The measure of a man

By Daniel Holz | April 21, 2009 9:13 am

John Archibald Wheeler embodied the golden age of physics. He was perhaps unique in having made foundational contributions to both pillars of modern physics: quantum mechanics and general relativity. He helped develop the theory of nuclear fission, and then was an important participant in the Manhattan project. He discussed quantum mechanics with Bohr, relativity with Einstein, and electrodynamics with his student, Feynman. One of Wheeler’s particularly nice calculations (on asymmetrical nuclei) got scooped because Bohr sat on it too long. The person that scooped them, James Rainwater, subsequently won the Nobel prize for the result. In Feynman’s Nobel lecture, he credits Wheeler with many of the key insights. Wheeler mentored over one hundred students, and those students (and grand-students) now populate leading physics departments throughout the world. In addition to his facility with physics, Wheeler displayed a wondrous command over language. His career is partially encapsulated in his coinages: wormhole, black hole, the planck length and time, quantum foam, the sum over histories, the S-matrix, It from Bit, the wavefunction of the Universe.

john wheeler

John Wheeler passed away almost exactly a year ago. In commemoration of his tremendous contributions to physics, the current edition of Physics Today (the monthly magazine of the American Physical Society) is dedicated entirely to his memory. [Sadly, only select articles are public, which I find incomprehensible.] The issue includes an article on Wheeler’s early work on particles (written by Ken Ford), as well as one on his later work on fields, gravity, and information (by Charlie Misner, Kip Thorne, and Wojciech Zurek). There are also two reprints of articles authored by Wheeler, one on nuclear fission (describing his pioneering work with Niels Bohr), and one “introducing” black holes (written with Remo Ruffini). As a sign of Wheeler’s enduring legacy, the magazine ends with an article (by Terry Christensen) focused on his tremendous mentorship.

It is impossible to summarize Wheeler’s impact, both as a physicist and as a human being. How do you reduce someone to a few paragraphs, or a few articles, or a few interviews? Wheeler was unique in his insight, his breadth, his generosity, and his humanity. For those that were fortunate enough to spend time with him, he left an indelible mark. As one of Wheeler’s students put it in the acknowledgment to their thesis:

It is a pleasure to acknowledge the tremendous support and encouragement given to me by John A. Wheeler. Over the last two years he has introduced me to the world of physics research and shaped the way I think about physics. I have benefited greatly, both as a physicist and as a person, from his example, and will carry this with me always. John Wheeler has had a profound impact on my life and I am deeply indebted.

I wrote that over 15 years ago, and it is no less true today.

  • Sean

    Someone will undoubtedly say it, so I might as well: I’m pretty sure Einstein made foundational contributions to both gravity and QM as well. But it’s an elite group!

    Great to see the commemorative issue of Physics Today, it’s well deserved. I didn’t know Wheeler well, but I remember visiting one of the lunches at the Institute for Advanced Study that John Bahcall would oversee, where everyone at the large table would tell something about their recent research. Wheeler would move his seat from place to place to be close to whoever was speaking, so that he made sure not to miss anything. An amazing man.

  • daniel

    Right. That Einstein character did some pretty good stuff.

  • John Farrell

    I envy you. I’ve met Stephen Jay Gould and Owen Gingerich but never got to meet Wheeler.

  • Tod R. Lauer

    “wondrous command over language” -> All I remember from the movie, “A Brief History of Time,” is Wheeler’s eloquent description of the gravitational influence of black holes, despite their “blackness,” a very tricky concept to get a across to the public, which often wonders if we can’t see them, how we know they’re there. Wheeler described a Grand Ball with women dressed in white and the men in black. The dancing begins, and the lights are turned down. One can no longer see the men, but women are still visible twirling about them… So it is with the stars that surround black holes at the centers of galaxies.

  • Ellipsis

    Zel’dovich is another example.

  • Sili

    I’m quite jealous.

    Of his intellect and of his students.

  • Tszap

    Daniel, I’m assuming this was an undergraduate thesis you did with Wheeler since I don’t recall him hanging around Chicago. I’m very impressed that at 80+ he was willing to devote such time not only to students but to undergraduates!

  • tm

    on foundational contributions to qm
    and gr, of course einstein was no piker,
    and gamow too…

  • Cyber Buck

    Never heard of the guy.

  • Successful Researcher

    Great post! Thanks!

  • Geometrick

    Hey Sean,

    Great post about John Wheeler. I highly recommend people read his biography “Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam.” I’m merely a student, but from what I have heard, John Wheeler always treated his students and colleagues with a measure of respect and dignity. This is not something that always happens in the academic world and John Wheeler should be applauded for his huge positive impact on his students.

  • Sean

    Thanks, but Daniel gets the credit for the post!

  • John T. Scott

    Just a detail: Physics Today is the monthly magazine of the American Institute of Physics, not the American Physical Society. (I was Managing Editor there from around 1968 to 1980, when I moved over to the journals. AIP journals, that is.)


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