- This is important. You are the one who have to do it and I will support you, but you have to go ahead. Had he used these words they may not have been completely effective. Having gone into the irrelevant detail of washing his shirt, made me decide indeed to go ahead.

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, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008