Goodbye.

By Daniel Holz | April 13, 2008 8:05 pm

One beautiful Fall day seventeen years ago I wandered into an office and my life profoundly changed. I was an undergraduate at Princeton, and was looking for a thesis advisor. Jadwin Hall was an intimidating place. Plenty of names familiar from my textbooks. Nobel laureates scattered about. And we were expected to just barge into their offices, and ask to work with them.

One office door was always open. As you walked by you could peek in, and see its occupant hard at work. Hunched over his notebook, scribbling away. Or standing by his bookcase, deep in thought. Most often at the blackboard, chalk in hand. This was John Archibald Wheeler, one of the legends of modern physics. He did foundational work on quantum mechanics, collaborating with Niels Bohr on some of the earliest work in nuclear fission. He invented the S-matrix. He played important roles in both the Manhattan project (atomic bomb) and the Matterhorn project (Hydrogen bomb). He made major contributions to general relativity, co-authoring with Charlie Misner and Kip Thorne the bible of the field. He was legendary for his way with words, coining such terms as wormholes, quantum foam, black holes, and the wave function of the Universe (the Wheeler-DeWitt equation). He trained generations of students; one of his first was Richard Feynman.

Fortunately, being a relatively clueless 20-year old, I was only dimly aware of these things. I was interested in gravity and cosmology, and I had heard Wheeler knew a thing or two about such topics. So I waltzed in, and asked if he had any projects I could work on. I staggered out of his office four hours later, laden with books, a clearly defined project in my hands. For the ensuing two years I spent essentially every weekday with Wheeler. Each morning I would rush over to his office, always to be greeted the same way: “What’s new?” I would have been up late the night before, desperately trying to find something interesting with which to answer that question. We would then spend hours working together, going over my results, scrutinizing my calculations, poring through the literature, brainstorming new ideas. Wheeler gave me a direct and personal introduction to the joys of research. We would break for lunch, and walk up to the faculty club. I often had trouble keeping up with him. He would always take the stairs (“No time to wait for an elevator!”). He would hook his arm into the banisters, and swing around, practically leaping from one flight to the next. This was 1990; Wheeler was 79 years old.

We would often work all afternoon (with the occasional interruption, the nuisance of having to leave for my class lectures). Every evening I would walk with him from Jadwin up across the full length of campus, to catch his bus. We would pass the corner of Ivy lane and Washington road, where he had scratched 137 into the concrete when they were pouring the sidewalk. We would pass Jones Hall, where he used to discuss relativity with Einstein. We would continue on through campus, crossing in front of Nassau Hall. Wheeler would insist we walk diagonally to the far gate, instead of exiting through the more convenient FitzRandolph Gate. An Undergraduate was not meant to exit FitzRandolph Gate until graduation, and Wheeler didn’t want to be responsible for what might occur were I to break tradition.

For two years I sat at the feet of the master, and I absorbed as much as I could. I learned about science, and about life. Wheeler had broad interests. We would often discuss biology, or history, or poetry. Over the ensuing years we kept in touch. We collaborated together on Wheeler’s last published paper.

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours at Wheeler’s bedside. I tried to say thank you. But it was impossible to convey how much he means to me, and how grateful I am to him. In that moment when I crossed the threshold to his office, I was embarking on a new path. I am still on that path, and every day I am grateful to him for showing me the way.

John Wheeler died this morning.

John Wheeler

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Personal, Science
  • Bryan

    Rest in Peace, John. You taught us all.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    Beautifully written Daniel. I’m sorry for your loss, and the loss to physics.

  • cern73

    Too bad that he died before seeing the LHC results

  • http://www.geocities.com/aletawcox/ Sam Cox

    A truly great man. You had a unique experience and I thank you for sharing it.

    Sam Cox

  • Michael Good

    RIP

  • http://wcuk.wordpress.com Will

    Well written. Thanks for sharing this story.

  • http://freiddy.blogspot.com Freiddie

    Very nice post. Sorry to hear such news.

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  • http://www.c2r-3.us Trip

    Excellently written, Daniel. Dr. Wheeler will be missed.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Very sad news, he was one of the physicists who everyone looked up to. Thanks for sharing the remembrance; it’s good to be reminded how inspiring a passion for science can be at its most pure.

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  • http://www.badastronomy.com Phil Plait

    Daniel, I’m terribly sorry both for your personal loss and the loss to physics. But the world of science is better place for him having been in it, and we owe him a great debt.

  • http://bjkeefe.blogspot.com/ Brendan

    Sorry to be unoriginal, but I did come over here to say, “Nice rememberance, Daniel.”

    Sounds to me like you earned the time you got to spend with him, as well. And you’ll always have that going for you.

  • Costanza

    A great man, indeed. I will mourn him.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean
  • http://web.mit.edu/sahughes/www/ Scott H.

