Peter Goodchild - Edward Teller: The Real Dr. Strangelove

Edward Teller: what an interesting character! I can't imagine ever being a fan of him. Goodchild certainly isn't, although he frequently holds back from really blasting him the way he probably would in an "off the record" conversation. He tries to remain unbiased and even handed throughout, but sometimes it is impossible not to let a critique of such a right-wing, power hungry, war hawk slip out.

I mean, how can one really admire a man who vetoed an award to Steven Weinberg, for work that Weinberg eventually won a Nobel Prize for, merely because it said on the recommendation form for the award that Weinberg was for arms control? Needless to say, Teller was not for arms control. Far from it. He appeared to be the foremost proponent on the entire planet of a runaway arms race. He wanted nuclear weapons for every reason and any reason. He wanted them on the ground, in space, in the sea, around the weapons, around the cities, for offense, for defense, for energy, for testing, for construction, for building rivers, for building canals, building holes, and anything else that the imagination could come up with. And he didn't seem to have a problem lying (or exaggerating as Goodchild and others more kindly put it) to push for more weapons, more tests, and more government funding of his agenda.

Not only was Teller the father of the H-bomb, but he was also the father of SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars). He kind of reminds me of some of the religious folks who will sell you not only a problem (guilt, sin, etc.) but a solution (get more religious, give more to your church, etc.) as well when in fact the world would be better off without either.

You won't find a very good critique of SDI in this book (as, again, I believe Goodchild was trying to appear unbiased). For an excellent criticism of SDI see Steven Weinberg's essay in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2003.

Teller, in a sense, became what he feared and hated. He didn't become a Nazi or a Communist or grow to like them by any means, but he became like them in the sense that it became "my way or the highway" and "might makes right" with regards to his own agendas. It's a bit frightening when one can't step back and recognize that the act of fighting so bitterly against some thing is actually turning them in to something like that thing. The same could be said of the protesting students who went on a rampage with intent to do physical harm to Teller and his property in Berkeley.

While Teller's story is certainly a fascinating one, I'm not so sure that Goodchild is the best teller (no pun intended) of that story. Sure, he has written a biography on Oppenheimer (and at times Teller's biography turns into more of a biography on Oppenheimer). Goodchild likes Oppenheimer much better than Teller, by the way. I didn't always agree with Goodchild's analysis based on the facts and footnotes given. The occasional typo also causes me to doubt some of Goodchild's ability to always be accurate (although I realize those are probably the publisher's fault and not his). But there are other reasons for my skepticism. For instance, Goodchild refers to the water at Half Moon Bay (in the San Francisco Bay Area) as "warm." I've been in the water at Half Moon Bay on many occasions, at different times of the year and at different times of the day, and I can safely conclude that no human who knew what they were talking about would refer to that water as "warm"--"extremely cold" maybe, but not "warm." Finally, and I know this is not a just criticism but it bugs me just the same so I will mention it, I don't particularly enjoy British English spellings in a biography about an American. Strange as it may seem, if it was an Isaac Newton biography or a Richard Dawkins or Charles Darwin book on evolution the British English spellings wouldn't bother me at all.

In summary, is a biography on Teller an important and enjoyable read? Yes. Absolutely, yes. Is this the best one available? I hope not.

from the publisher:
One Nobel Prize-winning physicist called Edward Teller, "A great man of vast imagination...[one of the] most thoughtful statesmen of science." Another called him, "A danger to all that is important...It would have been a better world without [him]." That both opinions about Teller were commonly held and equally true is one of the enduring mysteries about the man dubbed "the father of the H-bomb." In the story of Teller's life and career, told here in greater depth and detail than ever before, Peter Goodchild unravels the complex web of harsh early experiences, character flaws, and personal and professional frustrations that lay behind the paradox of "the real Dr. Strangelove."

Goodchild's biography draws on interviews with more than fifty of Teller's colleagues and friends. Their voices echo through the book, expressing admiration and contempt, affection and hatred, as we observe Teller's involvement in every stage of building the atomic bomb, and his subsequent pursuit of causes that drew the world deeper into the Cold War--alienating many of his scientific colleagues even as he provided the intellectual lead for politicians, the military, and presidents as they shaped Western policy. Goodchild interviewed Teller himself at the end of his life, and what emerges from this interview, as well as from Teller's Memoirs and recently unearthed correspondence, is a clearer view of the contradictions and controversies that riddled the man's life. Most of all, though, this absorbing biography rescues Edward Teller from the caricatures that have served to describe him until now. In their place, Goodchild shows us one of the most powerful scientists of the twentieth century in all his enigmatic humanity.