Leading physicist John Wheeler dies at age 96
John Archibald Wheeler, a legend in physics who
coined the term "black hole" and whose myriad scientific
contributions figured in many of the research advances of the
20th century, has died.
Wheeler, the Joseph Henry Professor of Physics Emeritus at
Princeton University, was 96. He succumbed to pneumonia on
Sunday, April 13, at his home in Hightstown, N.J.
John Wheeler in 1991
Over a long, productive scientific life, he was
known for his drive to address big, overarching questions in
physics, subjects which he liked to say merged with
philosophical questions about the origin of matter, information
and the universe. He was a young contemporary of Albert Einstein
and Niels Bohr, was a driving force in the development of both
the atomic and hydrogen bombs and, in later years, became the
father of modern general relativity.
"Johnny Wheeler probed far beyond the frontiers of human
knowledge, asking questions that later generations of physicists
would take up and solve," said Kip Thorne, the Feynman Professor
of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of
Technology, a prolific researcher and one of Wheeler's
best-known students. "And he was the most influential mentor of
young scientists whom I have known."
Wheeler, according to James Peebles, Princeton's Albert Einstein
Professor of Science Emeritus, was "something approaching a
wonder of nature in the world of physics."
Throughout his lengthy career as a working scientist -- he
maintained an office in Jadwin Hall until 2006 -- he concerned
himself with what he termed "deep, happy mysteries." These were
the laws of nature on which all else is built.
He also helped launch the careers of many prominent modern
theoretical physicists, among them the late Nobel laureate
Richard Feynman. He learned best by teaching. Universities have
students, he often said, to teach the professors.
"Johnny," which is what he was called by everyone, including his
children, was born in Jacksonville, Fla., on July 9, 1911, the
first of four children, to Joseph and Mabel ("Archie") Wheeler,
a librarian and a homemaker, respectively. The family moved when
Joseph changed jobs, which happened frequently. Over the years,
they lived in Florida, California, Ohio, Washington, D.C.,
Maryland and Vermont. Wheeler discovered science through his
father, who brought books home for the family to read to help
him judge whether they were worth purchasing for the library.
Wheeler devoured Sir John Arthur Thomson's classic "Introduction
to Science" and Franklin Jones' "Mechanisms and Mechanical
Movements." He was guided by the second book to build a
combination lock, a repeating pistol and an adding machine --
all from wood. He built crystal radio sets and strung telegraph
wires between his home and his best friend's. He almost blew off
one hand with dynamite one morning, tinkering with material that
had been declared off-limits.
Wheeler was the first in his family to become a scientist,
heading to Johns Hopkins University on a scholarship when he
was 16, and finishing in 1933, at age 21, with a doctoral
degree in physics. He went on to work at the University of
Copenhagen with the eminent physicist Niels Bohr, with whom
he co-wrote the original paper on the mechanism of nuclear
fission that helped lead to the development of the atomic
bomb. After World War II, Wheeler joined the Los Alamos
Scientific Laboratory Project for a year, playing a central
role in developing the hydrogen bomb and serving as a mentor
to the physicist Richard Feynman.
He served as a member of the Princeton faculty from 1938
until his retirement in 1976, after which he served as
director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at the
University of Texas-Austin until 1986.
"Throughout his life, Johnny was an extraordinarily
productive theoretical physicist," said Marvin "Murph"
Goldberger, the president emeritus of Caltech, who had an
office near Wheeler for decades as a longtime Princeton
faculty member. "His work was categorized by great
imagination and great thoroughness."
Looking back over his own career, Wheeler divided it into
three parts. Until the 1950s, a phase he called "Everything
Is Particles," he was looking for ways to build all basic
entities, such as neutrons and protons, out of the lightest,
most fundamental particles. The second part, which he termed
"Everything Is Fields," was when he viewed the world as one
made out of fields in which particles were mere
manifestations of electrical, magnetic and gravitational
fields and space-time itself. More recently, in a period he
viewed as "Everything Is Information," he focused on the
idea that logic and information is the bedrock of physical
"John Wheeler, who started life with Niels Bohr in the '30s,
in the nuclear physics era, became the father figure of
modern general relativity two decades later," said Stanley
Deser, a general relativitist at Brandeis University.