    Daniel, really nicely written. I shared the news with several fellow academic descendants at the APS meeting today — everyone was very saddened. It’s amazing how many talks at this conference are given by someone whose scientific lineage goes through Johnny — it’s quite a legacy.

  • http://farce-sicle.blogspot.com PirateHooker

    :(

    me sad.

  • Brad Holden

    That was beautifully written, Dan, and a wonderful tribute.

  • Parlange

    Thanks for a beautiful tribute.

  • Nostraticispeak

    Go! Explore the breadth and depths of the universe Mr. Wheeler. Absorb all the secrets and realize all the truths as you travel across the galaxies.

    Thanks for a well spent century.

    A beautiful tribute.

  • http://www.thegenepool.nl/profkienstra prof kienstra

    A beautifull tribute, and very well written.

  • Norm

    Try to become not a man of success, but try rather to become a man of value.
    Albert Einstein

    great minds live alike too, apparently

    RIP

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  • paragwinn

    A very touching tribute.

  • Jim McDermott

    Although I was a humanities major, John Wheeler was my most memorable teacher as an undergraduate. He remains my model of a Renaissance man.

  • Theja

    Nice tribute to the legend.

  • http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/ John Baez

    I fell in love with quantum gravity as an undergrad after reading the last chapter of
    Misner, Thorne and Wheeler’s Gravitation. This chapter was clearly written by Wheeler. He made quantum gravity seem like the coolest thing imaginable.

    Years later I met him at a conference and was too tongue-tied to say anything more than hello. He looked at my name tag and asked if I was related to Joan Baez. I’m afraid that’s the only conversation I ever had with him, though he affected me tremendously.

  • David Gill

    Sad indeed.

    How many of that great generation (the Manhattan project generation) are left? Darn few, I would venture.

    Thanks for the lovely tribute, Daniel.

  • http://dualist.blogsavy.com Khan Muhammad

    Very sad news. Undoubtedly his works will last forever.

    Can’t anyone provide an open-source photo of Wheeler for Wikipedia?

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  • Haelfix

    Such an interesting life, I wish I had met him.

  • Elliot

    Daniel, thank you for your thoughtful perspective on Prof. Wheeler and his life.

    May he rest in peace.

    Elliot

  • Melvin Eloy

    Wheeler will always be remembered as the great physicist he was.

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  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    As a coauthor of Feynman, who’s kept in touch with Kip Thorne since before “Gravitation” was published, I’ve just lost the greatest living teacher of a teacher of mine — although he belonged to the cosmos.

    I feel as though the top storey of my home has been ripped away by a violent storm, exposing me, helpless, to the elements.

    For some time to come, whenever I teach Physics, I shall explain to my student who John Archibald Wheeler was, and how diminished the world is, following his phase transition.

  • Morley

    Amazing story, you will be missed john, thanks for bringing so much to this world

  • John R Ramsden

    Khan Muhammad (#30) wrote:
    >
    > Can’t anyone provide an open-source photo of Wheeler for Wikipedia?

    In a way that expressive painting accompanying the article would be just as suitable, as it aptly reflects his life occupied in modelling reality rather than simply recording it.

  • carlo rovelli

    My debt to John is immense. For the tremendous beauty of his ideas. For the sweetness with which he received me, talked to me, and asked me questions. Because most of my physics has been walking along his path. For a letter he wrote to me so long ago, which is still hanging on the wall of my office. Because John wanted to really know how the world is, and how we should change our thoughts to understand it. Because I think that that was the right path for physics. For his eyes when I met him last time. And for the things he told me at this last meeting, and I couldn’t hear his soft voice anymore. And so much I wanted to hear more from him. Dear, dear John, thanks for all this. Carlo

  • Josh

    Daniel, thanks very much for the heartfelt post. John will be missed.

    I was fortunate enough to have met him briefly as a prospective student at Princeton. He told me a story that had something to do with a Native American woman and astronomy, but I can’t remember what it was . . . I was wondering if you might know it since he may have been fond enough of the story to repeat it often.

  • http://www.starshipnivan.com Athena

    He lived a wondrous life and his contributions were immense. It is we, the survivors, who are made poorer by his loss.

  • Miguel Carrión Álvarez

    I had the pleasure to see Wheeler at the symposium held at Princeton in honour of his 90th anniversary. All I can say, having now left academia, is that as a young student of theoretical physics Wheeler and so many of his students and students’ students were a constant inspiration.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    That is very sad news. Thanks for sharing with us Daniel.

  • Bob

    I trust the posthumus Mr Nobel will give Prof. Wheeler
    a posthumus Nobel Prize at the earliest opportunity.

  • Raju annam

    John wheeler is a true inspiration for physicists and physics enthusiasts across the globe. When I was struggling to understand General Relativity his eloquent
    statement “Space-time tells matter how to move. Matter tells space-time how to curve” gave me some insight in to the subject.
    He is true legend!
    Raju

  • Greg

    I’m saddened by Dr. Wheeler’s passing and saddened for your loss. I do have a question. Why the number 137 in the sidewalk?

