Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. This is May 14, 2018, and I’m in Mountain View, California. I have with me Eric, otherwise known as Astro, Teller. My first question is for him to tell us his name and spell it.
Astro Teller: Astro Teller. I’m the Captain of Moonshots at X. Astro, A-s-t-r-o, last name Teller, T-e-l-l-e-r.
Kelly: Well, we just have to start with—what is Captain of Moonshots?
Teller: I helped co-found X, which is the part of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, that takes moonshots, that is supposed to make new, hopefully Google-scale businesses for Alphabet to have.
When I moved from being the co-founder and second in command to running the place in year two, I talked to Sergey Brin, one of the two founders of Google, of Alphabet, and asked him what my title should be. He said, “I don’t care what you make it, just don’t sound like a banker.” I picked “Captain of Moonshots.” I figured that safely did not sound like a banker.
Kelly: That’s great, that’s terrific. One reason we’re here is because of your lineage, so tell us about who were your parents, grandparents, and where were you born.
Teller: I was born in Cambridge, England. My father had just finished his PhD in philosophy at MIT, and he was doing a post-doc at Queens College—I’m pretty sure it was Queens.
I was born in Cambridge, England. I moved back to the United States with my parents when I was maybe two and a half years old. I grew up most of the time in Evanston, Illinois, from when I was three to when I was eighteen, with an eighteen-month break in my freshman year of high school, where I was in Berkeley, California.
My parents met and connected emotionally because they had two fathers who were both particularly high-energy, high-intellect, high-ego kind of people, complicated people. I think they both felt somewhat scarred by their respective fathers, and bonded over this.
My mother’s father was Gerard Debreu. He won a Nobel Prize in Economics in 1983. My father’s father was Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, who helped set up the Lawrence Livermore labs, and who I think we’re going to talk more about today.
Kelly: I’d like a little more about you, just because people will be curious. Are you a scientist? If so, how’d you get interested in science? What is your education?
Teller: I have a PhD in artificial intelligence. When I was growing up, my family would say, “What are you going to do after you get your PhD?” as though that was the equivalent of a GED in our household. It was obvious that I would become academic, that I wouldn’t become a business person. That was a fundamentally dirty thing to be. When they said, “What are you going to do?” that really meant, “What discipline will you become a professor in?” That was sort of the environment that I grew up in.
I did my PhD in artificial intelligence, which is a branch of computer science. After I finished, I had just published my first novel. I had always kind of secretly wanted to be a novelist. I had this branching point at that point in my life, where I had universities asking me to become a professor, so I seriously considered that. I had just published my first novel, which was fairly successful, so I did consider becoming a novelist after my PhD.
I also had a set of people who I had a particularly good rapport with, a working relationship with, doing advanced development, doing new things that were in the space of technology and finding interesting ways to put new, up-and-coming technologies together in surprising ways. I decided that I could always go write later, I could always be a professor later, but finding people who I worked this well with, that might be hard to reproduce.
I convinced them—they were all professors at the time as I was finishing my PhD—to leave Carnegie Mellon, where I did my PhD, with me, and we set up a business. That’s how I became an entrepreneur.
While I have some training as a scientist, I’ve never been a practicing academician. Ever since then, I’ve been an entrepreneur and an inventor, not a scientist, though I’d like to think that I dabble still.
Kelly: That gets to the big question of, what is a scientist? One of our themes for the Manhattan Project is the creativity in all of the innovations that were developed then. That’s what I see, at least in your trajectory, that there are some seeds of the same kind of esprit of in the Manhattan Project.
Teller: Scientists are, I think, more or less by definition, driven on two fronts. They are driven by intellectual curiosity and a hunger for knowledge for its own sake, and they’re hungry to pursue that through the lens of the scientific process. Anyone who has application as more important than knowledge-building is not a scientist. Anyone who has knowledge-building as more important than the construction of some application is, by definition, not in industry or in anything like industry.
I think one of the touchstone questions to figure out if someone’s a scientist or an applied person of some kind is, “If you were presented with a boring way to solve the problem in front of you, but it was cheap, and it was effective, would you take it?”
Scientists presumably would lean away from that. They would say, “No, I’m less interested in solving the problem than I am in building knowledge. If it’s boring and cheap, well, good for the world, but that’s not really what drives me.”
Whereas, people who are in business and people in the Manhattan Project—while there were a lot of scientists there—they actually had signed up to not be scientists while they were there. They were using the scientific method, they were some of the most talented scientists in the world. But they were taking a break from being scientists. They had explicitly said, “We care more about making this work, than we care about learning.”
Kelly: Tell us about what he was like as your grandfather, what you remember about him, and whether he told you any fairytales as you were growing up as a child.
Teller: Edward was an amazing storyteller. I’m not sure that he told me any fairytales. He certainly told me some wonderful tales, but they tended to be more wonderfully told anecdotes, jokes, snippets from history. He adored fairytales. He just didn’t tell them—he read them.
