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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index T > Edward Teller Quotes

Edward Teller
(15 Jan 1908 - 9 Sep 2003)

Hungarian-American nuclear physicist.


Science Quotes by Edward Teller (36 quotes)

A stands for atom; it is so small No one has ever seen it at all.
B stands for bomb; the bombs are much bigger,
So, brother, do not be too fast on the trigger.
H has become a most ominous letter.
It means something bigger if not something better.
— Edward Teller
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 74.
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A fact is a simple statement that everyone believes. It is innocent, unless found guilty. A hypothesis is a novel suggestion that no one wants to believe. It is guilty until found effective.
— Edward Teller
Edward Teller, Wendy Teller, Wilson Talley, Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics (1991, 2002), Footnote, 69.
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A pessimist is a person who is always right but doesn’t get any enjoyment out of it, while an optimist, is one who imagines that the future is uncertain. It is a duty to be an optimist, because if you imagine that the future is uncertain, then you must do something about it.
— Edward Teller
In The Pursuit of Simplicity (1980, 1981), 149, footnote 19.
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A scientific invention consists of six (or some number) ideas, five of which are absurd but which, with the addition of the sixth and enough rearrangement of the combinations, results in something no one has thought of before.
— Edward Teller
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 66.
Science quotes on:  |  Absurd (29)  |  Combination (91)  |  Consist (45)  |  Idea (577)  |  Invention (318)  |  Rearrangement (2)  |  Result (376)

Everybody now wants to discover universal laws which will explain the structure and behavior of the nucleus of the atom. But actually our knowledge of the elementary particles that make up the nucleus is tiny. The situation calls for more modesty. We should first try to discover more about these elementary particles and about their laws. Then it will be the time for the major synthesis of what we really know, and the formulation of the universal law.
— Edward Teller
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 74.
Science quotes on:  |  Atom (280)  |  Behavior (60)  |  Discover (196)  |  Elementary Particle (2)  |  Explain (105)  |  First (313)  |  Formulation (25)  |  Knowledge (1293)  |  Major (32)  |  Modesty (12)  |  Nucleus (33)  |  Structure (221)  |  Synthesis (43)  |  Tiny (36)  |  Try (141)  |  Universal Law (3)

I claim that relativity and the rest of modern physics is not complicated. It can be explained very simply. It is only unusual or, put another way, it is contrary to common sense.
— Edward Teller
In Edward Teller, Wendy Teller and Wilson Talley, Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics (1991, 2013), 2.
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I do not think that this peace based on force is, can be, or should be, an ultimate end.
— Edward Teller
From debate (20 Feb 1958) between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller on WQED-TV, San Francisco. Transcript published as Fallout and Disarmament: The Pauling-Teller Debate (1958). Reprinted in 'Fallout and Disarmament: A Debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller', Daedalus (Spring 1958), 87, No. 2, 154.
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I have always assumed, and I now assume, that he [Robert Oppenheimer] is loyal to the United States. I believe this, and I shall believe it until I see very conclusive proof to the opposite. … [But] I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated. To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more.
— Edward Teller
After Teller paid tribute to Oppenheimer’s talents, especially his “very outstanding achievement” as the wartime organizer and director of Los Alamos, Teller continued his testimony to the Gray board hearings (28 Apr 1954) in the Atomic Energy Commission building, “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer.” The subject quotes were excerpted from Teller’s answers to their questions. As given in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 72-74.
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I try to make a point not to talk about things I don’t understand—at least the things I do not understand at all.
— Edward Teller
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 74.
Science quotes on:  |  Talk (99)  |  Understand (326)

If there ever was a misnomer, it is “exact science.” Science has always been full of mistakes. The present day is no exception. And our mistakes are good mistakes; they require a genius to correct. Of course, we do not see our own mistakes.
— Edward Teller
In Edward Teller, Wendy Teller and Wilson Talley, Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics (1991, 2013), 37.
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If we stay strong, then I believe we can stabilize the world and have peace based on force. Now, peace based on force is not as good as peace based on agreement, but … I think that for the time being the only peace that we can have is the peace based on force.
— Edward Teller
From debate (20 Feb 1958) between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller on WQED-TV, San Francisco. Transcript published as Fallout and Disarmament: The Pauling-Teller Debate (1958). Reprinted in 'Fallout and Disarmament: A Debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller', Daedalus (Spring 1958), 87, No. 2, 154.
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In our educational institutions applied science may almost be described as a “no-man's land.”
— Edward Teller
Referring to the need to improve the quality and status of applied science. From his essay contributed to the National Academy of Sciences Committee Report to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics (Mar 1965). Reprinted in 'The Role of Applied Science', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Mar 1966).
Science quotes on:  |  Applied Science (29)  |  Description (84)  |  Education (333)  |  Institution (39)

In our educational institutions applied science may almost be described as a “no-man's land.”
[Referring to the need to improve the quality and status of applied science.]
— Edward Teller
From his essay contributed to the National Academy of Sciences Committee Report to the House Committee on Science and Astronautics (Mar 1965). Reprinted in 'The Role of Applied Science', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Mar 1966).