  • Duke

    He was probably the most unassuming person I ever met on the Princeton campus. He will definitely be missed, but his teachings live on in all of us who came in contact with him or his writings!

  • argumenter

    Greg, re 137: Approximately 1/alpha?

  • tom

    sic transit gloria mundi

  • Moshe

    I’ve never met Wheeler, but his presence was obvious on the ninth floor of RLM, where I went to graduate school. I also apparently had his desk (since the drawers were full of his notes). It is amazing how much his influence is still felt, especially in the relativity community: people are still seduced by the ideas of spacetime foam, and geons, and “it from bit”, and many others…

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  • Belizean

    I first met him as an undergrad and was fortunate enough to become one of his graduate students. It was wonderful to receive gems of wisdom like “Wheeler’s first moral principal” (never do a calculation unless you already know the answer) first hand. He was incredibly generous with his time and modest to a fault. He helped me through the darkest moments of my career. The slight contributions that I now strive to achieve in physics are motivated in part by my debt to him and the faith he showed in me when I had little of my own. Wheeler and Janette were like the grandparents that I never knew. He was the greatest scientific influence in my life. Hardly a day passes that I don’t think of him. He was the greatest man that I have ever known.

  • Patricia Rife

    I loved John with all my heart! I was the biographer of Lise Meitner and in 1995, phoned him from University of Hawaii — “Do you remember me? I interviewed you ten years ago for my dissertation on Lise Meitner, and you were departing for Copenhagen — after being interviewed for NOVA by Carl Sagen! And I spilled a coke on you right after our video interview — how embarrased I was!” “Oh yes” – he replied, always the optimist, always the student of Bohr, broad-minded, cheerfully American “you are the beautiful historian! I would be happy to write the Foreword to your book on Meitner! Now let me tell you some stories about fission…” And then he would truly be off, sharing insights no historian may have ever known or written carefully about….

    Johnny, we all loved you, we admired and respected you, but moreso, you were our ‘link’ to the Copenhagen Circle, the times before the war, and the reason we all work so hard for world peace. It was YOU who encouraged me, whispering in my ear “Now you keep up your good work, and always take a stand for peace!”

    We will miss you — have a safe journey into the cosmos!
    Patricia Rife

  • Hiranya

    Daniel, I am really saddened by this news, and very moved by your wonderful tribute.

  • http://calishizzle.blogspot.com Myk

    R.I.P.

  • Patricia Rife

    See John’s amazing, true story about the discovery of fission: P.Rife, Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (Boston, MA: Birkhauser 1999). Thank you from all of us, John, for your bridge between Bohr and Einstein, and the insights you shared with the world. Hugs forever, Patricia

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  • http://www.weard.org Alex Butler

    Thank you.

  • Al

    Maybe there’s no hell or heaven, but it would be nice if somewhere outside of space and time there’s a big lecture hall with a huge blackboard where Professor Wheeler, Professor Bohr, Professor Einstein and Professor Feynman are spending the eternity uncovering the secrets of the universe through their brilliant insights and arguments.

    And, for the sake of Dr. Einstein, that lecture hall better have an endless supply of tea :-) .

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  • Adrian Burd

    I only ever spent a few hours with Wheeler in person, when he visited Queen Mary and Westfield College. If I recall correctly, Peter Szekeres was also visiting and during our obligatory trip to a local Indian restaurant they both swapped lengthy and detailed stories about their respective heart by-pass operations.

    Although I am no longer in the field, Wheeler’s influence remains in my research and approach to teaching. He will be sorely missed.

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  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    ====================================================
    John Archibald Wheeler and the Smoky Dragon
    by
    Jonathan Vos Post
    ====================================================

    “It from bit,” said John Archibald Wheeler,
    giant of Physics, the last superhero
    still standing, of Einstein, Feynman, Bohr;
    S-Matrix master, mutating metaphor;
    all collaborators, all decayed towards zero,
    into the black hole of death, beyond any healer.

    Ninety-six years when wormhole pneumonia
    pulled him away from consensus space-time,
    into the ultimate language of clarity,
    collapsing at last to his own singularity,
    the plutonium peak of the Matterhorn,
    Manhattan Project, the rocket-base crime,
    “a smoky dragon” — spirits of ammonia.

    “We are no longer satisfied with insights
    only into particles, or fields of force,
    or geometry, or even space and time.”
    His way with words, a deep internal rhyme,
    blinding as an ultraviolet source,
    and so he writes, calculates, and re-writes.

    “Today we demand… some understanding
    of existence itself,” he said to all teachers,
    stretching the metrics of Physics to breaking,
    we recall, our hearts aching, star-quaking
    geometrodynamics for creatures
    beyond the horizon, an instrument landing.

