Monday, December 03, 2018

Edward Teller's 1959 Warning about Global Warming

There was an even earlier, significant warning about carbon dioxide, than that in 1965 from the American Petroleum Institute. It came from Edward Teller in 1959.

That year, there were five invited speakers at a symposium at Columbia University. Teller talked about some wild applications for nuclear bombs, but he started his talk with these words about carbon dioxide:
"Carbon dioxide has a strange property. It transmits visible light but it absorbs the infrared radiation which is emitted from the earth. Its presence in the atmosphere causes a greenhouse effect in that it will allow the solar rays to enter, but it will to some extent impede the radiation from the earth into outer space. The result is that the earth will continue to heat up until a balance is re-established. Then the earth will be at a higher temperature and will radiate more. It has been calculated that a temperature rise corresponding to a l0 per cent increase in carbon dioxide will be sufficient to melt the icecap and submerge New York. All the coastal cities would be covered, and since a considerable percentage of the human race lives in coastal regions, I think that this chemical contamination is more serious than most people tend to believe."
This comes from a book review of the symposium's talks on Amazon, and it's what The Guardian printed earlier this year. There was a question after the talk's end that offers more insight into Teller's thinking:
Dean Brown: Here is another clarifying question. Would you please summarize briefly the danger from increased carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere in this century?

Dr. Teller: At present the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by 2 per cent over normal. By 1970, it will be perhaps 4 per cent, by 1980, 8 per cent, by 1990, 16 percent, if we keep on with our exponential rise in the use of purely conventional fuels. By that time, there will be a serious additional impediment for the radiation leaving the earth. Our planet will get a little warmer. It is hard to say whether it will be 2 degrees Fahrenheit or only one or 5. But when the temperature does rise by a few degrees over the whole globe, there is a possibility that the icecaps will start melting and the level of the oceans will begin to rise. Well, I don't know whether they will cover the Empire. State Building or not, but anyone can calculate it by looking at the map and noting that the icecaps over Greenland and over Antarctica are perhaps five thousand feet thick.
Teller wasn't pessimistic enough. In 1970 atmospheric CO2 was 16% above the preindustrial value, 21% in 1980, and by 1990 it was 27%.

This was almost six decades ago. Scientists knew. The oil industry knew. The Lyndon Johnson administration knew. A large research program should have been set up then, and something like the IPCC. Those denying a CO2 role should be ashamed of themselves.


William Connolley said...

> Scientists knew. The oil industry knew. The Lyndon Johnson administration knew

Errm, yes. So all the "#exxonknew" stuff is drivel: the answer is, anyone who wanted to know, knew. Because it was all public, all the time. Although, of course, 1959 is far too early.

Layzej said...

I think the whole "#exxonknew" campaign is about the promotion of disinformation. It's not just that they knew about the greenhouse effect. It's everything that follows.

David in Cal said...

Maybe liberals will rehabilitate Teller, since he's on their side re CO2. They sure hated him. Teller had committed the "sin" of being an ardent anti-Communist.

When he died, he was arguably America's greatest living scientist -- both because of his scientific work and his impact on policy. The New York Times ran a disgusting obituary smearing him. As I recall it downplayed his achievements, while including a number of insulting liberal myths, such as the canard that he was the basis for the character of Dr. Strangelove. The obituary was so offensive that the next day the Times ran another full obituary, eliminating some of the worst smears, although it was still unfairly negative IMHO.

P.S. My wife worked at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in 1964-65. Teller, its co-founder, was still around as an emeritus. He was very highly respected as a brilliant scientist by the physicists my wife worked with.


David Appell said...

Certainly Teller was a great physicist. But the best of his era? I don't know. I'd nominate Fermi, Feynman, Bethe and Schwinger as better. Teller was obsessed with communism, and after the Manhattan Project it distracted him from real physics. It might have been partly motivated by losing a foot in communist/fascist Hungary.

Has the Teller-Strangelove rumor been proven false? I don't know.

David in Cal said...

AFAIK there's no real evidence that Teller, or anyone else, was the model for Strangelove. IMHO the speculation was a way of implying that Teller resembled Strangelove. Odd, since Strangelove was portrayed as having Nazi sympathies, while Teller was Jewish. Anyhow, it was very wrong for a mean-spirited rumor to be included in a New York Times obituary.

Based on what my wife was told at the Rad Lab, Teller had numerous discoveries, some of which he didn't even bother to publish. It was not uncommon for a scientist to come into Teller's office and show him a new discovery, only to have Teller pull out a file showing that he had already made this discovery.

The word "obsessed" has a negative connotation. Teller was a lot more fearful of Communism than most Americans, but he may have been right to be more fearful.

I would have thought John Von Neumann was the greatest of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. Of course, his achievements were in a wide variety of different fields. I recall a book about the Manhattan Project quoting one of scientists as saying that of all the brilliant scientists involved, three stood out as exceptionally brilliant: Teller, Von Neumann, and Leo Szilard.


David Appell said...

