Interview With Edward Teller

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During your 40-year association with the Laboratory, you've enjoyed a long and distinguished career in science and in public life. Looking back on those years, at the causes you've championed and the policy decisions you've influenced, are there any regrets or second thoughts, things you wish you'd done differently?

I really do not have many regrets, because I have consciously and consistently tried to exercise only one essential influence at the Laboratory—that the role of nuclear arms, and more generally the role of advanced technology in arms for the future, should be carried out in two laboratories rather than one. My original intention was to produce competition so that all the mistakes would not be committed in one place, and that, by competition and collaboration, the development of technology for future military uses should be better controlled and better balanced.

Now, in pursuing this goal, there was the difficulty of setting up the second laboratory in the first place, which would have been impossible without the powerful help of Ernest Lawrence. And then, in the second place, it was necessary, given the competition between the two laboratories, to establish good relations between them. I think that after forty years, one can clearly and simply say that these two basic purposes have been (at least for the time being) accomplished. And so, I am satisfied.

The rest are details. They may be important details, but I never felt that whether we worked on precisely this kind of weapon or this modification of a weapon was all that important. We have seen a shift from "big bang" to delivery accuracy. I don't know whether I helped cause this change or whether I went along with it. So, having taken only a limited initiative, my pride or regret is also limited. The main point was to create a second laboratory, to create competition, and through collaboration to make it as productive as possible.

You've been very successful at that. One of your special interests is science education. Given the continuing flow of alarming reports on the decline of the American educational system, what is your prognosis? Do you think it's going to be feasible to maintain the international dominance that America now enjoys in so many branches of science? If not, what remedies do you suggest? How do we persuade today's students that the sciences offer challenging, exciting, and rewarding careers?

We clearly are in trouble in connection with science and technology. The obvious sign of this trouble is a great contrast that I see when I compare my memories of more than fifty years ago, when I came to United States, with the present state of affairs. In the 1930s, progress in science and technology had been placed on a high pedestal, perhaps even too high. One might argue, in fact, that the nontechnical part of intellectual life was, at that time, not sufficiently emphasized.

Today, this great respect for progress is replaced by fears. Technology is often described as "dehumanizing." The fear of pollution is linked to the fear of technology in general, and nowhere is that stronger than in connection with nuclear energy. To my mind, our young people are not sufficiently interested in the "hard" sciences. That is explained by the fears I have just described.

They hear, not only from the press but from their parents and even from their teachers, negative things about technology and, by implication, about science. That, I believe, is a very dangerous trend. I think that the limited but effective things that Livermore is doing in science education, in working with teachers and students, are small steps towards solving the big problem. But the problem is very big and will certainly not be solved by any of us in isolation.

Do you think the kinds of things the Lab is doing in education could serve as a model for the rest of the country to interest students in science?

That would be saying too much. The sources of the troubles are manyfold. And so are the remedies. We are not talking about one cure. We are talking about opposing a very dangerous trend, and that opposition should come in many forms.

Why do you consider this a dangerous trend?

I believe that when we complain about our economy not growing at a sufficiently high rate, when we're losing markets to the Japanese and others, it probably doesn't have to do with the mistakes of this or that administration. It is primarily due simply to the fact that we do not respect progress as we used to, and therefore we don't accomplish progress to the extent that we used to. I believe that the future strengths of our country, our future standard of living, our reputation as a place where people live comfortably and where everybody can have a better life—all of that depends on the progress that we made some time ago, and we are now losing—spoiling—the future of our people in the next century.

We're living on our intellectual capital rather than renewing it?

On our capital in technology.

Now that the collapse of the Soviet system has exposed many of its long-concealed weaknesses, some have questioned whether there ever was a need for a strong U.S. nuclear deterrent. These critics claim that in a sense, the Soviet Union was an invented enemy. How would you respond?

You know, I have recently visited Hungary. It is remarkable how unanimous people are about their relief at being rid of the Soviets. Tell them the Soviets have been an invented fiction! Tell the Afghans! Attacks on the well-being of the individual for the sake of an imagined good—for the collective—have made three hundred million people in the Soviet Union, and at least one hundred million outside the Soviet Union, miserable for one or two generations.