    “Black hole… teaches us that space can be crumpled
    like a piece of paper, into an infin-
    itesimal dot, that time can be extinguished,”
    he lectured, in his black coat, distinguished,
    “like a blown-out flame,” our identical twin
    aging faster, falling in, stressed spacesuit rumpled.

    He wrote: “The laws of physics that we regard
    as ‘sacred,’ as immutable, are anything
    but.” Not abstract. He made it astrophysics.
    He dragged the game at last into metaphysics.
    Starlight shining on his golden ring
    Magician slams down the ace, last playing card.

    Into the unified field, this is not tragic.
    Fissioning atom, conceived as liquid drop,
    beyond the cosmos, John Archibald Wheeler,
    Physicist, prophet, poet, teacher, feeler,
    “wave function of the universe” — without stop;
    “mass without mass” — magic without magic.

    1240-1435
    14 Apr 2008
    ====================================================
    Copyright (c) 2008 by Magic Dragon Multimedia.
    All rights reserved Worldwide. May not be reproduced without permission.
    May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.
    ====================================================

  • Changcho

    Very nice remembrance; than you for sharing. May Prof. Wheeler rest in peace.

  • James E Wheeler

    The Wheeler Family has been reading your lovely comments; I hope you will let us share them at the service to be held at the Princeton University Chapel Monday May 12th at 10 AM (best check with the University before making plans), or at the get-together afterwards. Sincerely, James E Wheeler

  • Koliedrus

    @ James

    I’m sure that all who expressed their thoughts would be honored to have their words shared during the service.

    Perhaps we may soon look back and echo his quest for understanding the universe:

    “Oh, how could it have been otherwise?”

    Be well.

  • graviton383

    John Wheeler was one of the last of the Giants of 20th Century Physics..we will all miss him..even those of us who did not know him well.

  • http://tyrannogenius.blogspot.com Neil B.

    I’m sad to see such a great thinker go. I really learned a lot from his (with Edwin F. Taylor) Space Time Physics. I was also impressed by his attempt to get a handle on the anthropic issues and foundational questions of “what is reality” etc, although my own impressions don’t match his.

  • http://machine-human.com machinehuman

    Thanks for sharing your beautiful memories Daniel.

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  • http://www.mikesweeklyskepticrant.blogspot.com BigHeathenMike

    That was a beautifully written and touching tribute to a giant of a man. For anyone who has even a passing interest in science, his is one of the shoulders we stand upon.

  • http://protempore.net/~calvins/ Calvin Smith

    That was a beautiful remembrance.

    John Wheeler has long been my favorite physicist. I discovered him while reading popular physics books as a teenager, when again and again I would come across crazy-sounding quotations by Wheeler about the foundations of physics and quantum theory.

    I’ve collected many quotations by and about John Wheeler over the years, and have added today some new ones that I had not yet come across. I hope you don’t consider this spam, but I thought you or your readers might be interested in perusing them: quotations by or about John Wheeler.

    If that URL gets mangled, the last link at http://strangewondrous.net/search is also a query for everything by or about him.

    Science has lost one of its greatest practitioners; those who knew him have lost a great man. My condolences to his family and friends.

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  • Greg

    Saw John Wheeler give a talk at the NY Academy of Sciences in NYC in 1979. The occasion was the 100th Anniversary of Einstein’s birth. Great talk. Great guy.

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/daniel daniel

    Thank you to everyone for the thoughtful comments. Wheeler was an exceptional human being. The world is a poorer and duller place without him.

    Greg (#46), it is indeed 1/fine structure constant, as argumenter suggests.

    Jamie, I’m sure I speak for everyone in welcoming you to use whatever comments you would like. You have many “siblings” in the community of Johnnie’s students and grand-students, and we share your loss.

  • http://quexotic.org Keith Flower

    This is a participatory universe.
    The notes struck out on a piano by the observer-participants of all places and all times, bits though they are, in and by themselves constitute the great wide world of space and time and things”
    Oh, how could it have been otherwise! How could we all have been so blind so long! [1]

    Thank you for your great effort, Dr. Wheeler. You will always be one of my heroes.

    (e squared/hc = 1/137…)

    [1] JA Wheeler, Proc 3rd Int Symposium, Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, 1989, pg 354-368.

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  • charles

    Requiescat in pace .

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  • http://www.nultibitovi.net kotnik

    We lost a giant…

    Daniel, thank you for this kind words…

  • Sam

    And the world continues on a path of destruction. Nice guys may be, but they have contributed nothing!

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  • Avendya

    Science has lost a great.

  • Kordan the Merciless

    The world may be a rotten place in many ways, but it
    is guys like Wheeler who redeem our species.

  • http://eydryan.com eydryan

    a really good article, and very passionate.

    may he rest in peace, such people are very rare, and missed by many… it’s such a shame when they go…

  • Viacheslav Sapozhnikoff

    My condolences. We have lost one of the giants of modern theory of gravitation and cosmology.

