IN MEMORIAM: EDWARD TELLER
by Virginia Postrel • Sep 15, 2003 at 10:56 pm
Maybe I'm missing something, but aside from Robert Musil's vigorous double-Fisking of the NYT obits, it appears that the Blogosphere took little note of the death last week of Edward Teller. That's unfortunate. Teller was just the sort of unfairly demonized freedom lover bloggers pride themselves on supporting. As this 1987 Scientist review of his book Better a Shield Than a Sword put it:
Teller is one of the great scientists of our time and his scientific contributions as sure him a place in the history of physics. He is also a philosopher and a man who has had a decisive influence on the thinking of America's major political leaders since the end of World War II.
In Better a Shield Than a Sword, Teller deals with many subjects that have held his attention over the years. The nature of freedom has always been uppermost in his mind. He describes his experiences as a teenager in Hungary where, in quick succession, both fascist and communist tyrannies held sway. There is no doubt that these circumstances had a fundamental influence on Teller's life and he recognized early on that whatever the label, tyranny is al ways the same.
Teller has a deep understanding of the nature of freedom and the uncertainty and ambiguity that inevitably accompany it. it is because he understands freedom that he has been one of the staunchest de fenders of free debate and a vigorous opponent of secrecy in politics as well as science. Teller was one of the first to warn against extensive secrecy in government and that secrecy is ultimately self-defeating. Events definitely have proved him right.
Teller believed that a free society draws strength from the free flow of information and hurts its ability to defend itself when the government tries to lock up information, particularly scientific and technical knowledge. The Federation of American Scientists, not known for its ultrahawkish views, marked Teller's passing with a link to the 1970 report of the Defense Science Board's Task Force on Secrecy, of which Teller was an influential member. From the report:
Although the Task Force was composed of individuals whose backgrounds are in science and engineering, the group sought responses to its assignment from a broader viewpoint since it was felt quite strongly that the issue of classification and the way it is handled has a significant effect on the posture of our nation in the international community, particularly in relation to our ability to unite and strengthen the free nations of the world. To emphasize this point, one of the members quoted an opinion expressed by Niels Bohr soon after World War II that, while secrecy is an effective instrument in a closed society, it is much less effective in an open society in the long run; instead, the open society should recognize that openness is one of its strongest weapons, for it accelerates mutual understanding and reduces barriers to rapid development.
We believe that overclassification has contributed to the credibility gap that evidently exists between the government and an influential segment of the population. A democratic society requires knowledge of the facts in order to assess its government's actions. An orderly process of disclosure would contribute to informed discussions of issues.When an otherwise open society attempts to use classification as a protective device, it may in the long run increase the difficulties of communications within its own structure so that commensurate gains are not obtained. Experience shows that, given time, a sophisticated, determined and unscrupulous adversary can usually penetrate the secrecy barriers of an open society. The Soviet Union very rapidly gained knowledge of our wartime work on nuclear weapons in spite of the very high level of classification assigned to it. The barriers are apt to be far more effective against restrained friends or against incompetents, and neither pose serious threats.
Beyond such general matters, the Task Force noted that there are frequent disclosures of classified information by public officials, the news media and quasi-technical journals. While the reliability and credibility of such information frequently may be in doubt, the magnitude of leaks indicates that, at present, our society has limited respect for current practices and laws relating to secrecy. It would be prudent to modify the present system to one that can be both respected and enforced.
An interesting interview with Teller (video available) is here. The Amazon page for his memoirs is here. Check out the review from a 12-year-old who had to read a biography for a book report.
Addendum: Chuck Watson of Shoutin' Across the Pacific posted this item on Teller, which also noted the blogosphere's near-silence on his death.