Some of my favorite memories from when I was a child was Edward reading Hans Christian Andersen fairytales. For whatever reason, he liked those better than the Grimm fairytales. He read, essentially, the entirety of Hans Christian Andersen, including the “Snow Queen,” to me and to my brother from when I was four to when I was seven, something like that, maybe five to eight. I really treasured those times with him. He had a childish delight about the fairytales that was at odds with the way most other people experienced him.
One of the highlights of my life was—the very first story in Hans Christian Andersen in most compendiums is “Big Klaus and Little Klaus.” It’s the very first one if you pick up the book. It was his favorite story, and he read it with such gusto when I was a kid.
Very late in his life, maybe six months before he died, I was sitting with him in his home on Gerona Road in Stanford. I picked up the Hans Christian Andersen that was on the side of the table, and I read him “Big Klaus and Little Klaus.” It was just one of the best moments of my life, actually.
He was amazing and difficult in private, in many of the same ways that he was in public. He was incredibly bombastic in private, as he was in public. He held court. He needed to be the one talking. He believed he was stupid, but he was also convinced that everyone around him was dumber. That was not an awesome part of his personality.
I remember I would come into his office. I went to Stanford and did my undergrad and my Master’s there, and he was at the Hoover Institute at the time, so I saw him a lot during those five years. I was a relatively grown man; I was nineteen, twenty years old before I left.
I would come sit in his office sometimes and he would say, “What do you know about E to the i pi?” Or, “Tell me what you know about Hannibal.” That was code for, “I am going to talk now.” What he meant was, “You may get one half-sentence into whatever it is, and then I will take that as my cue to cut you off, and then I will do the talking for the next sixty minutes.” That was not awesome modeling of the give and take of social interactions.
But, I also learned a ton from him. He was world-class, better than anyone I have ever seen, at holding silence. He would talk until he was done, and then he would wait, and he did not mean, “Now you may talk.” He meant “I’m giving you the chance to think about what I’ve said.” He would train people to keep their mouths shut. He would wait, usually until someone else started talking. Then he would aggressively cut them off, and he would start going again. After a while, you would learn this, and then you would just be quiet. That way he could have periods of silence, but he owned the lack of talking, not the other person; it wasn’t shared.
This isn’t admirable in some ways, but it was masterful. While I didn’t grow up thinking, “I totally want to be like that when I grow up,” I definitely saw a kind of world-class oration under construction, because he was such a great storyteller. He did this in public as well as in private. He told a lot of stories, and he understood the power of stories to capture people’s imaginations, and to connect them to complicated thoughts so that they were portable. They’d remember them, they’d take them and hand those ideas to other people. I’ve definitely learned a lot from that, personally.
He had a wicked sense of humor. He had it in public, but even more so in private. I remember an almost constant stream of witticisms or observations about the world. He would point out that leaning up against a nuclear power reactor will leave you with more radiation than lying next to a woman in bed. But it irradiates you less than lying next to two women in bed, and lying next to two women in bed is for sure more dangerous.
He was a little bit not “PC,” not even by those standards, not by today’s standards. But he had this of these ways of seeing the world that you couldn’t help but smile about, that made the point—in this case, people are stupidly afraid of radiation. He could’ve given you facts that sounded like they came from a Geiger counter, and you wouldn’t remember them and you wouldn’t care. But that story I just gave you, you’re going to remember for the rest of your life.
Someone asked him once—he was about to get an explanation about something, but they were afraid, they didn’t know what speed to go with him, because they didn’t know exactly what his background was on this topic. It was about photovoltaics, as it turns out, about amorphous silicon for photovoltaics. He said, “Assume that I’m infinitely unknowledgeable and infinitely intelligent,” which I think was a really fabulous way in this incredibly short period of time to capture that he wanted to start from scratch, and move incredibly fast through the topic. He probably didn’t know very much about the topic, so that was actually a really wise, useful, and productive thing for him to say. At the same time, he was saying it in a way that was humble and yet incredibly egotistical, which was very typical of him.
He was a real charmer when he wanted to be, in a way that was much more acceptable then than it is now. He was particularly sort of sweet and charming to women, but in a way that now we would see as having been somewhat dismissive of them, exactly because he didn’t treat them to the sharp edge of his brain the way he often did.
He held a small number of women in a totally separate bucket, where he considered them if not his equals, at least the equals of his peers. Those were scientists, those were real people. They just happened to be women; that was not important. Mostly, he treated women very well. He was very charming, but in retrospect, especially a bit sexist, because he was sort of petting them rather than engaging them in the same way.
As a result, for example, his daughter had a really positive experience being the daughter of Edward Teller, and my father had a really poor experience. I think that’s because he treated his son and his daughter very differently.
