Hertz Foundation Makes $1 Million Endowment in Honor of Edward Teller

The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation announced today that it will make a grant of $1 million to establish an endowed professorship at UC Davis in honor of Edward Teller, an extraordinary 20th-century scientist who has influenced world history for 60 years. Teller, a central figure in the development of quantum mechanics, the building of the atomic and hydrogen bombs and the rise of nuclear power, was surprised with the announcement this morning. The Hertz Foundation board of directors established the endowment without his knowledge. The professorship will be held by the chair of the UC Davis Department of Applied Science -- a position first held by Teller, who established the department in 1963. Earnings on the invested gift will support the chair's teaching, research and administrative work. "Edward Teller's genius has produced monumental contributions to physics. This professorship constitutes an honor that will, above all else and in perpetuity, remind us of that genius and those contributions," said UC Davis chancellor Larry Vanderhoef. Edward Teller was a friend of John Hertz, who came to America from Austria as a virtually penniless boy and who founded such well-known companies as Yellow Cab and Hertz Rent-A-Car before his death in 1961. Teller urged Hertz to orient his foundation to support education in the applied sciences, out of a shared conviction that this was essential to bridging the gap between theoretical research and work-a-day engineering -- and to maintaining national security. "John Hertz would be very pleased with this endowment," said foundation board chair Greg Canavan, a senior scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. "He really thought education in the applied physical sciences was key to progress and security, and that the key to such education was finding and supporting good people so they could get through school quickly and begin to contribute while they were most inventive." In the Department of Applied Science, master's and doctoral students can study and conduct research at both the Davis campus and the department's facilities at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The department emphasizes five areas: plasma physics and controlled fusion, computational physics and computational science, laser physics and nonlinear optical phenomena, microwave and millimeter-wave electronics, and digital media. This year, 14 faculty members are working with 92 students. Although Teller, who turned 91 in January, officially retired from the University of California and the Livermore laboratory in 1975, he remains extremely active. He divides his time between the laboratory, where he is director emeritus, and Stanford University's Hoover Institution, where he is a senior research fellow. At Livermore, he pursues amazingly diverse interests, including technological solutions to global warming and to the defense of Earth against collision with an asteroid or comet. "I have never been in favor of people dying out and a new world taking over," Teller said at a 1995 workshop at Livermore on planetary defense. "I would rather have evolution based on dreamed-of possibilities. So I advocate the building of telescopes, the prediction of collisions, and the deflection of objects such as meteorites." In the 1980s, three decades after he became internationally known as the Father of the H-Bomb, Teller returned to national prominence with a controversial proposal to develop orbiting lasers or small, guided satellites, dubbed Brilliant Pebbles, that could destroy an attacking missile. Under presidents Reagan and Bush, Teller's ideas became part of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars defense, which some experts say helped change world politics and bring about the end of the Cold War. In the face of widespread missile development, Congress is again considering such a project, and Teller continues to argue for it. In May 1998 he wrote, "I am convinced this effort is realistic particularly with the continuing great advancement in computing availability. The American people (together with all other people in the world) should have such a defense..." Edward Teller, a Hungarian trained as a chemical engineer, came of age in Germany in the late 1920s and was fascinated by the enormous progress being made in physical science. Albert Einstein had proposed his theory of relativity just 15 years earlier, Niels Bohr his quantum theory of the atom barely a decade earlier, and Werner Heisenberg his quantum mechanics and Uncertainty Principle just a year or two previously. Studying under Heisenberg at the University of Leipzig, Teller earned a doctorate in physics in 1930, at age 22. After postdoctoral studies with Bohr in Copenhagen, Teller made many important contributions to molecular physics and chemistry and to nuclear physics. He expected to remain a theoretical researcher and a professor -- until the news in 1939 that German scientists had discovered nuclear fission. Teller had left Germany shortly after Hitler came to power and had become an American citizen and physics professor. Now his theoretical work on the nucleus, heart of the atom, would draw him into the heart of the most urgent applied science in the world -- building an atomic bomb. In 1939, Teller, together with fellow Hungarian nuclear physicist Leo Szilard and Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, persuaded Albert Einstein to sign the famous letter to President Roosevelt urging the exploration of military use of atomic energy. Teller soon became a leader among the elite band of scientists of the Manhattan Project, who designed and built the first atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (as it was initially named). And in 1950, he made the conceptual and physics breakthroughs that led to the even more powerful hydrogen bomb. Teller then began to lobby for the establishment of a new national laboratory. He believed that having competition for Los Alamos would accelerate nuclear weapons development and improve national security. Ernest Lawrence, one of Teller's collaborators from the Manhattan Project and director of the University of California's Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley, agreed. In 1952, he and Teller chose an abandoned naval air station in Livermore for the site of a new branch of the radiation laboratory. This would later become the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Edward Teller has been its guiding presence for nearly half a century. Soon after the new laboratory opened, Teller found that its staff members were good scientists but often had little educational preparation in putting their research results to practical use. He proposed a Department of Applied Science at the University of California, to be located at Livermore and Davis, that would offer graduate-level science instruction as well as hands-on experience with applied projects. The department's first class entered in the fall of 1963. "Dr. Teller is as much a giant in graduate educational policy as he is an icon in scientific achievement," said Richard Freeman, physicist and the current chair of applied science. "His many years of building and guiding this department have led to mutually beneficial rewards for the U.S. government and the University of California." Freeman will be the first Edward Teller Professor. "Richard Freeman's international acclaim in laser physics clearly warrants this recognition," said Alan Laub, dean of the UC Davis College of Engineering, where the applied science department resides. "The department is changing its mission, as a reflection of the changing mission of the national laboratories, and he has guided it deftly through an unusual set of challenges."

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Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533, ahfell@ucdavis.edu