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  • Khan Muhammad

    Science lovers from all over the world are shocked by the news. I have written an obituary in Bengali language in the blog named “Sachalayatan”. I know that none of you can read it. Anyone interseted can merely have a look:

    Goodbye, John Wheeler: Obituary in Bengali

  • Michael Hennelly

    Johnny Wheeler was a great physicist and a great man. Amidst the crooked timber of humanity, Prof. Wheeler stood straight and graced many lives with his intellect, humor, optimism, and generosity. Michael Hennelly

  • nitin

    If I can one day see farther, it would be by standing on the shoulders of Giants like John A. Wheeler. Dear John (you are so much part of many of us at the moment, that I cannot bring myself to call you Professor Wheeler, though I have an immense respect for you), it is men like you who have tried to make this world a better place, but more importantly wise men like you who have made it possible for young people like me to continue on our quest of understanding, wherever that might take us. I have never met you, but for me it is not important, because your presence could be felt across the great distances, in many ways.

    Daniel, thank you for sharing those memories in such wonderful and truly heartfelt prose.

    My condolences go to the Wheeler family, and all people who have lost in him an admirable companion, friend and teacher.

    May I point out a nice archive which has an interview of John, which you can access here.

    A physics graduate student from a small island, Mauritius.

  • Lee Smolin

    For me, Johnny Wheeler started out as a kind of antimodel, who became a role model as I matured enough to understand the depth of thought behind his enigmatic slogans. Indeed, he anticipated so many things that seemed to us novel. Long before eternal inflation, the landscape and cosmological natural selection, Wheeler was thinking about “reprocessing the universe” in bouncing singularities giving rise to new universes, where random variations in the laws would give rise to what he called “law without law.” It was no coincidence that John Baez named “spin foam” models after Wheeler’s thoughts on “spacetime foam”, and no surprise when we began to see traces of his “matter without matter.” And only with the development of quantum information theory did it become possible to formulate clearly what he meant by “it from bit.”

    What stands out in memory was his interest, always humbly expressed, in what younger people were doing and thinking, as well as his openness to disagreement, whether about quantum foundations or arms control policy. Once in a conference Carlo Rovelli told John he sounded like Martin Heidegger, and the next time I saw John he reported that he had been reading that philosopher, but finding it difficult. What was always so impressive was his pressing of the simplest, most naïve questions: “Why the quantum?” I think he asked in every conversation we had, and each time he sounded freshly perplexed.

    One memory that comes to mind today is a graduate seminar I dropped into during a visit to UT Austin around 1980, where he gave out 3 by 5 inch file cards. He asked everyone to write down in the fewest number of symbols their understanding of the fundamental laws of nature, to be used as a crib sheet if we were given a physics examination on confronting Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates. I wonder if he still had his card with him, and what was on it.

  • http://oldestgenxer.spaces.live.com/ OGX

    It makes me wish I knew him. Beautiful.
    To keep the mind active throughout life, especially with deep thoughts such as his…I feel sure he had a full, rich life.
    I’m not a scientist, just an engineer. But we know where the real genius lies.

  • http://jd2718.wordpress.com/ Jonathan

    Touching. I shared it with a colleague who knew him slightly, and he shared it with his students today. I think he liked how you met him.

  • gbob

    I can only imagine that the memorial service will be a virtual (or actual) Who’s Who of physics for the last 50 years.

    SO where are the Wheelers, Bethes, Feynmans,…of today?
    Maybe we do not yet recognize them. Maybe they are all doing biology. Maybe it is a different world.

    Curious, too, that a blog devoted mainly to “hard” science, with many thoughtful discussions (and some less so) discussions on the roles of science and religion, would have several cutesy metaphors of theorists deriving equations in Heaven.

  • Sam Gralla

    beautiful post, Dan.

  • Muhammad S Hossain

    Goodbye John! We will never forget you.

  • PK

    He didn’t just live. He was alive. As long as we remember him, he still lives.

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  • Michael Birman

    I was trained as a molecular biologist, not a physicist. These past few years, indulging my curiosity about “Why Life?” led to the more fundamental “Why Anything?” It is exactly the question John Wheeler would ask and it led to my reading John Wheeler’s autobiography, Gravitation and his other masterful texts, in order to frame the question more intelligently. I began to know the man. One can feel grief as action at a distance. Safe journey and safe harbor. Now, that discussion with Bohr and Einstein can resume. Perhaps they will soon glimpse the answers.

  • http://www.dedalus-atlas.blogspot.com Stephen Dedalus

    “Born a poor young country boy”, I never have been close to any giant in any field. But, as a student, “Gravitation” was always at my hand, and it was a pleasure to read and re-read it. Seeing this “goodbye”, and remembering my experiences in the “academia” of my country, I really felt the loss… The world needs more men like him.

  • http://physics.open.ac.uk/~dbroadhu/ David Broadhurst

    I am minded of an exhortation by
    Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994):

    > Live modestly and do serious things.

    For all his supposed “craziness”,
    Wheeler did that, in spades.