Kelly: His daughter was Wendy. What did she pursue?
Teller: She became a computer scientist, among other things. Sort of a long, complicated journey, but basically, she became a computer scientist.
My father became a philosopher of physics. That was, in a way, incredibly poorly chosen because it was close enough to physics that Edward felt that that was his domain, and that he had absolutely every right to tell my father—his son—that he was an idiot and knew nothing about what he was talking about. But it was far enough away that he could also tell his son that he had completely opted out from anything like a serious science. That he was doing philosophy of physics, was basically a playground of fake rhetoric where people would dance around the outside of an actual discipline, talking about it rather than participating in it.
He was not kind to philosophy of science. Even though, ironically, he actually was very thoughtful about philosophy of science, and understood—though he would never quite call it philosophy—the importance of the ways our understanding of science has changed over time, which is exactly what the study of philosophy of science and history of science is.
Kelly: It’s hard to be a son of a famous person. I’ve certainly heard a lot of stories of Los Alamos scientists whose sons have been wayward like your dad, and not gone into straight physics, but gone into something “soft” like history or into whatever, geology.
Teller: I think it worked out well for my dad in many other respects. I think he really enjoyed philosophy. I just think that it was a point of friction between him and his father.
Edward played the piano a lot in private, not just in public, and he played it bombastically, especially as he got older. I knew my grandfather mostly in his seventies and eighties. He still played a lot of piano, but his touch was a little off. I think his hearing was a little off, so it felt a little bit more Wagnerian sort of as he went along.
Kelly: That’s funny. Yes, there’s a piano in the Oppenheimer House [in Los Alamos]. It’s not original, but it was where he might have just carried on over in the evening.
Teller: One of Edward’s other witticisms apropos making loud noises was—his thesis advisor was [Werner] Heisenberg. He did his PhD under Heisenberg in Germany, but he wasn’t under Heisenberg. He actually lived in Heisenberg’s attic. He was renting out the eaves of Heisenberg’s house.
At the time, he was trying to calculate the quantum levels—there is more than one level that the electron spins, more than one quanta for a helium atom—and he was trying to figure out what those different quanta were, because no one had ever done that before. He was using a calculator. This was in the ‘30s, so a calculator at the time was a hand-crank. It was “Chum, chum, chum, chum, chum, chum.”
He swears that the reason that he got his PhD at all is because Heisenberg stormed into the attic one day and said, “What have you done? It’s good enough. I can’t listen to that for one more minute. You are officially graduated. Get out of my house.”
Kelly: That’s so funny. That’s terrific.
Teller: He was always a complex mix of humble and very self-focused. Like I said, he was certain that he was dumb, and he was certain that everyone was dumber.
In the story of the letter that [Albert] Einstein sent to [President Franklin] Roosevelt that started the Manhattan Project, Edward swears that [Leo] Szilard was the writer of the letter, that Einstein was the signer and sender of the letter. I think most people generally agree about those. Edward claims that his only meaningful role in that—and he’s probably understating the case, but he has always claimed that it was—he was the only one Szilard knew who had a car. Szilard just needed someone to drive him over to Einstein’s house. That’s probably not really how it happened. I bet you Edward was somewhat more involved than that. But it is very typical of Edward that the story in Edward’s mind became, “He needed a chauffeur because he just didn’t know anyone who had a car.”
I think Edward liked a good story even more than he liked aggrandizing himself. The stories morphed into somewhat simpler versions of themselves, so that they could be as pithy and as wonderful as that story is.
Kelly: That’s great. Speaking of cars, he drove across the country with Hans Bethe and his then-girlfriend. He was sort of chaperoning Hans Bethe and Rose, who was much younger. I think the four of them had very fond memories of that trek. I don’t know if he ever talked about that. I think it’s in his memoirs.
Teller: He had a complicated relationship, especially later in his life, with Hans Bethe and with several other of his former closest friends, because of what happened with [J. Robert] Oppenheimer. But even after all of that, he had incredibly fond memories of hiking with a few of them, with [John] Von Neumann, with Szilard, with Hans Bethe.
It was interesting, because he’d lost his right foot when he was twenty-two, twenty-three years old. He was in Leipzig at the time. He jumped off of a streetcar, and rolled back down an embankment. He’d missed his stop, so he just jumped off and rolled back down the embankment, and it cut off his foot.
You would think he wouldn’t do a lot of walking after that, but in fact, he was an avid hiker. I remember him saying on a number of occasions that the hikes that he went on with Hans Bethe on that trip, a lot of the hikes that he went on in and around Los Alamos, were where he did his best thinking and where he built a lot of his best friendships.
In our household at least, Edward was “Toto” and Augusta, his wife, was “Mici.” To the best of my knowledge, “Mici” doesn’t stand for anything; it’s just a term of endearment. Toto—which sounds like “cocoa,” but it’s actually T-O-T-O—was an iconic clown turn of the twentieth century in Hungary. What you might now think of as Bozo the Clown for America, was Toto at the time.