I think Feynman was easily the most impressive scientist coming out of the Manhattan project. He completely revolutionized quantum field theory and particle physics, by inventing his own version of quantum mechanics. His influence on theoretical physics, and how it reaches to experimental results, is massive.

Feynman, Fermi, Bethe and Schwinger have a Nobel Prize. Teller does not.

If Teller didn't publish his results, too bad for him. Maybe he thought they were too uncertain to be published. At that stage of his career he could have easily had an underling write up the paper, and he'd get his name on it. But he didn't. You have to ask why.

David in Cal said...

From what I've read, Szilard and Teller deserved Nobel Prizes. But, the most surprising omission was Von Neumann. Below I've copied a comment from elsewhere. I would add to the list of accomplishments that Von Neumann also deserves credit for helping to invent scientific weather forecasting.

Why did John von Neumann never win the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal, despite being (arguably) more qualified than most laureates?

Uri Granta, finds Nobel Prizes a flawed yardstick for national achievement
Updated Mar 9, 2017

Unlucky timing, mainly.

The breadth of John von Neumann's work is astounding. He could easily have won a Nobel Prize in both Physics and Economics, as well as a Fields Medal and a Turing Award. Fields pioneered by von Neumann include:

In mathematics: ergodic theory, operator theory, continuous geometry and key contributions to set theory, measure theory, lattice theory and mathematical statistics.

In physics: mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics and computational fluid dynamics.

In economics: game theory and mathematical economics.

In computing: Von Neumann architecture, stochastic computing, Monte Carlo method and cellular automata.

Timing explains the absence of three of the prizes. Von Neumann didn't win a Nobel Prize in Economics or a Turing Award since he died in 1957, around 10 years before those prizes were created. Similarly, he didn't win a Fields Medal, since the medal was only awarded twice while he was eligible (it was created in 1936, was not awarded again until 1950 due to WW2, and has an age limit of 40).

The lack of a Physics Nobel is less connected to timing (though perhaps he would have won one eventually had he lived longer). Perhaps it was due to the strongly mathematical nature of his work. Despite his practical work on the Manhattan Project, he may have been viewed more as a mathematician than a physicist.

Given his lack of prizes, it's perhaps ironic how many international prizes are named after von Neumann: the John von Neumann Theory Prize in operations research, the IEEE John von Neumann Medal in computer-related science and technology, the John von Neumann Lecture in applied mathematics and the John von Neumann Award in exact social sciences.

David Appell said...

Yeah, about the Nobel Prize: coulda, shoulda, woulda.

In all the years I studied physics, I never once came across an important contribution from Teller. But Bethe, Fermi, Feynman and Schwinger, yeah....

David in Cal said...

David -- Maybe some of Teller's achievements were not in the fields of physics that you specialized in. Wikipedia has a long list of achievements:

known colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb", although he did not care for the title.[1] He made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy (in particular the Jahn–Teller and Renner–Teller effects), and surface physics. His extension of Enrico Fermi's theory of beta decay, in the form of Gamow–Teller transitions, provided an important stepping stone in its application, while the Jahn–Teller effect and the Brunauer–Emmett–Teller (BET) theory have retained their original formulation and are still mainstays in physics and chemistry.[2] Teller also made contributions to Thomas–Fermi theory, the precursor of density functional theory, a standard modern tool in the quantum mechanical treatment of complex molecules. In 1953, along with Nicholas Metropolis, Arianna Rosenbluth, Marshall Rosenbluth, and Augusta Teller, Teller co-authored a paper that is a standard starting point for the applications of the Monte Carlo method to statistical mechanics.[3]

He was a co-founder of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), and was both its director and associate director for many years.

David Appell said...

David, where those significant discoveries? Or just extensions and phenomena?

Teller simply did not dominate a field as did Oppenheimer, Bethe, Feynman, Fermi, Schwinger. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

There was probably no single role model for Dr. Strangelove.
But if there was one close, it was not Teller, but Wernher Von Braun.

David in Cal said...

David -- I do not disagree with you, but we are talking about two somewhat different things. You're talking about scientific discoveries. I'm talking about scientific achievements. His achievements include promoting and co-inventing (for better or for worse) the H-bomb and founding and leading Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.


J said...

DiC: From what I've read, Szilard and Teller deserved Nobel Prizes.

DiC: I'm talking about scientific achievements. His achievements include promoting and co-inventing (for better or for worse) the H-bomb and founding and leading Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

You don't win Nobel Prizes for building bombs or running a laboratory. You would be on safer ground suggesting that Teller should have won some less science-y and more US-centric award, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Oh, wait. Never mind.

David in Cal said...

Fair enough, David. As you probably know, Teller did win a bunch of awards: Presidential Medal of Freedom, Enrico Fermi Award, Albert Einstein Award, National Medal of Science for Physical Science, and the Harvey Prize in Science and Technology.


Thomas Palm said...

" It was not uncommon for a scientist to come into Teller's office and show him a new discovery, only to have Teller pull out a file showing that he had already made this discovery."

That story is usually attributed to Lars Onsager.