"Wheeler's impact is hard to overstate, but his insistence
on understanding the physics of black holes is one shining
Described by colleagues as ever ebullient and optimistic,
Wheeler was known for sauntering into colleagues' office
with a twinkle in his eye, saying, "What's new?" He gave
high-energy lectures, writing rapidly on chalkboards with
both hands, twirling to make eye contact with his students.
He entered physics in the 1930s by applying the new quantum
mechanics to the study of atoms and radiation. Within a few
years, he turned to nuclear physics because it seemed to
hold the promise of revealing new and deeper laws of the
microscopic world. But it was "messy," he would later write,
and resistant to answers. Besides, working on fission, so
crucial to national defense during World War II, was a job,
not a calling, he said.
In his autobiography, titled "Geons, Black Holes and Quantum
Foam," written with his former student, the physicist
Kenneth Ford, Wheeler found "the love of the second half of
my life" -- general relativity and gravitation -- in the
post-war years. "When they emerged, I finally had a
calling," he said.
He liked to name things.
In the fall of 1967, he was invited to give a talk on
pulsars, then-mysterious deep-space objects, at NASA's
Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York. As he spoke,
he argued that something strange might be at the center,
what he called a gravitationally completely collapsed
object. But such a phrase was a mouthful, he said, wishing
aloud for a better name. "How about black hole?" someone
shouted from the audience.
That was it. "I had been searching for just the right term
for months, mulling it over in bed, in the bathtub, in my
car, wherever I had quiet moments," he later said. "Suddenly
this name seemed exactly right." He kept using the term, in
lectures and on papers, and it stuck.
He also came up with some other monikers, perhaps less well
known outside the world of physics. A "geon," which he said
probably doesn't exist in nature but helped him think
through some of his ideas, is a gravitating body made up
entirely of electromagnetic fields. And "quantum foam,"
which he said he found himself forced to invent, is made up
not merely of particles popping into and out of existence
without limit, but of space-time itself, churned into a
lather of distorted geometry.
Despite his sunny disposition, he carried with him a secret
sadness. "He was devoted to the memory of his younger
brother, Joe, a Ph.D. in American history with wife and
child, who was killed in the bitter fighting against the
Germans in northern Italy," said Letitia Wheeler Ufford, his
oldest child. "His brother's last words to him were 'Hurry
up, John,' as he sensed that his older brother was working
on weaponry to end the war. As he got older, our father wept
often over this brother."
And he had a brush with controversy, though he ultimately
redeemed himself. In January 1953, while traveling on a
sleeper car to Washington, D.C., he lost track of a
classified paper on the hydrogen bomb which had been in his
briefcase. It was there when he went to bed but was missing
by morning. He was personally reprimanded by military
officials at the insistence of President Eisenhower and, as
a strong believer in national defense was personally
embarrassed by the incident. Years later, in December 1968,
he was presented with the Fermi Award by President Johnson
for his contributions to national defense as well as to pure
science. "I felt forgiven," he wrote.
What drove Wheeler so ferociously for so many decades may be
best expressed by the physicist himself. In his
autobiography, he put it this way: "I like to say, when
asked why I pursue science, that it is to satisfy my
curiosity, that I am by nature a searcher, trying to
understand. Now, in my 80s, I am still searching. Yet I know
that the pursuit of science is more than the pursuit of
understanding. It is driven by the creative urge, the urge
to construct a vision, a map, a picture of the world that
gives the world a little more beauty and coherence than it
had before. Somewhere in the child that urge is born."
Wheeler was pre-deceased by his wife, Janette Hegner
Wheeler, who died last October. He is survived by his three
children: Letitia Wheeler Ufford of Princeton; James English
Wheeler of Ardmore, Pa.; and Alison Wheeler Lahnston of
Princeton. He is also survived by eight grandchildren, six
step-grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and 11
Burial will be private at his family's gravesite in Benson,
Vt. There will be a memorial service at 10 a.m. Monday, May
12, at the Princeton University Chapel. The family asks that
gifts be made to Princeton
University, the University of Texas-Austin for the John
Archibald Wheeler Graduate Fellowship or to Johns Hopkins
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