I’m not totally sure how that became his nickname, but Toto, this clown, became his name in the house. In fact, not only did his wife, Mici or Augusta, call him that, but everybody—no, I guess myself and my brother didn’t. But his son and his daughter both called him Toto as well.
Funny story about Mici. Mici, especially later in life, was very complicated. She was a paranoid schizophrenic. She was very unhappy and it was complicated to take care of her. But earlier in her life, she had done a Master’s degree in mathematics, I think at the University of Pittsburgh, and she went on to do several intellectual things.
Almost twenty years ago, when I was finishing my PhD, a friend of mine ran an analysis on a site—I think it’s still up—at the time that was called Citeseer, C-i-t-e seer. It was an early pseudo-search engine for trying to figure out who was the most cited among computer scientists. It was running through all of the papers and looking at the citations and sort of trying to count them.
This friend of mine—he and I worked together, we had written a paper or two together—was really outraged that I was so much ahead of him in the rankings. He knew there was something wrong, and we looked at it for a while. Then he came back, and he said, “Aha, I knew there was something wrong. Almost all of your citations are in one paper that you published in 1950.” Obviously, way before I was born.
I was like, “What?” We went and we looked at the paper, and it was E. Teller, A. Teller, N. Hastings, and I forgot what the other name is.
But the Metropolis-Hastings algorithm—which is basically the introduction of the Monte Carlo method in computer science and in simulation, that now is one of the bedrocks of science, basically—was written by four people at Los Alamos, one of whom was Edward. Metropolis and Hastings were the other two people, and the fourth person was my grandmother. It was the only paper she ever published, but it was a completely seminal paper, and I think that her name ended up on it. Possibly, she had something to do with the algorithm.
She was one of the first programmers on planet Earth, because the ENIAC [misspoke: IBM early computers] was at Los Alamos. It was sort of tied for the first working computer in the world, and the other one— people didn’t even know about it—it was over in England at the time. She was one of the first people who had the mathematics background to make it make sense, that she started programming.
Anyway, she’s lapped me many times over for citations.
Kelly: That’s great. Did she use her math after that?
Teller: I think she taught some. She helped set up, and I think was the first president, of the Hertz Foundation. She was intellectually active for a while afterwards, but I don’t know how much she used her math background after the war.
Kelly: Did she help your grandfather edit his memoirs in any way, or write them?
Teller: No, she really didn’t. Buy an amazing story about that—he had several helpers, sort of secretary/writer/researcher people, who swarmed him a bit. Patty French, I think, was the person who was most responsible for causing that book to actually happen.
He had a stroke in his mid-eighties, mid-to-late-eighties. At the time, he had a first, fairly complete draft of his memoirs done. He ended up at the Stanford Hospital because he was based on the Stanford campus .I was at Stanford at the time, so I was one of the first people who ended up with him, because I was already there.
When he woke up, he had complete amnesia. He had no idea who he was. He still could speak German, Hungarian, English, he still remembered all of his mathematics and his physics, but he had no memory of who he was or what had transpired in his life—which is not that uncommon, at least for some period of time.
What was incredible was that in this moment where he had no idea who he was, Patty French dropped this—he was lying in bed—this 800-page manuscript, 8 ½ by 11 pieces of paper, on his chest, and said, “This is who you, are according to you.”
He read it. He said to me afterwards, “I don’t know. I have very mixed feelings about this person.”
I can’t imagine what that would feel like, to read an 800-page biography of a person who you have no emotional connection to because you don’t believe that that’s you, and you could judge yourself from the outside in that way.
He regained his memories after a week or two. But it was a very interesting process to watch him regain his memories in the context of his memoirs.
Kelly: If Oliver Sacks were alive, he’d help us interpret that. That’s very interesting. I can’t imagine. These are great. You are hitting a lot of good stories here. You had a story about playing bridge.
Teller: My mother’s father, the Nobel Prize winner in economics, was a mathematician. Essentially, his Nobel Prize was for something called The Theory of Value, which is the seminal book on the mathematics of microeconomics. He did a number of things otherwise in mathematics, and one of them was that he was really interested in the mathematics of contract bridge playing. He wrote a book, which—to the best of my knowledge—is still the definitive book on the mathematics of bridge.
To put it mildly, he was quite serious about playing bridge. There were a bunch of people in the family who could play bridge, but most of them just didn’t want any part of how he—my mother’s father, Gerard—would treat them if they played bridge, so mostly they avoided it.
What we discovered is, because he wanted to hold court, Gerard did—or at the very least, he couldn’t stand Edward holding court. When they both showed up to family gatherings, it was very painful, and they both ended up very grumpy. What we discovered, after a couple of misfired holidays was, that the thing that worked was to cause the two of them to play bridge. But then there had to be two other people playing bridge. The routine we got into was that myself and my brother would play bridge with them, because then we could be with them, and everyone else could be free of them, and there was no fighting.
