Edward Teller

Turing’s Cathedral is a recent book by George Dyson about the origins and development of the computer. It focuses mainly on work done at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton during the 30’s and 40’s. The presiding genius was John Von Neumann, but there were big brains aplenty coming and going, including Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb on whom Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove was partially based.

Towards the end of the book, Dyson (son of the physicist Freeman Dyson) sits down with Teller to talk about extraterrestrial intelligence. I found their conversation fascinating:

“Let me ask you,” Teller interjected, in his thick Hungarian accent. “Are you interested in extraterrestrial intelligence? Obviously not. If you are interested, what would you look for?”

“There’s all sorts of things you can look for,” I answered. “But I think the thing not to look for is some intelligible signal… Any civilization that is doing useful communication, any efficient transmission of information will be encoded, so it won’t be intelligible to us — it will look like noise.”

“Where would you look for that?” asked Teller.

“I don’t know…”

“I do.”


“Globular clusters!” answered Teller. “We cannot get in touch with anybody else, because they choose to be so far away from us. In globular clusters, it is much easier for people at different places to get together. And if there is interstellar communication at all, it must be in the globular clusters.”

“That seems reasonable,” I agreed. “My own personal theory is that extraterrestrial life could be here already… and how would we necessarily know? If there is life in the universe, the form of life that will prove to be most successful at propagating itself will be digital life; it will adopt a form that is independent of the local chemistry, and migrate from one place to another as an electromagnetic signal, as long as there’s a digital world — a civilization that has discovered the Universal Turing Machine — for it to colonize when it gets there. And that’s why von Neumann and you other Martians [the nickname for all the Hungarian math whizzes] got us to build all these computers, to create a home for that kind of life.”

There was a long, drawn-out pause. “Look,” Teller finally said, lowering his voice to a raspy whisper, “may I suggest that instead of explaining this, which would be hard… you write a science fiction book about it.”

“Probably someone has,” I said.

“Probably,” answered Teller, “someone has not.”

As they say, this would be a very good premise for a science fiction novel, or movie. Now that hackers and bots are everywhere, and when new exo-planets are discovered daily, this is definitely a story just waiting to be written.