DOCUMENTS OF THE GENERAL FACULTY
REPORT OF THE MEMORIAL RESOLUTION COMMITTEE FOR
JOHN A. WHEELER
The special committee of the General Faculty to prepare a memorial resolution for John A. Wheeler, professor emeritus, physics, has filed with the secretary of the General Faculty the following report.
Sue Alexander Greniger, Secretary, The General Faculty
JOHN A. WHEELER
John Archibald Wheeler had an extraordinary life as a distinguished scientist, citizen, family man, teacher, and peerless mentor. Those who came in contact with him were impressed with the intensity of his dedication, the rigor of his analysis, and the depth of his questioning. He died at his home in Hightstown, New Jersey, on April 13, 2008, at age ninety-six.
Wheeler was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on July 9, 1911. Growing up, he liked tinkering and mathematics. He received his Ph.D. in Physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1933 under the direction of the eminent physicist Karl F. Herzfeld. At Johns Hopkins, he used the then-new framework of quantum mechanics to study scattering and absorption of light by helium atoms. He began his postgraduate work with a National Research Council Fellowship, taking a first year with Gregory Breit at New York University and then a second year with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. Upon his return to the United States, he married Janette Latourette Zabriskie Hegner, with whom he remained married for seventy-two years. She died a few months before him. He is survived by three children: Letitia Wheeler Ufford of Princeton, James English Wheeler of Ardmore (Pennsylvania), and Alison Wheeler Lahnston of Princeton, as well as eight grandchildren, six stepgrandchildren, six great grandchildren, and eleven step-great grandchildren.
In 1935, Professor Wheeler joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina. Three years later, he moved to Princeton University, where he stayed much of the rest of his life. At Princeton, he was the Joseph Henry Professor and later Joseph Henry Professor Emeritus.
Nuclear physics dominated Dr. Wheeler's early career. He invented the notion of the scattering S-matrix in 1937. He was one of the first people in the world to hear about nuclear fission when Niels Bohr visited Princeton in 1939. In the same year, he co-authored, with Bohr, a pioneering paper on the liquid-drop model of the nucleus, which provided a theoretical understanding of nuclear fission. Wheeler worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, in particular on the design and operation of the reactors at Hanford, Washington, which produced plutonium. He continued his service to the government after the war, at Los Alamos from 1950 to 1952, as chairman of the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense in 1958, and in work on the hydrogen bomb under the auspices of Project Matterhorn at Princeton. In the wake of the launch of Sputnik in 1957, he advocated the consultation of scientists on important defense issues, first in what he termed Project 137 (named for the inverse of the fine structure constant) and then in what evolved into JASON, an institution that still operates today. He did not cease his work on fundamental questions in nuclear and particle physics, and he was instrumental in starting a cosmic ray laboratory at Princeton.
In 1952, Wheeler began work in a new direction. He turned his attention to what was then a backwater, the notions of curved space and time in Einstein's general theory of relativity. Wheeler's attention revitalized the field, both theoretically and as an experimental science, and helped to bring about the golden age of relativity, during which Princeton and Texas were two of the major recognized centers. He carried out seminal work on ultra-heavy stars and on the final stages of stellar evolution and introduced exotic structures, such as geons and wormholes, which have continued to fascinate theorists.
Upon retiring from Princeton in 1976 Wheeler joined the faculty of The University of Texas at Austin, where he founded the Center for Theoretical Physics. He was the Jane and Roland Blumberg Professor of Physics and Ashbel Smith Professor. During this time, his attention shifted from the fields of general relativity to issues of
information and the quantum. His ability to state fundamental conundrums succinctly stimulated a great deal of thinking and commentary on the most profound problems facing physics. It was during this time that his "delayed choice" experiment on the collapse of the quantum wave function was performed by colleagues at Texas A&M University. From this time also came seeds of the understanding of quantum demolition, the transition from quantum to classical behavior in ever-larger systems. Wheeler returned to Princeton in 1986 and was named emeritus on his retirement from UT Austin.