This went on for many years, and I think was pretty good for everybody. The way it worked is, I’m much more like my father’s father, much more like Edward. And my brother, Zander, is much more like my mother’s father, like Gerard. Among other things, my brother is much smarter than me and just has a better memory, and Gerard would never have been able to tolerate me forgetting which card was played eight hands ago. That was just completely unacceptable for him.
My brother and my mother’s father, Gerard, would be a team. They would play opposite each other, that’s how it works in bridge. Then Edward and I would be a team. A couple things transpired out of this. One of the ones that I think about all the time is, every time when we would start, we’d get a white piece of paper, we’d draw a line down the middle and draw a line across the top. One team is going to keep all their points on one side, one team’s going to keep their points on the other side.
Instead of writing our names at the top, we would make hats, like two bumps and then a circle for the brim and a feather. We’d do that on both sides, and then we’d color in one of the hats black. It was always totally clear to everybody that Edward and I were the black hats. I don’t remember it for a fact, but I’m sure that that was an Edward creation. That was very much the way it would have been, that he and I—but he in particular—just wanted to be a black hat, and not a white hat.
He was actually obsessed his whole life in being a white hat, in the literal sense of doing good things for the world. He, in many respects, ruined his life trying to be a white hat for humanity, and yet it elated him to be a black hat when we were playing bridge.
I always really appreciated it, that my other grandparents—Gerard would have these sayings that were meant to be jabs at me, and I always felt better playing with Edward as a result. Gerard would say things like, you know, “A thousand lords cursed and disinherited their heirs for not playing trump.
I was like, “Oh, God, I’m so glad I’m not on his team.”
Or Gerard would very much enjoy grinning at me and Edward and saying, “In bridge, you make two friends, and only one enemy.” By which he meant, “You get very angry at your partner, but the two idiots who are losing to you”—and we did somewhat often lose to them—“we’re friendly with you.
On a somewhat related note, Edward loved playing chess. He liked the game because he was good at it, he liked the game because I think it was evocative for him of many things. He was very into poems and literature. “Through the Looking Glass,” the “Alice in Wonderland” second part, is based on a chessboard. There was just a lot of those things that resonated for him.
My younger brother, Zander, was very serious about playing chess as well. I knew I was never going to be able to keep up with them in chess, so I never even tried. Which I think bothered Edward because he liked beating people at things, and he didn’t get to beat me at chess, which was this missed opportunity for him when I was six or eight.
I took up a different game. I’m not sure exactly what inspired me to do it in the first place. I remember one Christmas, I was maybe ten years old, and I got out a Go board, and Edward had never seen a Go board before. I had played some games, I learned a bit about the game. I was certainly not at an expert at it, but Edward had never even heard the rules. The rules for Go are very simple.
But we played a game and he lost. I remember him just growling and saying, “Again.”
He lost the second game. “Again.”
I don’t remember what happened after the third game. I might possibly have let him win.
But we played a decent amount of Go. I managed to spend enough time, and he spent little enough time, on it that we were evenly matched, which made it fun at least for me. I’m not sure how he felt about it.
Kelly: That’s funny. He would like to win, but he didn’t insist on it. He would play Go knowing that he—
Teller: I think he much preferred to win. It really bothered him when he wasn’t right, when he wasn’t winning. But it also stimulated him, because he was a knowledge-seeker. He could be pissed off that he wasn’t winning but want to do it again, rather than being pissed off and wanting to change the subject.
Kelly: Makes sense. We talked about the [Einstein] Letter. Did he talk at all about the atomic bomb, and the question whether it should have been used in the war and whether people should or should not have signed the Szilard petition?
Teller: He didn’t agonize over a lot of what happened. It caused him agony, but he didn’t agonize over it, if you understand the difference. He passed on many of his thoughts actively about this. For example, he felt very strongly—and in fact, I’ve inherited this attitude—that scientists and inventors of new technology have a great responsibility, but that responsibility is not to make the public policy decisions. If we have people running our country who are as bad or worse than the scientists at making public policy decisions, then we’ve done something terribly wrong.
In principle, the people running our country ought to be as good at running a country as the scientists are at doing science. You ought to make sure that they’re incredibly well-educated on the things you as a scientist, you as an inventor understand about the technology. You owe it to them to bring them up to speed so that they’re, at the very least, conversant enough that they can then use those facts, and all of the other things that you know little or nothing about, to make better decisions about what to do with the technology, especially in a time of war, than you would do.
