Andrei Sakharov and Edward Teller
// The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science.
Ed. J. L. Heilbron. Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 727-728


SAKHAROV, Andrei (1921-1989), theoretical physicist, key figure in the Soviet thermonuclear program, prominent advocate of human rights; and Edward TELLER (b. 1908), theoretical physicist, leading figure in the U.S. hydrogen bomb program, staunch proponent of position- of-strength policy toward the Soviet regime.

Although Teller and Sakharov have in common the fathering of the hydrogen bomb and both were prominent political and public figures, their lives on opposite sides of the Iron Curtain exhibited striking differences.

Teller was born in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, to a family of assimilated Jews of the upper middle class. After a course in chemical engineering he went to study physics in Germany (under Werner Heisenberg) and Denmark (under Niels Bohr). In 1935 he emigrated to the United States to work at George Washington University. In the 1930s he made a few significant contributions to theoretical physics, including the Jahn-Teller effect, which concerns crystal symmetry arising from interactions between electrons and nuclei, and turned out to be very important for material science.

Teller was involved in the American atomic project from its very beginning before the United States entered World War II. In the late 1940s, preoccupied with an idea of the hydrogen bomb, he helped convince the U.S. government that the weapon was feasible and indispensable for national security in the Cold War. He also made a key contribution to the first successful design of a thermonuclear weapon (tested in 1952). Teller, together with Ernest O. Lawrence, urged the creation of a second nuclear-weapons laboratory, now the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. As a prominent government adviser on nuclear policy, he opposed the ban of nuclear testing, championed peaceful uses for nuclear explosives, and promoted strategic antiballistic missile defense.

Teller pushed the hydrogen bomb against the opposition of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission that Oppenheimer chaired. During the commission's hearing over its decision to revoke Oppenheimer's security clearance (1954), Teller testified that he regarded Oppenheimer loyal to the United States, but that he "would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more." The great majority of the American scientific community regarded his testimony as an unacceptable violation of ethics and ostracized Teller for life. Nonetheless, in 1962 the U.S. government awarded Teller the Enrico Fermi prize "for leadership in research on thermonuclear reactions, and for his efforts to strengthen national security and to insure the peace."

Sakharov was born in Moscow to a family of the Russian intelligentsia. World War II interrupted his study of physics in Moscow University. After two years of work at a munitions factory, in 1945 he went on to graduate study in theoretical physics under Igor Tamm. Among his first results was an idea of muon-catalyzed fusion. In 1948 the government assigned Tamm's group, including Sakharov, to check the feasibility of an H-bomb design that, unknown to Sakharov, had been developed in part through espionage. In a few months he invented a brand-new design realized in the first Soviet thermonuclear bomb (tested in 1953). In 1951 he pioneered a research of controlled thermonuclear fusion that led to the tokamak reactor. His was the main contribution to the full-fledged H-bomb tested in 1955.

In 1958 Sakharov calculated the number of casualties that would result from an atmospheric test of the "cleanest" H-bomb: 6,600 victims for 8,000 years per megaton. "What moral and political conclusion must be drawn from these numbers?" he asked. Sakharov was proud of his contribution to the 1963 Test Ban Treaty, which saved the lives of many people who would have perished had testing continued in the atmosphere. In the 1960s he started his return to pure physics. The most successful consequence was his 1966 explanation of the disparity of matter and antimatter in the universe, or baryon asymmetry.

The major turn in Sakharov's political evolution took place in 1967, when the antiballistic missile defense (ABM), became a key issue in U.S.-Soviet relations. Sakharov wrote the Soviet leadership to argue that the moratorium proposed by the United States on ABM would benefit the Soviet Union and that otherwise the arms race in this new technology would increase the likelihood of nuclear war. The government ignored his memorandum and refused to let him initiate a public discussion of ABM in the Soviet press. Sakharov felt compelled to make his views public in an essay "Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom," published in samizdat (underground self-publishing in the Soviet Union) and in the West in the summer of 1968. The secret father of the Soviet H-bomb emerged as an open advocate of peace and human rights.

Sakharov was immediately dismissed from the military-scientific complex. He then concentrated on theoretical physics and human rights activity. The latter brought him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1975 and internal exile from 1980 until 1986, when the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev released him. Upon his return from exile Sakharov enjoyed three years of freedom and seven months of professional politics as a member of the Soviet parliament. Those were the last months of his life.

Although Sakharov opposed Teller over nuclear testing and the ABM problem, he considered the attitude of his American colleagues toward Teller to be "unfair and even ignoble." Sakharov had reason to know that Americans who considered Teller's position "anti-Soviet paranoia" did not understand the Soviet regime. Teller had had inside information from two of his physicist friends, pro-socialist Lev Landau and Laszlo Tisza. They had witnessed the great Soviet terror of 1937 that destroyed, among much else, the Kharkov Physics Institute, one of the best scientific centers in the USSR, and killed people dedicated to science and devoted to their country. Teller concluded that "Stalin's Communism was not much better than the Nazi dictatorship of Hitler," and never changed his mind.

Sakharov underwent a conversion. For many years he lived intoxicated by socialist idealism. He later said that he "had subconsciously ... created an illusory world to justify" himself. Totalitarian control over information enabled Soviet propaganda to brainwash even the best and brightest. Sakharov wanted to make his country strong enough to ensure peace after a horrible war. Experience brought him to a "theory of symmetry": all governments are bad and all nations face common dangers. In his dissident years he realized that the symmetry "between a normal cell and a cancerous one" could not be perfect, although he kept thinking that the theory of symmetry did "contain a measure of truth." That did not close his mind: "We should nevertheless continue to think about these matters and give advice to others that is guided by reason and conscience."

For both theoreticians the statement that "the future is unpredictable" was meaningful far beyond quantum physics. It made them feel personally responsible for the future of humanity.

Further reading

Herbert York, The Advisers: Oppenheimer, Teller and the Superbomb (1976).
Andrei Sakharov, Memoirs, trans. R. Lourie (1990).
Andrei Sakharov, Moscow and beyond, 1986 to 1989, trans. A. W. Bouis (1991).
Andrei Sakharov: Facets of a Life (1991).
David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb: the Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956 (1994).
Edward Teller with Judith Shoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (2001).
Gennady Gorelik with Antonina W. Bouis, The World of Andrei Sakharov: A Russian Physicist's Path to Freedom. (2005).




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