    David Broadhurst

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2008/04/kurt-godel.html Plato

    This was a lovely tribute to John Wheeler and the memories that have stayed with different people.

    Following his lineage in terms of his students, also leaves a impression on the history of information that has become part of our everyday life. These are tributes too on how much a person like John Wheeler can influence the course of time in these unfolding events like LIGO and the continued search for Gravitational waves.

    This quote below made an impression on me to the extent that people like John Wheeler assigned an interpretation to the exercise, and that many tried to follow in his footsteps.

    Geons, Blackholes & Quantum Foam by John Archibald Wheeler, with Kenneth Ford, page 236, para 2.

    “This hypothetical entity, a gravitating body made up entirely of electromagnetic fields. I call geon(g for the gravity, e for electromagnetism,” and on as the word root for”particle”). There is no evidence for geons in nature and later was able to show that they are unstable-they would quickly self-destruct if they were ever to form. Nevertheless it is tempting to think that nature has a way of exercising all the possibilities open to it. Perhaps geons had a transitory exitance early in history of the universe. Perhaps(as some students and I speculate much more recently), they provide an intermediate stage in the creation of the blackholes.”

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  • AP Radhakrishna

    Wheeler inspired generations of young minds by coining the word “Blackhole” for a star which even do anot allow light to escape. It is not by fluke he coined that right word. It is not a serendipity. It is due to the gact that he is real teacher who has the poetic sense. We are not fortunate to have him as our teacher. But from Kip Thorne, Feynman and others we know that wheeler was really genius, good human being and ecellent teacher of Physics. A legend passsed away. Let his soul be at peace at singularity of “Blackhole”
    AP Radhakrishna

  • http://javier-fg.blogspot.com/2008/04/john-archibald-wheeler.html Javier

    Then the dinner bell was quiet, and he has gone, with book, magnifying glass – and apple.

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  • Oz

    It’s obvious he meant a lot to you.
    Wheeler was one of my great heroes.
    “I am truley sorry for your lots.”, as they say.

  • Rick Hawkins

    It’s sad that we often don’t hear about the influence that great minds have had on individuals until after their deaths. Thanks for the article. RIP Dr. Wheeler.

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  • Digital

    I am always in conflict with two views of the world… a part of me that is filled with hate knowing that before his death far too few new this mans name, his contributions, the value to the whole… while all of them could tell you Paris Hiltons newest dogs name.

    However in the same thought, the masses be damned, THIS is what mankind is capable of. The evidence we have value, potential, and a future. The drive to expand the whole of knowlage, not to get rich, not to shove another brightly colored product into your unused closet… but simply to know.

    If men like this made up 10% of our world, even 5%… mankind would see a burst of knowlage and prosparity beyond what we can imagine.

    May the minds he left behind truely know what humanity is capable of, and live up to his example.

    Rest in Peace

  • http://toweltales.blogspot.com/ Jon Sandler

    Great story and well written thanks for enlightening me.

  • http://cosmicvariance Joe D

    Daniel, what a Blessed Man you are!!!! I didn’t know Dr. Wheeler but I know his son. Dr. James Wheeler. He is a Pathologist at The Univ Of Penn. He is an outstanding Pathologist and teacher. We are Blessed to have him here teaching our Residents and Students…….

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  • Jimbo

    Don’t know if anybody’s interested but here is a link to an in-depth series of video interviews of John Wheeler:

    http://www.peoplesarchive.com/browse/movies/2359/

    From just a few years ago, John is in fine form, and always speaks in clear, measured sentences, about the remarkable history he has been a part of.

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  • http://www.sepp.org S Fred Singer

    Johnny Wheeler was my thesis supervisor and hero. I learned so much from him — and not just physics. During World War-II, we didn’t see much of him. He was away (Manhattan Project) and I joined the US Navy. After the War, I got interested in cosmic rays and found him willing to spend time with me –- often at odd moments — once when traveling on a train to Wilmington. I will never forget him during my PhD oral exam. Oppenheimer and Bohr were both there; Oppy because he was interested in my topic, Bohr because he was visiting Wheeler. Oppy asked a difficult question – then got up to the blackboard to answer it himself and never sat down. Bohr fell asleep and Wheeler was truly embarrassed. I passed the exam. —Fred Singer *48

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  • Paul Leyland

    I never met Wheeler, but Gravitation is one of my favourite books. I have learned a great deal from him by proxy, and expect to continue to learn from him in the future.

    Paul

  • http://www.sdmathcircle.org David W. Brown

    I have no professional connection with John Wheeler, but as for so many others, he was a source of inspiration for me. I was a budding physics undergraduate in the late 70′s when I discovered “Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler” and was so struck by what I found among its trove of pages that for a while I attempted to study General Relativity with the guidance of a patient professor.

    That interest continued long enough that I became involved briefly as a graduate student with a group searching for gravity waves. About the time my interests bent from gravitation toward other areas of physics, I had the chance to meet John Wheeler – not to become an acquaintance, but to meet the man and hear some of his views – and he inspired me again.

