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Controversial champion for defense, nuclear research Edward Teller dies

September 19, 2003

By Andy Fell

Edward Teller, one of the most famous and controversial scientists of the 20th Century and founding chair of the UC Davis Department of Applied Science, died Sept. 9. He was 95.

“Edward Teller was one of the world’s leading scientific minds of the 20th century, and he made a major contribution to the security of our nation and world peace,” said UC President Richard Atkinson. “It has been a great honor for the University of California to be identified with him and to have had him as a member of our community and a key leader in the national laboratories.”

“He was very much the personality behind the creation of the Department of Applied Science here,” said Enrique Lavernia, dean of the college of engineering. Teller founded the department in 1963 to strengthen links between the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and UC campuses. Graduate students in the department have access to the Livermore lab’s unique facilities in areas such as lasers, materials science and computational physics. The department now has 21 faculty and about 80 graduate students.

Teller had a passionate interest in science education, said Rick Freeman, former chair of the department and first recipient of the Edward Teller chair in applied science, endowed in 1999 by the Hertz Foundation.

“He wrote passionately on the need to understand that our future lies in understanding and controlling science and technology,” Freeman said.

As chair, Freeman regularly took students and young scientists to lunch with Teller. “He had a great sense of humor, forceful opinions, and took a special delight in interacting with young people,” Freeman said.

Recently, Teller lent his name and support to establishing the Edward Teller Education Center, a joint venture between UC Davis, LLNL, UC Merced and the UC Office of the President. The center draws on the scientific resources of the lab and of UC to provide professional development for science teachers and enrichment programs for students in the Livermore region and the Central Valley.

Teller regularly met and talked with teachers and students, said Stan Hitomi, the center’s director. He believed that a teacher’s mission was to excite students, Hitomi said.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1908, Teller took a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany. With the rise of the Nazis, he left Germany and from 1933 to 1934 studied quantum physics in Copenhagen, Denmark. In February 1934, he married “Mici” (Augusta Maria) Harkanyi, the sister of a longtime friend.

In 1935, he was appointed Professor of Physics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He worked there until 1941.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s call-to-arms to American scientists as war broke out in Europe profoundly affected Teller. He become involved in applied nuclear physics studies at Columbia University and the University of Chicago. It was Teller who drove Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner to Albert Einstein’s summer home on Long Island in 1939, where Einstein signed a letter to President Roosevelt urging him to pursue atomic weapons research before the Nazis could preempt the field.

In 1943, Teller went to work on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb at the fledgling Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he eventually became assistant director. From 1949 to 1950, he concentrated on the hydrogen bomb and contributed to the decision to make these weapons a major part of the U.S. defense program.

His advocacy led to the 1952 creation of the Livermore site of the UC Radiation Laboratory, now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He served as lab director from 1958 to 1960 and as associate director for physics until his retirement in 1975.

During the 1980s, Teller was a determined advocate for a ballistic missile defense system to protect the nation from nuclear attack.

He received numerous awards for his contributions to physics, his dedication to education and his public life. He published more than a dozen books including his own memoirs. In July this year, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, by President George W. Bush.

Teller is survived by his son, Paul, a professor of philosophy at UC Davis; his daughter, Wendy, and several grandchildren. His wife of 66 years, Mici, died in 2000.

Donations may be made to the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation (http//:www.hertzfoundation.org/) to support graduate fellowships in applied physical, biological and engineering sciences.

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