The Soviet system collapsed after it became completely obvious that their program of extending their rule throughout the whole world had no hope of realization whatsoever. That collapse was a remarkable mixture of forces outside the Soviet Union—our forces, which stopped their expansion and made their leadership hesitate—and the deep dissatisfaction of their own people. Because they had had enough of that world, two hundred thousand people in Moscow gathered before their parliament in a day or two to face tanks.

The one most remarkable thing about all this is that it could occur inside the Soviet Union—and also outside—without bloodshed. But it was not just a revelation of weakness. It was a failure in the exercise of brute force against their own people, whom they killed by the millions, whom they put into concentration camps, and who, in the end, revolted against their system. But as long as force was successful in expanding their rule, they could not be stopped.

That the Soviets lasted for seventy years was probably due, to some extent, to Hitler. After Hitler's fall, there was an inevitable gain for the Soviets that made it possible for them to survive for a few more decades.

But to discount Soviet rule as no threat is false. They exercised over their own people a real, oppressive force and at least as much over those they conquered. Their resistance to Hitler was effective, but in the end their use of force was obviously insufficient to carry out a continuing mission of conquest. All this does not make as easy a picture as the one implied in the question, but Soviet power certainly was not an invention to be dismissed. I am sorry, but that claim is ridiculous.

Now that the Cold War is over, do you think it's likely that the American public will be willing to continue its support of basic and applied science to the same extent that it did when the Soviet Union presented a clear and present danger? Will it be necessary to persuade the public of the continuing value of a national investment in research and development? If so, how can this be done?

I think our support for science is not in any real danger. Neither is music. Neither are all the other intellectual activities. The clear and present Soviet threat did influence the applications of science to military matters, but those applications will diminish to the extent that the danger recedes. What was the Soviet Union is now in an uproar. But the application of modern technology to aggressive warfare, particularly to rocketry, where we now face the spread of missile technology to some twenty nations, is a clear and present danger. To meet this challenge, we will need research organizations that can change with changing conditions. And in that effort, a laboratory like Livermore will play an important role. We must somehow persuade the public that there is a real problem here, and that to disregard it can be very dangerous. That will not be an easy job.

One thinks of our success in the Persian Gulf War, where we defeated, in a relatively short time, a powerful army with hardly any losses on our part and with limited losses on their part. This performance should have impressed people, but it seems that the public doesn't appreciate sufficiently how big an accomplishment it really was. We tend to forget that without it, Saddam Hussein now would be in possession of all the oil in the Middle East and all the power that goes with it. And, on top of everything, he would still have the fruits of his multibillion-dollar investment in nuclear weapons.

Our victory in the Gulf was the result of international cooperation and technical excellence. But it seems that this success still doesn't speak for itself, that some people now talk about "America first," even when America has played so important a role in stabilizing the world, and when the importance of its continuing this role is so obvious. What we have then, it seems to me, is a big job explaining the obvious.

One analyst has described the post-Cold War era as "the end of history." By this he seems to mean that there is now widespread agreement that liberal democracy together with a free-market economy is the preferred model of the good society. Does this mean that the human race has run out of moral challenges? Are we now entering a world that for most people will prove relatively comfortable, safe—and ultimately boring? Are there any more great challenges demanding the courage, vision, and perseverance of the past?

You know, I have worried in my life about many things, but I have never worried about getting bored. Whoever gets bored deserves that horrible fate. Man has been described as a problem-solving animal. I am more inclined to call men and women "problem- creating animals." But there are real problems of a nasty character today. Among them, the conflict of nationalisms, the conflict of ideologies, the hate whipped up by one class against another—when it's not even clear that the classes exist!

There are also other problems. There are problems even in mathematics, and they are among the most challenging. There are enough problems to go around. I am afraid that for the next century there will be more than enough problems. I hope that many of them will be problems of a nicer variety than the problems created by Hitler or Stalin. But there will be nasty problems as well. I think we are at the end of a century that had its terrible problems and has also seen some good but partial solutions.

