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LRB 25 April 2002 Steven Shapin

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Megaton Man

Steven Shapin

Memoirs: A 20th-Century Journey in Science and Politics by Edward

Teller and Judith Shoolery

The risk of being blinded was thought to be very real, so the witnesses to the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico in July 1945 were given strict instructions to turn their backs on the initial blast.

The physicist Edward Teller refused to obey orders. He put on an extra pair of dark glasses under welder’s goggles, smeared his face with ointment, and looked straight at the aim point, not wanting to miss a second of the atomic age. In the decades that followed, Teller never looked back. He never saw a new type of nuclear weapon that he didn’t like, never liked any argument against building them bigger, smaller, more numerous, or more easily deliverable, never regretted anything about his career as the greatest of nuclear weaponeers except for the obstacles put in his way by those lacking in patriotic fervour or common sense.

At wartime Los Alamos, Teller’s demands for the immediate production of a vastly more powerful thermonuclear weapon became so petulant that he effectively downed tools on the fission bomb whose construction was, in any case, a technical prerequisite. You need an A-bomb to ignite an H-bomb, and the lab’s Director Robert Oppenheimer reasonably enough felt that the race to forestall the Nazis required no distractions from the main lines of development.

Destructive friction between fusion and fission was reduced by giving Teller what was essentially a roaming brief, and it was in these connections that one of his Los Alamos colleagues later called Teller ‘a disaster to any organisation’.

After Hiroshima, when Oppenheimer suggested that the best thing to do with Los Alamos was to ‘give it back to the Indians’, and when the 1 of 12 2/4/2008 11:35 AM LRB · Steven Shapin: Megaton Man http://www.lrb.co.uk/v24/n08/print/shap01_.html overwhelming majority of the atomic scientists

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At the same time, Teller’s enthusiasm for all things nuclear spilled over into a series of fantastic plans for the ‘peaceful’ use of these devices. In secret 1957 meetings at Livermore, he suggested that if you rocketed a nuclear weapon at the Moon all sorts of interesting scientific observations might be secured. His more down-to-earth proposals to use a series of ‘clean’ nuclear explosions to carve out an unwanted harbour on the north-west coast of Alaska, and another to dig a second Panama Canal, were better received in Government circles. In any case, such proposed civilian uses offered potent justifications for continued testing, and it was through testing alone that progress could be achieved and the bomb-builders’ theories empirically checked: ‘It connected our work with reality.’ These ‘Project Plowshare’ schemes were ultimately aborted, due, in Teller’s opinion, to ‘hyperbole in the popular press about the risks of exposure to radiation’ and ‘political timidity’ in not standing up to unscientific panic-peddling, but not before the AEC ‘experimentally’

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Eisenhower’s Farewell Address in January 1961 famously warned the nation against the growing influence of the ‘military-industrial complex’. Teller, who met Eisenhower socially after his Presidency

was finished, has an idea whom the President had specially in mind:

Tom Lanphier of the Convair Corporation, whose heavy-handed lobbying about the alleged ‘missile gap’ annoyed Eisenhower. Less well-remembered in the Farewell Address was Eisenhower’s caution about ‘the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific technological elite’. Herbert York, Livermore’s first Director and nominally Teller’s boss in the early 1950s, visited Eisenhower in the California desert at about the same

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