In the history of physics, there have been three great revolutions in thought that first seemed absurd yet proved to be true. The first proposed that the earth, instead of being stationary, was moving around at a great and variable speed in a universe that is much bigger than it appears to our immediate perception. That proposal, I believe, was first made by Aristarchos two millenia ago ... Remarkably enough, the name Aristarchos in Greek means best beginning.
[The next two revolutions occurred ... in the early part of the twentieth century: the theory of relativity and the science of quantum mechanics...]
— Edward Teller
Edward Teller with Judith L. Shoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (2001), 562.
Science quotes on:  |  Discovery (676)  |  Quantum Theory (57)  |  Relativity (55)

It is like the difference between a specialist and a philosopher. A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until at last he knows everything about nothing. A philosopher is someone who knows less and less about more and more until at last he knows nothing about everything. Physics is now too philosophical. In my work I would like to reverse the process, and to try to limit the things to be found out and to make some modest discoveries which may later be useful.
— Edward Teller
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 74.
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It is often claimed that knowledge multiplies so rapidly that nobody can follow it. I believe this is incorrect. At least in science it is not true. The main purpose of science is simplicity and as we understand more things, everything is becoming simpler. This, of course, goes contrary to what everyone accepts.
— Edward Teller
Edward Teller, Wendy Teller, Wilson Talley, Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics (1991, 2002), 2.
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It is true that I am the father [of the H-bomb] in the biological sense that I performed a necessary function and let nature take its course. After that a child had to be born. It might he robust or it might be stillborn, but something had to be born. The process of conception was by no means a pleasure: it was filled with difficulty and anxiety….
— Edward Teller
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 72.
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Knowing he [Bob Serber] was going to the [first atom bomb] test, I asked him how he planned to deal with the danger of rattlesnakes. He said, “I’ll take along a bottle of whiskey.” … I ended by asking, “What would you do about those possibilities [of what unknown phenomena might cause a nuclear explosion to propagate in the atmosphere]?” Bob replied, “Take a second bottle of whiskey.”
— Edward Teller
Edward Teller with Judith L. Shoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (2001), 211.
Science quotes on:  |  Atomic Bomb (107)

On May 7, a few weeks after the accident at Three-Mile Island, I was in Washington. I was there to refute some of that propaganda that Ralph Nader, Jane Fonda and their kind are spewing to the news media in their attempt to frighten people away from nuclear power. I am 71 years old, and I was working 20 hours a day. The strain was too much. The next day, I suffered a heart attack. You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous.
— Edward Teller
From statement, published as a two-page advertisement, 'I Was the Only Victim of Three-Mile Island', placed by Dresser Industries in The Wall Street Journal (31 Jul 1979), U.S. Representative Larry McDonald entered the entire content of the ad, as Extensions of Remarks, into the Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the Congress (18 Dec 1979), 36876. [Note: The Three Mile Island accident happened on 28 Mar 1979. —Webmaster]
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One may say that predictions are dangerous particularly for the future. If the danger involved in a prediction is not incurred, no consequence follows and the uncertainty principle is not violated.
— Edward Teller
Edward Teller , Wendy Teller and Wilson Talley, Conversations from the Dark Side of Physics (1991, 2002), 235.
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Our ultimate end must be precisely what Dr. Pauling says, peace based on agreement, upon understanding, on universally agreed and enforced law. I think this is a wonderful idea, but peace based on force buys us the necessary time, and in this time we can work for better understanding, for closer collaboration.
— Edward Teller
From debate (20 Feb 1958) between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller on WQED-TV, San Francisco. Transcript published as Fallout and Disarmament: The Pauling-Teller Debate (1958). Reprinted in 'Fallout and Disarmament: A Debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller', Daedalus (Spring 1958), 87, No. 2, 160.
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Peace cannot be obtained by wishing for it. We live in the same world with Russia, whose leader has said he “wants to bury us”—and he means it. Disarmament, the cessation of tests, will not automatically bring us closer to peace.
— Edward Teller
From debate (20 Feb 1958) between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller on WQED-TV, San Francisco. Transcript published as Fallout and Disarmament: The Pauling-Teller Debate (1958). Reprinted in 'Fallout and Disarmament: A Debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller', Daedalus (Spring 1958), 87, No. 2, 153.
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Physics without mathematics is meaningless.
— Edward Teller
In Edward Teller, Wendy Teller and Wilson Talley, Conversations on the Dark Secrets of Physics (1991, 2013), 1.
Science quotes on:  |  Mathematics (1149)  |  Meaningless (17)  |  Physics (346)