Throughout his career, Wheeler regarded teaching and mentoring younger people as a critical aspect of his life. He left a cadre of famous students. With Richard Feynman, he developed key ideas concerning positrons and electrodynamics. With Kip Thorne, he brought new life to studies of neutron stars and black holes. The famous textbook, Gravitation, by Charles Misner, Thome, and Wheeler has been a classic since its publication in 1973. Other general relativists who studied with Wheeler at Princeton include Jacob Bekenstein and William Unruh. While he was Wheeler's student at Princeton, Hugh Everett formulated the "many worlds" approach to the interpretation of measurements in quantum mechanics, which has become increasingly influential. Among the graduate students supervised by Wheeler at the University of Texas at Austin were Wojciech Zurek, a pioneer in the development of the idea of decoherence in quantum mechanics, and William Wootters, who has made important contributions to quantum information theory.
In addition to his deep understanding of physics and concern for guiding students, Wheeler had a remarkable talent for wordsmithing. Although he did not invent the phrase, he was responsible for promoting the term "black hole," which both stimulated research and has become an iconic phrase in modem culture. He also famously invented the phrase "worm hole," which has also long since been assimilated into popular thought. Less well known, but still powerfully influential, were the phrases Planck length, time and mass, and "quantum foam," notions that remain central to the quest for rigorous theory of quantum gravity. He summarized general relativity with the phrase "matter tells space how to curve and curved space tells matter how to move." He captured the profoundly simple essence of black holes with the phrase "a black hole has no hair." He defined the fundamental issues involved in existence in terms of information, "it from bit." And he commented, "topology is too important to be left to the mathematicians."
Wheeler published ten books as well as a voluminous record of research papers. He received many awards, among which were the Cressy-Morrison Prize of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1946; the Enrico Fermi Award of the U.S. Energy Research and Development Agency, 1968; the Franklin Medal of the Franklin Institute, 1969; the Einstein Medal, 1969; the National Medal of Science, 1971; the Herzfeld Award, 1975; the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal, 1982; the Oersted Medal, 1983; the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize, 1984; the Wolf Prize in Physics, 19CJ7; and fourteen honorary doctoral degrees from universities throughout the world. His teaching skills are attested by the following: the "Outstanding Graduate Teacher" award, the University of Texas, 1981; the Moni Ferst Award from Georgia Tech, 1981; the outstanding quality of his several texts and monographs; and, above all, the accomplishments of his many students.
In 1998, Wheeler co-wrote with Kenneth Ford a remarkable autobiography, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics. A special memorial issue of Physics Today was devoted to Wheeler in April 2009. In 1986, on the occasion of John A. Wheeler's retirement from teaching, the University of Texas at Austin established an endowment for graduate fellowships in physics. At the time of his death, in recognition of his contributions to the United States, to Texas, to the University of Texas, and to science, the University named the largest lecture hall in the building housing the departments of physics, astronomy, and mathematics in his honor: The John A. Wheeler Lecture Hall.
This memorial resolution was prepared by a special committee consisting of Professor Steven Weinberg (chair),
Austin M. Gleeson, and J. Craig Wheeler.
Distributed to the dean of the College of Natural Sciences on July 26,2011, and posted under "Memorials" at:
Charles Misner, Kip Thorne, and Wojciech Zurek wrote an excellent tribute to John Wheeler in Physics Today.
John, Robert and Joe Wheeler putting finishing touches on paper mache ballon, July 1941, Wheeler Camp, Benson, Vermont.
Wheeler Family, Benson, Vermont, 1960s
Back Row: John, Marjorie, Beth, Robin, Tita, Alison, Janette, Robert
Seated: Mabel, Joseph and Mary Beavin
Children Front Row: Daniel, Lee, Barbara and Joe Beavin
Wheeler Reunion, Benson, Vermont, 2003
Left to Right: John & Paula Wheeler (Jamie Wheeler's oldest son). Ella (baby). Daughter Rowan on one side of John.
Frances Ruml (Alison’s daughter). black and white blouse. Married but not sure last name. Probably her daughter? On one side of John.
Alison Lahnston (John’s daughter) with headband.
John Wheeler seated
Letitia and Charlie Ufford (John’s daughter) blue blouse and green shirt
Jamie & Gee (Jenette) Wheeler (John’s son), Blue Wheeler Reunion T-shirts
Robert & Nives Wheeler with baby Thomas (Robert is Jamie’s son)
John's brother, Robert Reid Wheeler
When his party came on the line, the normally soft-spoken Wheeler exuberantly announced: ”I’m in the clear!”