I think that that makes sense, I think that that’s a reasonable position to take, that that’s not abdicating full responsibility. Everyone thinks that they can be an armchair quarterback on subjects that look soft. Design? Oh, everyone can be a designer, because that’s just like saying what’s pretty and what’s not. No, actually, being a world-class designer is as hard as anything else. Being a politician, you can just say what you think the President of the United States should do, but in principle it’s as hard to do that at a world-class level as to do anything else at a world-class level.
We ought to respect that—at least as a group—the people running the military, the people in Congress, the people in the White House know what they’re doing, however poorly they do it, better than the bystanders do. It’s hard to believe that in the current administration, but by and large, I think that that’s the right attitude.
He was violently against secrecy. He thought it was so outrageous that we kept things as secret as we did in the United States, particularly because you could go to public libraries in Russia and routinely get things that were still classified in the United States. He felt like this was having the exact opposite of the impact that it should have. That we were not only keeping knowledge out of the hands of the good people, but doing such a bad job as to be laughable at keeping knowledge out of the hands of the bad people.
He felt we would just be better off—because lack of knowledge breeds fear in a bunch of different ways—he felt very strongly that breeding fear ineptly, in a way that didn’t even slow the bad people up, was sort of the worst-case scenario. That’s another example.
When it came to nuclear power and to the bomb and to some of the future work that happened—the hydrogen bomb and SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] and other things—he had these very strong positions that he passed on to me. I don’t agree with all of them, but that’s another one that I do agree with. I think by and large, while there’s a time and a place for secrecy, it can be very destructive when misused.
Kelly: I think all of the Manhattan Project scientists were writhing under the constraints that General [Leslie] Groves set for compartmentalization. Eventually, that led to the colloquium [at Los Alamos]. But, then there are the Niels Bohrs of the world, who thought that the world would be better off if the United States shared its hard-won atomic bomb expertise.
Teller: Reasonable people continue to disagree on that point. I think we have now thoroughly determined it’s not clear. Even seventy years after the fact, people don’t agree about that subject.
Kelly: Your grandfather, where did he draw the line on that? Would he would have drawn a line—
Teller: He was enough a proponent of nuclear power and peaceful uses of nuclear power—and that he wanted to see disseminated. Obviously, he understood that if you had the kind of centrifuges necessary to be producing power that you could produce for those things, it was very unlikely that you were going to produce a world in which other people did not have the bomb.
He understood the benefits of keeping nuclear proliferation low. I think there were probably some fronts on which he would have supported that, or did support, that. But he was not a fan of keeping knowledge generally from people. He very much believed every country in the world should have nuclear power plants, which is at least a sizable step towards them having the bomb.
Kelly: I think that it was one of his inventions for a reactor that was like a cigarette that would burn its own fuel, that now Bill Gates has taken up.
Teller: You’re talking about the molten-salt reactors that essentially burn themselves out. They’re kind of fail-safe, because if they go into meltdown, it extinguishes itself. It’s underground anyway, and in any case, after it stops giving out power, you just leave it where it is. Yes. That was one of the things that he was pushing thirty-plus years ago.
Edward had some pretty wacky ideas, not all of which are probably good or implementable. But he had an amazing number of ideas whose time is only now coming.
An interesting one is, here at X, we’re working on stratospheric balloons for communications. It turns out that in the late ‘70s, he was proposing this. I just found this out recently, many years after we started the project here.
Kelly: That’s remarkable. Wow.
Teller: This is when the iridium satellites were being designed in the first place, that he was proposing balloons instead.
Kelly: That’s remarkable. I guess the balloons have been launched, or at least over Puerto Rico?
Teller: Yeah, yeah, we have quite a few in the air now. Now, it’s a question of, “How long can we get them to stay up? How well can we guide them? How many people per balloon can we service? How can you make the balloons create an ad-hoc network in the sky, so that if this balloon could talk to you on the ground, but it can’t see the Internet, it can jump to this balloon that can then see the Internet?" No, it’s getting real.
Kelly: That’s very exciting. I can’t believe he had that idea first. Have you just gone through his old patents now?
Teller: No, I probably should. No, no, that happened because someone gave me a book on the history of iridium. It mentioned him leaning on them not to do satellites but to do it with balloons instead, in this biography of the original iridium team.
Kelly: Well, he was certainly inventive.
Teller: For sure.
Kelly: Incredibly inventive. He could hardly contain himself, during the Manhattan Project, to stick with what to him probably looked like the hum-drum approaches.
Teller: A lot of it had been worked out before they got to Los Alamos. Well, that’s not fair. The physics of it had been worked out. There was a lot of metallurgy and computer science, there was a lot of sort of electromechanical questions that hadn’t been answered. There was hard engineering, but he wasn’t really an engineer.
That wasn’t what excited him. It was the basic facts of, “Was it possible?” As soon as he knew it was possible, he wasn’t actually that interested in talking about whether it was possible. If there were some problems in metallurgy or computer science or something else that needed to be solved to make it possible, when presented with one of those problems, he would get re-engaged. But for the most part, you’re right, his mind was already off onto other things because he had checked the box, “Yes, this is doable.”