    The inspiration this time was different – a kind of inspiration evident in his writings, certainly, but a kind that personal interaction confirms in a way the written word cannot. John Wheeler was a man whose very personality effused wonder. I found it remarkable that a man of such experience and years – the kind who has “see it all” and “done it all” – could yet stand unjaded, with creativity and originality unblunted, and ignoring the fashions or currents of time could bridge nearly a half-century’s difference in maturity and capture the imagination of a young buck like me barely in my twenties. My own wanderings have long since take me afield, but I have not forgotten the man, nor have I let go of that sense of wonder.

    We less for his passing, but we are greater because he was here.

    Thank you, John.

    David W. Brown

  • Bob

    No offense to anyone here but Wheeler himself made the following comment in an interview which I cannot locate but will explain since it is one of the most inciteful things I ever picked up from him. He was asked by his interviewer what he was trying to pass on to his students for them to learn.

    His response was that his students never learned a thing from him. Students do not learn from teachers. They learn by teaching.

    I took that to mean that when we all turn to stand in front of a class and give a lecture there are many minds in our audience of students. The students’ viewpoints vary over a large spectrum with misinterpretations or new incites that we likely have not considered when we were students. Now, as teachers, we must consider them and be prepared to give a quantitative response if one is possible or an experiment that can realize the answer.

  • Brian

    Reminds me of Tuesday’s with Morrie

  • Rod Lloyd

    Thanks for this piece and the notification, which I hadn’t heard of. One of the greats of physics. Vale John Wheeler and thanks, from a layman. What a richness it must have been to work alongside him.

  • steve b

    I cried at this, but not for any altruistic reason. I cried because I never had anyone take that kind of interest in anything I ever did.

    You are blessed, lucky, and fortunate; be glad for what you have been given in the gift of a mentor, and much more in the gift of friendship.

  • Leonid Grishchuk

    Daniel, it is interesting what you are writing about Wheeler scratching 137 in
    fresh concrete of a sidewalk. It seems to me that people of his generation involved in the bomb making had special feelings toward the 1/137. I remember that Ya.B.Zeldovich would walk a long way in an empty cloack room to hung his coat. When I asked him what was the necessity to go so far if there were so many empty places nearby, he replied that he always uses number 137, otherwise he can forget where his coat is hunging. What do you think will be the symbol of this generation ? Cosmic variance ?

  • Samasa

    My respects.

  • Samasa

    Never mind. I stumbled upon this.
    A coincidence occurs.
    Peace.

  • http://profiles.friendster.com/norsofiahahmad Nor Sofiah Ahmad

    You are lucky, have a opportunities to knew this wonderful person .. May God bless him …

  • Elena

    i am so sorry for your personal loss, and sorry to hear of john’s passing from this world. i think you have managed to convey much more than words to describe him and your relationship with him. i am very touched and saddened, and also inspired. selfishly, i wish i could have known him too, but really, he was and is an example to us all, at least the kind of example i embrace. may we all live so fully.

  • Galaxy Line

    A GREAT MIND NEVER DIES! IT JUST CHANGES FORM!

    GET TO WORK! This would be pleasing to him…

  • Madelyn

    This made me cry.

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  • Ian

    Very well written. Interesting story, sounds like a very wonderful guy.

  • anton lahnston

    The public memorial service for Professor John A. Wheeler will take place on Monday May 12, at 10:00 a.m. in the Princeton University Chapel on the Princeton University campus.

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  • Shahriar S. Afshar

    Years ago, I met with John at an APS conference, and had a few wonderful discussions regarding General Relativity and the origin of inertia. Afterwards we had lunch together, and on the way back to the hotel I got to understand why everybody called him a “gentleman within a gentleman.” As we were walking, I was deeply engrossed in the conversation and did not realize that his observant eyes had just measured a the agony of homeless man. He abruptly stopped a few yards afterwards, and looked into his wallet. He only had twenty dollar notes. He apologized to me and moved back to the homeless man, lovingly handed him the twenty saying: “You probably need this more than I do. I know how tough life is in the streets.” and patted the man on his back. His generosity and humanity left a much deeper impression on me than his arguments for and against Mach’s Principle… I’m sure he is in good company now. May he rest in peace.

  • Mr Guido Brandt Corstius

    Sir,

    could you please fill me in about the VELOCITY of GRAVITY? We all know that time flies, but what about the speed of gravity? For example: if a couple of suns dissapear in a black hole. how fast would it influence its surroundings? I know gravity is a field. But how fasr does it travel the universe?

    Yours sincerelly,

    Guido Brandt Corstius, theacher of social science.

    Soest, The Nethetrlands

  • nagrogin

    My good man, deholz, I’m embarrassed to have stumbled upon this tribute so many weeks late.