After almost 50 years of teaching physics at the University of Texas and Princeton University, Wheeler still keeps to a schedule that would exhaust younger men. “I don’t know what retirement really means for him.” “ He’s at the office every day.”
Wheeler, the author of nine books reflecting the diversity of his scientific career, is not one to rest on the laurels he has accumulated since receiving his doctorate in physics at the age of 22. Among other things, he is working on a 10th book.
I try to keep going,” he explained “We’ve only got so much time in the world.”
Wheeler is one of the architects of modern physics. He helped lay the theoretical foundation for the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb and nuclear reactors. He pioneered work on quasars and coined such terms as “worm hole” and “black hole” to describe some of nature’s most esoteric phenomena.
After almost a decade of teaching and research at UT-Austin Wheeler had a heart bypass operation at Seton Medical Center in the spring of 1986. Although he said it left him feeling “ready for another hundred thousand miles,” he retired soon after the operation, Now, he and his wife, Janette, are leaving Austin on February 20 to return to the East Coast
“Our children have been beating on us to come back,” Wheeler said. “You don’t last forever. There’ll be a time when only one of us is left.”
The Wheelers will live in a private retirement community in eastern Pennsylvania, not far form Princeton, which is across the Delaware River in New Jersey. Wheeler taught physics at Princeton for 38 years before coming to UT.
The Wheelers came to Texas in 1976, after he was invited to join the UT faculty. He was then bumping up against the mandatory retirement age at Princeton. UT has no mandatory retirement age.
“The way to keep young is to keep going,: he told the American-Statesman soon after his arrival in Austin.
At the age when others gladly retire, Wheeler kept young by directing UT’s Center for Theoretical Physics. He also taught graduate courses in physics and a popular course for non-science majors.
"Johnny is one of the great figures of American physics,” said UT Chancellor Hans Mark. “He’s unusual because he teaches well. He communicates an infectious enthusiasm.”
Wheeler turns the lesson around giving the credit to his students. “We can learn so much from freshmen," he said recently with a quiet chuckle. “They know what the answer ought to be, so they figure out how to get there. And, as the old lady said: :How can I know what I think until I hear what I say? I need to teach.”
Wheeler’s need proved a blessing to Texas. His mere presence brought UT and its physics department new respect in the competitive academic world.
“Johnny gave us a great deal of credibility,” said Griffy, who was chairman of the physics department when Wheeler came to Austin.
“He made recruiting new faculty a much easier task. And he was always helpful in those recruiting efforts and in promoting the careers of younger faculty through his contacts in the physics community. Unselfish is the word that fits him best.”
Wheeler’s generous nature is evident in his demeanor. A short man, he looks dignified and almost aloof when his features are in repose. But the smile wrinkles around his eyes are seldom relaxed.
His playfulness is mutely illustrated by three pieces of paper pinned above a world map in his outer office. The papers are filled with mathematical equations but they are folded into the shapes of airplanes.
Wheeler’s many admirers cite his intellectual diversity. One of his favorite non-scientific subjects is 16th-century Chinese poetry. Prompted, he recalled, by a father’s poem on the birth of a child.
"I pray that he may be stupid," Wheeler recited, " because I, through intelligence, ruined my whole life.'" With stupidity, Wheeler concluded gleefully, the child " ‘can be made a Cabinet minister.' " Though the mathematics is beyond them, laymen often find Wheeler engaging because he talks in pictures, even when describing difficult scientific ideas.
He likens nuclear fission, for example, to a slowly dripping water faucet whose drops are first flat and then bulging. Finally, they break off the lip of the faucet and, as they fall, break into more drops. That, he said, is what happens when a uranium atom splits and neutrons break away in the chain-reaction that can drive electric turbines or unleash Armageddon.
"To me," he said, "the picture comes first and, then, the mathematics?
His phrase, black hole—to describe a theoretical collapsed star whose gravitational pull is so strong that even light cannot escape it—has virtually become a household word.
But his phrase "worm hole" still is obscure to non-scientists. He devised the concept in the mid-1950s to describe microscopic tunnels leading from one part of the universe to another through the foam-like structure of space and time." These worm holes are always being created and disappearing," he said. "Like the surface of your beer or a bubble bath."
Other scientists have developed detailed mathematical formulations of this space foam. That is the way Wheeler works—stimulating others in scientific exploration of concepts he has theorized.