Kelly: Right, right. Let’s see—oh, the whole myth about the Martians.
Teller: Right. Edward Teller, [John] Von Neumann, [Leo] Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and Theodore Von Karman were all at the same high school—a gymnasium at the time—on the Buda side of Budapest, within three or four years of each other. They all knew each other, and those five people became, I think, widely-regarded as five of the twenty smartest people of the twentieth century. It seems sort of impossible that five of those twenty people would all have been at the same high school within five years of each other.
That unlikeliness translated into this joke, which was: “Well, we’re not really humans, we’re Martians. We came down from Mars, and we’re just trying to blend in here. We figured that the easiest way to blend in would be, go find the weirdest people we could find, and then pretend we’re with them. That way when we say we’re Hungarian, everybody will be like, ‘Well, that sort of makes sense. They seem like they’re from Mars, but I guess, yeah, they’re Hungarians, that’s just how Hungarians are.’”
So that was their explanation. They had that joke with each other for their whole lives. I think he actually considered calling his memoirs something about “Memoirs of a Martian.”
Kelly: That’s great. You talked about this a little bit, but it would be good for you to talk about—from his memoirs he talked about concerns that U.S. academic institutions didn’t, with the exception of MIT and Cal Tech, didn’t promote inventive engineering or applied science. Did he ever talk to you about that, or about the Hertz Foundation fellowships in applied science?
Teller: I am a Hertz Fellow, so I’m certainly sensitive to their mission and I agree with their mission. I think it was maybe slightly open-minded of them—not just with me, they do it with many people—to include computer science. The applied physical sciences, is at least what the Hertz Foundation’s original mission was. Whether computer science is an applied physical science, I don’t know.
I agree that there is often a gap between the craftsmanship of engineering and the kind of inventiveness that comes with pure science, that there is a discipline that’s in the middle, and that many people are not taught to exercise in that middle space, what I would call “advanced development,” or “applied sciences” is another name for it.
It’s not really science; it means taking the risk level of science while trying to make something. But that’s different than being a scientist, where you might happen to make experimental apparatus to answer a hypothesis. But you don’t really carry about the apparatus, you just care about the question and answering the question.
Whereas, in advanced development and this kind of creative, over-the-horizon engineering work—which arguably is exactly what the Manhattan Project was—it tends to be very transdisciplinary. You know much more about what you’re trying to accomplish, and you’re more focused on that than how you’re going to accomplish it. That’s the part you’re willing to be flexible and creative about. That is, by the way, what X tries to specialize in, is that middle zone. I’m very fond of that zone, and I think that it’s an under-taught and under-harvested area.
The problem is, it’s structured wandering, and it’s surprisingly hard to teach people how to do this. Because people who are true eggheads, people who are real knowledge-seekers, it’s not their thing. It’s too applied, it’s too maker-y, it’s too engineering, there’s too much craftsmanship in it. But craftsmen want a problem. You tell me the bridge is this long, I can’t use more than this amount of materials, it has to hold up this much weight, and I will solve it.
But that’s not really what Edward was getting at when he was pointing out. The kind of over-the-horizon problem-solving that the Manhattan Project demonstrated, that the original moonshot was of that form, and that some of the things that we’re doing here, things like self-driving cars. To start with, that looks like it’s impossible, but we have this existence proof that humans do it, why couldn’t computers?
“Let’s go figure out how to do that,” is in that space where it has the risk level of science, but includes the work of engineering, whereby the time the apparatus is done to answer the question, the apparatus itself is the thing. In this case, a software system that could drive a car.
Kelly: There’s so many parallels between what you’re doing here at X and what was being done then.
Teller: I could easily describe many of the things that we’re doing here as “a Manhattan Project for blank”. Obviously, the Manhattan Project itself has connotations associated with it, so I think calling them “Moonshots” rather than “Manhattan Projects” is probably better marketing.
But inasmuch as the Manhattan Project was an even more focused and organized attempt to get the smartest people in a particular area, a particular set of disciplines, in the world in one place for a very short period of time to do something that wasn’t at all clear was possible. Whereas, the NASA mission was much more kind of incremental, it was over a longer period of time, it was spread out geographically, and it actually had several different, somewhat disparate goals. The Manhattan Project in some sense is actually a better analogy to what we’re doing here. As I say, probably better to call them moonshots, though.
Kelly: Interesting. Your father is a philosopher of science, physics, and you were a good match for bridge-playing with your grandfather. Do you see this generational thread connecting you with your grandfather, more closely than perhaps your father?
Teller: Yeah. Whether that happened because we’re more genetically similar, whether that happened because Edward sort of “over-patriarched” the whole family—as a result, maybe my dad somewhat didn’t rise to the status in his own mind of patriarch. Maybe that made it harder for him to rise to that status, in my mind.
