January 15, 1908–September 9, 2003
BY FREEMAN J. DYSON
AT THE END OF HIS LONG LIFE Edward Teller with the help of his editor Judith Shoolery published his memoirs (2001), a lively and poignant account of his adventures in science and politics. Hostile reviewers of the memoirs pointed out that some details of his stories are inaccurate. But Teller writes in his introduction, “Our memories are selective; they delete some events and magnify others. Just the simple act of recalling the past affects the recollection of what happened. That some of my remembrances are not the commonly accepted version of events should not be surprising.” Memoirs are not history. Memoirs are the raw material for history. Memoirs written by generals and politicians are notoriously inaccurate. A writer of memoirs should make an honest attempt to set down the course of events as they are recorded in memory. This Teller did. If some of the details are wrong, this detracts little from the value of his book as a panorama of a historical epoch in which he played a leading role. I have used the memoirs as the basis for this brief summary of his career.
Teller was born in 1908 into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family in Budapest. He lived through the turbulent years of World War I, the dismemberment of the AustroHungarian Empire, the short-lived Communist regime of Bela