One of his most famous students still feels a debt to his teacher. Physicist Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1977 and was perhaps the most colorful member of the Presidential Commission investigating the explosion of the spaces shuttle Challenger. "I was very lucky when I got to Princeton in 1940 and was Wheeler’s research assistant," Feynman said. "You might say that my success was a result of things I learned from him."
Indeed, in accepting his Nobel, Feynman told the audience that a main feature of his winning idea came during a telephone conversation with Wheeler.
Wheeler also helped Feynman in a more pedestrian way. It happened when Feynman attended a physics conference at Lakeway, the resort community on Lake Travis a few years ago. Feynman is something of an eccentric, and he balked at the hotel room to which he had been assigned, although no others were available.
"It was too much for me," he recalled. "Too fancy and elegant? So the professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology decided to sleep on the ground outside the hotel. "I’m a big fool, but I enjoy life," Feynman explained. "It was sort of ‘deserty’ out there. I hadn’t expected it to get so cold, and I had to get a sweater out of my suitcase." Finally, Wheeler was summoned to rescue Feynman from the cold. "One of the biggest regrets of my life," Feynman said, "is that I’m not as nice as he is. I feel bad because I don’t invite students to my house much or have the natural relations that he has with students."
Wheeler’s generosity has caused him problems. There is the continuing fallout from his cooperation with Reader’s Digest for an article in the September 1986 issue entitled: "Inside the Mind of John Wheeler." The article paid due tribute to Wheeler’s genius: his involvement in most of the major speculations and discoveries of a half century of physics and his receipt of most of the field’s major awards. But the article also emphasized Wheeler’s current fascination with the "anthropic principle" — without including any of his doubts about it. The popular version of the principle revives the ancient idea that humans are the focus of all creation and the Earth is at the center of the universe—challenging no less an institution than the idea first proposed by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th century that the Earth merely is one planet among equals.
On the microscopic scale, Wheeler said, the laws of quantum physics agree that there could be nothing to observe without an observer. But to generalize that to a universal scale is to great a leap for science. "We don’t know enough to do that," he said. "But I never believe anything 100 percent. Only 50 to 80 percent so I can explore it. It’s a most marvelous and mysterious world." The Reorders Digest article, however, strongly implied that Wheeler had found a link between theology and science. Five months later, the mail is still arriving at his campus office.
"Because of what he wasn’t quoted saying, we’re getting a lot of crackpot mail and calls," said Zelda Davis who has been Wheeler’s administrative assistant at UT for the past eight years.
Wheeler did not read the Readers Digest article ("I find it better not to look," he said sheepishly) and he seems worried only about how to answer the mail. "There’s all kinds of letters," he said. "You feel you’re really in touch with America. A farmer in Iowa. A 13-year-old boy in Ohio. And, now, we’re getting them from Sweden and Norway." Davis plans to go on handling the mail after Wheeler leaves Austin. "He will not stop doing physics," she said. "And I'm really going to miss him. So we hope to maintain his office here." As for the naturalized Texan himself, Wheeler said he will miss UT. "I feel very lucky to be here," he said. "It has a great present and a great future."
“We will first understand how simple the universe is when we recognize how strange it is.” –John Archibald Wheeler.
Who is John Archibald Wheeler and what is he doing here?
Chances are you’ve never heard of Wheeler, although he's regarded as one of the architects of modern physics. A modest genius whose name is legend among other physical scientists, Wheeler's 40 years of contributions to man's knowledge of the universe have gone largely unrecognized by the general public.
"In field after field, he has generated the key concepts that have been used by others," says John Toll, another eminent physicist who is president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook
"Many of those who later work in these fields do not know that it was John Wheeler who started them, because his great modesty, informality and continual willingness to give credit to others have often effaced his own germinal role."
Now 65, an age when most of his colleagues are ensconced in comfortable retirement, Wheeler has pulled up stakes at Princeton University, where he taught since 1933, and is starting all over again at the University of Texas.
"The way to keep young is to keep going," Wheeler said this week in his simple way. "It's a great thing to start a new project."
At UT, where the physics department is still thrilled with its good fortunate landing him Wheeler will head a new center for relativistic astrophysics and quantum cosmology. It will be similar in size and function to UT's Center for Relativity Theory, directed by Wheeler's friend and physics professor, Al Schild.