    All the good times we had there, brothers in arms half a lifetime ago, and yet I never really got into your head about how it was, working with Johnny. Now I know, from this evocative remembrance.

    Sad to say that my chief recollection of your thesis work is that your tome was the very last submitted, the day after my second-to-last submission, both well past the department “deadline”. Slacker pride. ;)

    But here I read of an earnest young scholar, chumming around campus with a living legend of physics, working diligently at the feet of the master in close collaboration. I had no idea at all. What a blessing to have that experience as you were getting started on your career path. To say I am envious, having walked by that same door many a time but having chosen a different one, is gross understatement.

    I never got to know Johnny, but I’d like to think I got to know *you* pretty well over those four years. I’m glad for Johnny that *you* walked through his door that day. Sounds to me like you both enriched each other’s lives greatly in the years to follow. That’s a rare and special thing, for a relatively clueless 20-year old.

    Very glad that you could be with him near the end.
    I’m deeply sorry for your loss, old friend.

  • Perry Lamb

    My name is Perry A. Lamb. I am the only living brother of Willis E. Lamb Jr. and I reside in Brunswick, Maine.

    Willis and John Wheeler were among a select group of about 30 scientists who attended a conference at Shelter Island Inn on Long Island, N.Y. in June 1947. Some of these participants had already won Nobel Prizes before this meeting and others won it afterwards, including my brother Willis in 1955.

    After years of uninformed reviews of physics happenings since this meeting it has always been obvious to me that all of the attendees at this meeting could and probably should have won the big prize, including John Wheeler.

    Prior to April of this year, Wheeler and Lamb were the only Shelter Island attendees who were still living. Then, in May, John Wheeler died and then in June Willis passed away.

    John Wheeler’s summer (or retirement) residence in Maine and I often thought I would liked to have visited him and asked him to explain the Lamb Shift to me. But, alas! Tempus fugit (sp?)

    My belated sympathies to the Wheeler heirs.

    Perry Lamb palamb@gwi.net

  • Richard

    John Archibald Wheeler seems to have been a swell guy, besides being a great scientist.

    On searching about him I was amazed to learn that in 1969, at the request of Margaret Mead, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) admitted the Parapsychological Association as a member. In 1979, John Wheeler, quite rightly pointed out that parapsychology, which includes such things as “extrasensory perception”, “psychokinesis”, “divination” and “mediumship”, all of which have been thoroughly debunked, was a pseudoscience and asked them to expell the association. The AAAS refused and the Parapsychological Association remains a member of the AAAS till today!

    We could excuse some creationist institution for trying to pass off pseudoscience as science, but if the AAAS cannot distinguish between the two that does not bode well for science.

    Perhaps as a tribute to John Archibald Wheeler, eminent scientists should take up this matter with AAAS and have them expelled forthwith.

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  • Collapsar

    R.I.P.

    Black hole physics is an interesting topic. Thanks Wheeler for introducing the term “Black hole”.

  • teflonbuddha

    What a wonderful experience to have shared with such a fascinating individual.
    Thank you for sharing your story.

    p.s Who did that painting?..it’s amazing!

  • The Kid

    My stepmother, Karen, adored Dr. Wheeler. She worked as caretaker to him and his wife when they stayed at their summer home in Maine. This was when they were both in their nineties. I was fortunate enough to meet him and shake his hand, though I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say to the author of such intellectually charged books as Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam. So he graciously accepted my cliched “an honor to meet you sir” babble. For the record, he experienced remorse for his hand in the Manhattan Project. Karen had the good fortune to talk to Mr. Wheeler about such things. May he continue to explore all that is quantum in a new dimension.

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  • carl

    That was beautifull man

  • http://www.onlinedocumentaries4u.com/ Scott

    Beautiful…thank you.

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    Встраиваемая бытовая техника, стиральные машины, портативная техника, аудио-видео, варочные поверхности.

  • Muthiah

    RIP

  • Robert Schmieder

    As a physics graduate student, I only dreamed of pursuing relativity, and my career went along other lines. But John Wheeler’s ideas were so compelling and so exciting they pulled me back again and again, to read with amazement, a thrilling ride when I felt mired in prosaic routine. It was like soaring, the feeling that there was another dimension. After I heard him lecture in Berkeley, I always thought I would drop by his office to express my appreciation for enriching my life. Now all that will have to wait, but for those who also remember him, we share the reverence for his gift to our intellectual potential, and will not forget that he was one who really counted.

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  • yonason

    I never met the man, but through Feynman’s work I was influenced by him in ways I can’t describe. Suffice it to say that I owe him a debt I will be hard pressed to repay. May he rest in peace, and may G-d give him ample reward for his commitment to the unending search for Truth.

  • http://www.asimages.com gilles massot

    Thanks for this very touching tribute. Great men leaves an imprint that transcend time and space and this is pretty much what can be felt in your write-up.

    Wheeler’s portrait is beautiful. Would you happen to know the artist?

    thanks

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