Science attempts to find logic and simplicity in nature. Mathematics attempts to establish order and simplicity in human thought.
— Edward Teller
The Pursuit of Simplicity (1980), 17.
Science quotes on:  |  Attempt (121)  |  Logic (247)  |  Nature (1211)  |  Science (2043)  |  Simplicity (146)

The important thing in any science is to do the things that can be done. Scientists naturally have a right and a duty to have opinions. But their science gives them no special insight into public affairs. There is a time for scientists and movie stars and people who have flown the Atlantic to restrain their opinions lest they be taken more seriously than they should be.
— Edward Teller
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 69.
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The scientist is not responsible for the laws of nature. It is his job to find out how these laws operate. It is the scientist’s job to find the ways in which these laws can serve the human will. However, it is not the scientist’s job to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be constructed, whether it should be used, or how it should be used. This responsibility rests with the American people and with their chosen representatives.
— Edward Teller
In 'Back to the Laboratories', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Mar 1950), 6, No. 3, 71. Quoted in L. Wolpert and A. Richards (eds.), A Passion for Science (1988), 9, but incorrectly attributed to Robert Oppenheimer.
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There are three ways to encourage initiative. One is to cut off people’s heads as they do in Russia. Another is to subject people to public criticism, which is impossible in such secret work as this. A third way is to set up competition. This is Livermore’s most valuable function: simply to be a competitor.
— Edward Teller
Explaining the merit in setting up a second laboratory, at Livermore, California, to continue his thermonuclear research after he left Los Alamos due to disagreements he had there. As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 70-72.
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This alleged damage which the small radioactivity is causing—supposedly cancer and leukemia—has not been proved, to the best of my knowledge, by decent and clear statistics. It is possible that there is damage. It is even possible, to my mind, that there is no damage; and there is the possibility, further, that very small amounts of radioactivity are helpful.
— Edward Teller
From debate (20 Feb 1958) between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller on WQED-TV, San Francisco. Transcript published as Fallout and Disarmament: The Pauling-Teller Debate (1958). Reprinted in 'Fallout and Disarmament: A Debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller', Daedalus (Spring 1958), 87, No. 2, 155.
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To my mind, the distinction between a nuclear weapon and a conventional weapon is the distinction between an effective weapon and an outmoded weapon.
— Edward Teller
In 'The Nature of Nuclear Warfare,' Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May 1957), 13, No. 5, 162. (Reprinted from Air Force Magazine.)
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Today's science is tomorrow's technology.
— Edward Teller
The Legacy of Hiroshima (1962), 146.
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Today, nothing is unusual about a scientific discovery's being followed soon after by a technical application: The discovery of electrons led to electronics; fission led to nuclear energy. But before the 1880's, science played almost no role in the advances of technology. For example, James Watt developed the first efficient steam engine long before science established the equivalence between mechanical heat and energy.
— Edward Teller
Edward Teller with Judith L. Shoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (2001), 42.
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We know a lot because we as a species have lived and behaved a lot.
— Edward Teller
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 74.
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We must avoid war under all possible circumstances, except, my opinion, one: when the freedom of human beings is at stake. … I don't want to kill anybody. I am passionately opposed to killing, but I'm even more passionately fond of freedom.
— Edward Teller
From debate (20 Feb 1958) between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller on WQED-TV, San Francisco. Transcript published as Fallout and Disarmament: The Pauling-Teller Debate (1958). Reprinted in 'Fallout and Disarmament: A Debate between Linus Pauling and Edward Teller', Daedalus (Spring 1958), 87, No. 2, 154 & 163.
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When the first “thermonuclear device” was approaching the test stage and someone asked Teller, “Will it work?” he had to admit that he didn’t know. “But you didn’t know that five years ago,” the questioner pointed out. “True,” Teller answered, “but now we don’t know on much better grounds.”
— Edward Teller
As given by in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 70.
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[Chemistry] laboratory work was my first challenge. ... I still carry the scars of my first discovery—that test-tubes are fragile.
— Edward Teller
Edward Teller with Judith L. Shoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (2001), 42.
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[Philosopher Lao-tse] is not dogmatic, and he does not go in for big, universal ideas. For instance, I like what he says about failure and success, “Failure is the foundation of success and the means by which it is achieved. Success is the lurking place of failure; but who can tell when the turning point will come?”
— Edward Teller
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 74.
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Quotes by others about Edward Teller (8)

Von Theorie wild man nicht heller.
Gott geb' täglich unsern Teller.