His work so far has given him plenty of laurels to rest on, if he wanted to. It was Wheeler and Danish physicist Neils Bohr who figured out the theory of nuclear fission, laying the theoretical groundwork for the development of the atomic bomb and nuclear reactors. He was a progenitor of the dispersion-theoretic approach to elementary particle physics. He invented the collision matrix in quantum physics and, in the field ol astrophysics, pioneered knowledge about quasars and “black holes" (collapsed stars).
Maybe that doesn't mean much to you or me, but it's there in the physics textbooks and encyclopedias. Wheeler has received the Einstein Medal, the Fermi Award. the Franklin Medal and the National Medal of Science; he seems only to be lacking Nobel Prize, but one of his students won that in 1965.
The amazing thing about John Wheeler is not what he's done, but that he continues to do it. "It’s unusual to find someone who's been around so long and is still as active as he is." said physics department chairman Tom Griffy.
Wheeler said he was attracted to UT by the people he would he working with and the states; "dynamic" atmosphere.
“There's real future here. I don'1 know of any bigger center for relativity than here in Austin," he said. "There's an atmosphere you can sense—in other places one gets a feeling of discouragement; here there's a can-do attitude."
Recognized as one of the country's outstanding teachers of physics, Wheeler was lured to Texas because he can teach two years longer at UT (until age 70) than at Princeton, where the mandatory retirement age is 63.
“Teaching is like taking your case before a jury." he said. "If you don’t have any jury, how are you going to try your case?"
THIS SEMESTER, Wheeler is teaching two graduate seminar courses; unlike countless professors of lesser stature who are picky about what and how much they teach, Wheeler seems willing to try anything. At Princeton, the world-renowned physicist taught a popular undergraduate course specially designed for non-science majors. Griffy said Wheeler is interested in doing the same thing at UT.
"There's a saying that universities have students to teach and faculty to learn," Wheeler said. "If one is tuned into the student and the problems of the student, you find yourself working out an explanation along lines you never thought of before."
A small, still handsome man with a gentle manner and a shy laugh, 'Wheeler sat attentively through an hour-long interview in his office dominated by a huge, old-fashioned dining table which is his desk. He apologized for the disarray of unpacked boxes. explaining he had not finished moving.
He grew pensive when asked about his key role in the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima in 1945. After the war,he also formed Project Matterhorn at Princeton. which conducted classified government research on thermonuclear devices.
The gentle Wheeler is now on the national advisory committee on arms control and disarmament, a service he said he undertook to “pay for past crimes" - a wry reference to his government research.
However his pensiveness does not stem from the nature of his work, much of which is still secret, but because it was not accomplished sooner.
“I have a very great feeling of sadness that I, at the age of 23. didn't take a stronger stand on things myself, " he said. He explained that at that time, in 1939, he and Niels Bohr were working on nuclear fission and it was clear they had the key to the bomb.
Wheeler now reasons that if their research had been speeded up and a nuclear device dropped on Germany several years before Hiroshima, the deaths of millions in World War Il, including his own brother, might have been avoided.
“If I had taken the bull by the horns and talked to the people in Washington, we could have ended the war sooner," he said. " I feel very remiss on that score."
On the shelves of his office in neatly labeled boxes are the chapters of an unwritten book, the paper trail of his lifelong search for the elusive answers to grand questions beyond the cataclysm of the bomb. What Wheeler has spent a lifetime wanting to know is stunning in its simplicity; Exactly how did the world begin and how will it all end?
'The words I've found to best describe it are ‘The Gates of Time.' "said Wheeler. A title for his book? He nodded.
“You see first we have the ‘big bang' at the start (the theory of the sudden beginning of all matter), then there‘s the black hole (a collapsed star mass which produces gravitational pull and then the collapse of the universe itself," he mused.
It was comforting to hear that someone had it all figured out—until Wheeler added with a smile, “We don't have the slightest idea of how things came into being or how they'll end."
The conversation turned to Bohr, the father of quantum mechanics, and Albert Einstein, the father of relativity.
As he talked, Wheeler brought out a framed photograph of the craggy-faced Bohr, his mentor and inspiration.
Wheeler’s own penchant for mining new knowledge, then moving on to something else, has made him a rarity in the scientific world: a dilettante among specialists.
