By Frank Leone
Oppenheimer is a beautifully filmed and thought-provoking movie about the “father of the atomic bomb.” Among the scientists portrayed is Edward Teller, a physicist who was Oppenheimer’s colleague, friend, and adversary. Teller went on to become the “Father of the hydrogen bomb,” but before the Manhattan Project, he served on the faculty of the George Washington University. In 2003, GWU installed a plaque honoring Teller near the entrance of Corcoran Hall at 21st, near H Street.
Teller (Jan. 15, 1908 – Sept. 9, 2003) was born in Hungary and lived in Germany, Austria., Denmark, and England. He emigrated to the United States at age 27 in 1935 when GW President Cloyd Hecht Marvin invited Teller to GW. Teller served as a Professor of Physics from 1935 to 1945. He gave lectures on the new quantum theory, and focused on research. Teller largely remained a chemical physicist during his time at GW, or, as a fellow physicist called him, a “molecule inspector.”
While at GW, Teller was a central collaborator in producing a series of seminal papers in chemical and nuclear physics, including molecular adsorption on surfaces, shapes of molecules, spin-induced radioactive decay, neutron stars, nebulae formation, and energy production in red giant stars.
In 1941, Teller joined the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, N.M. and made important contributions to the development of the A-Bomb. After the war he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, then returned to Los Alamos to work on the H-Bomb. He then became director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and then joined the faculty of the University of California. He became a senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
Teller’s brilliance was unquestioned, but his policy views were controversial. He advocated for a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, increased nuclear testing, nuclear energy, peaceful uses of nuclear explosives, e.g., for harbor excavation (Project Plowshares), and President Reagan’s “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative. Teller advised many presidents, but in historian Richard Rhodes’ view, "Teller consistently gave bad advice to every president that he worked for."
In addition to his many scientific awards and honors, Teller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003 by George Bush, just a few months before his death at age 95 in September of that year.
Another plaque at the Corcoran Hall entrance describes “the announcement of the atomic age,” an event which took place on GW's campus on January 26, 1939. On that date, Physics Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr was attending a conference at GW organized by Teller and Prof. George Gamow. Bohr reported the splitting of the uranium nucleus. The film Oppenheimer shows the moment he received news of this momentous discovery. A third plaque (in front of Samson Hall at 21St and H Streets) honors physicist Gamow, a colleague of Teller who joined the GW faculty in 1934, and later proposed the Big Bang theory of the universe.
Sources: Edward Teller, GWU Dept. of Physics; Edward Teller, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Ashutosh Jogalekar, “The many tragedies of Edward Teller,” Scientific American (Jan. 15, 2014); Foggy Bottom Association History Project.