In the early morning of 1 November 1952, the island of Elugelab was engulfed by a brilliant orange fireball. The island-destroying hydrogen bomb was the crowning achievement of Edward Teller, who died yesterday at age 95.
Teller, a Hungarian, studied under Werner Heisenberg in Germany before emigrating to England and to the United States. Teller helped set in motion the Manhattan Project, the U.S. effort to build the atomic bomb. But as Teller's Manhattan Project colleagues, led by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, were trying to build a fission bomb, Teller worked on a much more powerful device powered by nuclear fusion. After the end of the war, building upon the work of Stanislaw Ulam, Teller figured out how to use the radiation from a fission bomb to implode a "secondary" filled with light elements such as deuterium and lithium. The fusion reaction in the secondary would yield immensely more energy than an ordinary atom bomb; indeed, the first hydrogen bomb exploded with 600 times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb.
Teller was "tremendously ingenious," says weapons expert Richard Garwin, a physicist at IBM in Yorktown Heights, New York. Not only did he figure out how to build a practical hydrogen bomb, he played a role in understanding nuclear decays and various nuclear processes in astrophysics.
At the same time, Teller is reviled for his role in getting Oppenheimer's security clearance revoked and cutting him out of potential government posts. Thanks largely to Teller's testimony, Oppenheimer was declared a security risk in 1954. Several colleagues vouched for Oppenheimer, but Teller stated that he didn't trust him to keep secrets.
Teller's love of high-tech weaponry and his fervent anti-Communism led some to speculate he was the inspiration for "Dr. Strangelove," the insane scientist in Stanley Kubrick's Cold War movie of the same name. In the 1980s, Teller advocated a "Star Wars" antimissile program of space-based x-ray lasers. A little more than a month ago, Teller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States, for his career.