Some of it was a style issue. My dad’s skills and interests lay in somewhat different directions than mine. Mine happened to line up more with Edward. That doesn’t mean I want to be like Edward in all ways. I felt I had at least as much to learn from Edward, as I did from my father.
Kelly: Do you have children?
Teller: I do. I have four children.
Kelly: Oh, really?
Kelly: Any little Edwards?
Teller: Well, not exactly. Actually, it was only a few weeks before he died, my second child was being born. Edward wasn’t a practicing Jew, but in the Jewish tradition you don’t name someone after a person until after they’ve died.
I wanted to make Edward my son’s middle name, which is different than making it his first name. His first name is Griffin. But I called Edward to see if that would be okay with Edward. I think it might have been the last time I talked to Edward, and it really pleased him. It was slightly out of order—you’re supposed to wait until afterwards—but anyway, yes, my son is Griffin Edward Teller.
Kelly: Talking about Teller, he was unusual as a scientist, because he also was very adept in the world of politics. He was more than just a storyteller. I mean, he was savvy about how he went over and gained the confidence of people like Ronald Reagan.
Teller: Yeah. I think he really didn’t enjoy it. I think it was the saddest part of his life, that he felt that the world desperately needed him to save it. Whether it did or not, he believed that. He believed that working at the intersection of science and politics was the best way for him to do that. He was good at it, or made himself good at it, and he never wanted to do that.
It kind of ruined his life, because what he really wanted to do was spend his life as a scientist. In the end, he spent most of his time with government and military people, and was more or less explicitly excluded from the company of most of the scientists that he cared most about.
I know he was vilified by a lot of people. But in fact, he really saw himself—maybe even with some legitimacy—as having thrown himself on a few grenades in order to help the United States in particular.
He grew up through two world wars. He just felt like all the other stuff people were whining about, if they had lived through these two world wars, they would understand how nothing else matters except putting might into the hands of people who will use it more responsibly. He believed that that was an existential issue for humanity. He dedicated most of his adult life to that, even though it’s not really what he wanted to spend his time on.
Kelly: Did he ever talk about that with you?
Teller: Frequently. He was very unhappy about it.
Kelly: Oh, that’s sad.
Teller: Yeah. He would much rather have been a scientist. He gets a chance to be a scientist—arguably, he would have won more than one Nobel Prize, if he hadn’t been the maker of the hydrogen bomb. It’s not like he was a bad scientist, but it wasn’t really how he got to spend his time. Or in complicated versions of it, right? Probably more than half of the science he did in his adult life was through a weapons lab, through Livermore, a DOE [Department of Energy] lab, but it was a weapons lab as much as it was a DOE lab.
Kelly: So, did he talk about that laboratory, which was really his creation?
Teller: Yeah. He adored it there, and he felt very grateful to have the community that he did there. I think he was very proud of the scientists that he had helped to train, and of the technology that came out of there. He felt like it was a vibrant place where he could be at least a kind of scientist.
Even so, I think he would have been happier—we’re talking about somebody who was hung in effigy and then had that body burned in front of his house in Berkeley right around 1970. He moved to Stanford as a result. This was someone who felt literally shooed out of academia, since he moved from being a professor at Berkeley to being at the Hoover Institute, which was a think tank, but somewhat more government-focused.
I think there were a lot of things in his life where he felt like he had been trying to do the right things on a whole bunch of fronts, including, for example, being a champion—maybe the champion—for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. He saw climate change coming from sixty years away and talked about it to anyone who would listen.
He thought nuclear power was the solution, which, interestingly for a storyteller, he basically lost the narrative. There was a storytelling contest, and he lost. Nuclear power lost. It would be much better for humanity. It’s pretty straightforward. It doesn’t have to be remotely as complicated or as supposedly unsafe as it is. It is that way because we haven’t invested in it.
Kelly: I guess the only thing that was on this list that you haven’t talked about is what accomplishments he was most proud of in his career.
Teller: I don’t know. I never talked to him about it in those terms. I think that he was the most excited about either the really specific math-y things, either about physics or mathematics itself. He was puzzling those things out. When he made even a tiny bit of progress past where other people had made it, in some area of high-energy physics or set theory or something like that, he felt really good. That was very important to him.
The other one was, he was incredibly inventive, and I think he loved coming up with things. He would tell me—well, about lots of things. But when he described how the sun warps space-time, and there’s a point that you could get far away from the sun, where if you put a shield to get the sun out of the way, you could use the gravitational warping of space-time from the mass of the sun as a lens. He was the first person who described how that could work.
I think him coming up with those kinds of ideas, when he got one of those into his head, and he felt like he had added something to humanity by coming up with something like that, I think he was particularly childlike and delighted in those moments.