You see, I protest against describing democracy as a solution to problems. Democracy is a self-contradictory system where decisions are made independently, all over the place, creating more conflicts than you can imagine. The point of democracy is that instead of letting a few people make tremendous mistakes, it allows many people to make small mistakes. For that reason, our system is greatly preferable to centralized systems. Small mistakes are the heritage and the lesson of America, and they have the nice property that they can be corrected without going to extremes. I think the historian who proclaimed the end of history has a totalitarian history in mind and leaves no room for real history.

You've long played an active public role in promoting nuclear power. However, much of the initial public support for this technology has eroded over the years, especially since the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents. What do you see as the future prospects for nuclear power, either fission or fusion, in America? I believe you once said that it's easy to frighten people about this technology but hard to reassure them.

Nuclear reactors are today the cleanest and safest way to produce energy. People decided to get frightened about anything nuclear. It is not unusual to pair Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. It so happens that the one danger to human well-being that was present in both cases -- radioactivity—was greater in Chernobyl and less in Three Mile Island. Everybody knows that. What they don't know is that the ratio of the two radioactivities was a million to one. In the one case, there were quite a few deaths; in the other case, not a single person was injured. The monetary loss may have been comparable, but what is usually considered most important (and rightly so) are human life and human health. And here the two accidents cannot be compared at all.

If we want safe and clean energy, we should accept fission reactors. Unfortunately, the fear of the technology is widespread, and will be hard to eradicate. Therefore, reactors must not only be safe; we must make them obviously safe. One step in that direction would be to put them underground. That's entirely possible. The fear of nuclear energy is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the fear of progress and technology in general. And if we don't find ways to make the obvious clear to people, to persuade them to accept the best technologies, then I believe America will turn itself into an underdeveloped country.

Such a change has happened in history: China pioneered in many revolutionary technologies—the compass, the use of horses, gunpowder, a navy that ranged as far as the Indian Ocean—all were Chinese innovations. Then, in the middle of the 15th century, reactionaries—neo- Confucians who believed in traditional philosophy and were opposed to progress—persuaded the Emperor to confine his fleet, and China's exploration of the Indian Ocean stopped. Instead of the old, defensive Chinese Wall, a spiritual wall came to isolate China from the rest of the world. And in a few centuries, the Chinese people became truly miserable.

I believe that this pattern may be repeated, only today the world moves faster. I think that the lack of interest in the hard sciences and the opposition to nuclear energy have the same root, and they and other manifestations of the same trend are among the greatest dangers—and perhaps the single great danger—that the United States must somehow overcome.

You've long been a vigorous advocate of advanced defense technologies, more recently the Strategic Defense Initiative. What is your position on this technology area today? In an era of strategic build-down, does SDI still have a role to play?

I will be very brief. Of all the changes brought to defense by advanced technology, the most important is the development of delivery accuracy. This change outpaces by far the development of more effective and powerful weapons of aggression. The result is that highly accurate weapons can now be directed against aggressive weapons themselves. It was this technology, in the form of the Stinger missile, that helped to force the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan. It also helped to stop the army of Saddam Hussein. Eventually, it may reduce (but not eliminate) the danger of aggression. It gives an opportunity to nations dedicated to stability to cooperate in preventing aggression.

Even with the end of the Cold War, the world remains a place full of problems that will not be solved very easily or very quickly. The prospect of ballistic missiles in the hands of 20 different governments makes it mandatory that good defenses be developed.

The technologies of missile defense have been among Livermore's most important contributions. We have also, of course, played a most important role in developing nuclear weapons. The use of advanced technology for military applications requires first-class scientific resources, such as those of Livermore and Los Alamos. Both laboratories excel in applying the latest in science and technology to military problems. The latest fruit of this effort is the prospect of a defense against missiles.

What do you see as your legacy?
I am confident that when current problems are solved, my grandchildren will find that, as a result, new problems will arise, some of which we never have dreamed of. Among the things I'm most happy to remember are Livermore's accomplishments, although I cannot accept praise or blame for them except in the very general sense that I did what I could to help bring the Laboratory into existence.