When theory's light is less than stellar.
Give us, O Lord, our daily Teller.
This rhyme from an alphabet ditty describing various physicists was written for a party at Göttingen.
Quoted in Edward Teller with Judith L. Shoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (2001), 75. The first clause, translated more literally than poetically, is given as, 'When theory does not enlighten us,' in Nina Byers and Gary Williams, Out of the Shadows (2006),130.
Science quotes on:  |  Theory (690)

Well beyond the tropostrata
There is a region stark and stellar
Where, on a streak of anti-matter
Lived Dr. Edward anti-Teller.

Remote from Fusion’s origin,

He lived unguessed and unawares
With all his antikith and kin,
And kept macassars on his chairs.

One morning, idling by the sea,
He spied a tin of monstrous girth
That bore three letters: A. E. C.
Out stepped a visitor from Earth.

Then, shouting gladly o’er the sands,
Met two who in their alien ways
Were like as lentils. Their right hands
Clasped, and the rest was gamma rays.
In 'Perils of Modern Living', The New Yorker (10 Nov 1956), 56. Reprinted in Edward Teller with Judith Schoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics (2002), 428. Webmaster supposes the initials 'A.E.C.' might be for the Atomic Energy Commission.
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[About the mechanical properties of the molecules of a chemical substance being studied:] They could be measured, but that would have taken several months. So someone said, ‘Let’s get Teller in and make him guess the data.’ We got him into a room and locked the door, so no one else could get at him, and he asked questions and did some figuring at the blackboard. He got the answers in about two hours, not entirely accurately, of course, but—as we found out when we got around to verifying them—close enough for the purpose.
Recalls the first time she was ever really awed by mental abilities of Edward Teller. She had joined the Manhattan Project, and needed data on the physical properties of molecules of a certain substance to get started on her assigned task of calculating its chemical properties. As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 61.
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There is no one who equals him [Edward Teller] for sheer, speed of thought. There may be better scientists, but none more brilliant. You always find him a thousand feet ahead of you.
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 61.
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Edward [Teller] isn’t the cloistered kind of scientist. He gets his ideas in conversation and develops them by trying them out on people. We were coming back from Europe on the Ile de France and I was standing in the ship’s nightclub when he came up and said, 'Freddie, I think I have an idea.’ It was something he’d just thought of about magnetohydrodynamics. I was a bachelor then and I’d located several good-looking girls on the ship, but I knew what I had to do, so I disappeared and started working on the calculations. I’d get something finished and start prowling on the deck again when Edward would turn up out of the night and we’d walk the deck together while he talked and I was the brick wall he was bouncing these things off of. By the end of the trip we had a paper. He’d had the ideas, and I’d done some solving of equations. But he insisted that we sign in alphabetical order, which put my name first.
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 61-62.
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[Edward Teller is a conceptual thinker,] an ‘order of magnitude’ man. That’s his language. He’s like the architect who likes to make the big drawing, the broad sketch, and not worry himself about the plumbing details.
As quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 62.
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All anybody has to say to Edward [Teller] is, ‘We’ve got a problem here, we need you,’ and— zip! he’s into it. It’s helpfulness, plus maybe vanity, but mostly just curiosity.
Anonymous
As described by an unidentified friend, quoted in Robert Coughlan, 'Dr. Edward Teller’s Magnificent Obsession', Life (6 Sep 1954), 62.
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There came in February the issue of Life saying on the cover “Dr. Teller Refutes 9000 Scientists”… I wrote to Life and said first that Teller hadn’t refuted 9000 scientists and second I felt that they should publish the article that I had written… They sent the article back and said that they didn’t want it and then I offered it to Look. The editor of Look called me and said they couldn’t get into a controversy with Life. Then I offered it to the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal and Readers Digest and none of them were interested in it. And then I thought, “What shall I do? I’ll have to write a book and see if I can’t get it published.”’
As quoted in Ted Goertzel, et al., Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics (1965, 1995), 46.
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See also:
  • 15 Jan - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Teller's birth.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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