LIVERMORE, CALIF.-Last summer Edward Teller, founder of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, took his protégé, Livermore theoretical physicist Lowell Wood, to the White House. There they met with President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush to discuss Wood's latest idea for a weapon to defend the country against incoming Soviet missiles. Joining them was John Nuckolls, a nuclear physicist who a few months earlier had become the director of Livermore, the Department of Energy's northern California weapons lab.

Today, a year later, the fate of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)-and with it the "Brilliant Pebbles" approach that Wood has proposed-remains an open question, as Congress debates whether the country needs and can afford such a military system. But many scientists say that the July 1988 meeting in the White House was much more than a technical briefing on Wood's idea for a lightweight, computer-driven, high-speed projectile to help defend...

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