“We have some real stars, but Wheeler brings to the faculty a broad-gauged knowledge of physics and a kind of historical perspective I don't think we have had before," said Griffy.
His sweeping grasp of physics and teaching talents are such that he has been approached to narrate an education TV program similar to the late Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man series.
Wheeler said he turned it down: "1 didn’t want to get involved in that."
But why not? Wouldn't it be interesting?
Wheeler lifted his gaze from Bohr‘s portrait and flashed the knowing smile of one who has probed the mysteries of the universe. 'There are too many interesting things in this world. ‘I'hat's the trouble with it"
From the Dallas Morning News, January 7, 1979
(Transcribed by Lois Mallory.)
Theoretical physics John Archibald Wheeler, who has enjoyed more than 40 years at the top of his rarified profession, likes to recall that the two titans of modern science, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, once bickered over the central issues of the universe--"the greatest thought"--as Einstein lounged in his Princeton, N.J., study, stark naked.
Wheeler, himself a frontiersman of nuclear technology, remembers well an icy January day in 1939, when he greeted his mentor, Bohr, fresh off the boat from Copenhagen. Huddled together on a bleak New York pier, they began to construct the definitive theory of fission, harbinger of the hydrogen bomb.
The two physicists moved from the pier to the library, where—most humdrum of occupations—they looked up "fission" in the dictionary.
The noun is all right," Wheeler has said. "But there is no good verb. A nucleus 'fissions' is not a very nice verb, but we stayed with 'fission' in spite of that.") Something of a wordsmith and something of a poet—though he'd say he is merely a writer of "lines"—Wheeler is responsible for the term, "black hole," two words that revolutionized the scientific community's perception of what are now believed to be dead stars, so massive and dense that they collapse into an awesome distortion of matter, space and time.)
One of Wheeler's several disciples, Richard Feynman, on receiving the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965, remembered another ordinary incident that led to an important finding. Feynman was sitting at the Nassau Tavern in (again) Princeton when Herbert Jehle, a physicist newly arrived from Europe, sat down beside him.
"What are you doing?" Jehle asked him, obviously expecting a catalogue of Feynman's scientific endeavors. "I'm drinking beer," Feynman replied. The next day, after this auspicious beginning, the two discovered something about the Langrangian equation that, however inaccessible to average minds, was sufficiently impressive to make Professor Jehle's eyes bug out.
Science--Wheeler says today in his office at the University of Texas atAustin, compact hands clasped in front of his compact body--is the supremely collaborative enterprise. "The scientific community is very remarkable that way," he says, speaking softly and slowly, at times almost inaudibly. Photographs of his old friends, Einstein and Bohr, hang prominently in his book-and-box-filled study that smells vaguely of First Quality Dustless Chalk chalk dust.
"In a class," Wheeler says, "it's not so much the teacher confronting his students; they're both confronting the problem . . . You try everything you can, get every lead you can, go around and ask everybody you can. It's wonderful how helpful people will be if you really put the problem up to them." He hesitates, then flashes a kindly smile. "There's that nice phrase of Einstein's, and his definition of a scientist. A scientist, Einstein said, is an unscrupulous opportunist."
Wheeler, who might insist he is the most unscrupulous opportunist of them all, erupts in laughter. But that description of Wheeler the physicist, left by itself, would neglect justice.
Says Feynman, a star in the California Institute of Technology's physics department who served long ago as Wheeler's Princeton University research assistant, "It's hard to explain, and it may sound a little cruel, but he has the childlike naivet´´, an originality of thought that is very different from other ways of thinking. He's had a great influence on people—particularly students with whom he has worked closely—and they are permanently changed by him."
Kip Thorne, a more recent Wheeler collaborator who also teaches at Caltech, goes a bit further: "He teaches people how to have a deep physical and intuitive insight into the world around us, how to guess in advance. He uses example, parable and analogy in much the same way as Jesus Christ did."
John Wheeler, who ended a 38-year career at Princeton, at the age of 65, to establish UT's Center for Theoretical Physics in 1976, probably would cringe at such comparisons. But it isn't hard to see that he, too, has a strong sense of mission., born of a centuries-old tradition of science. It falls under the general category of truth-seeking and truth-telling, and it is not limited to the technical world of science.
There was a time in the early 1960s, during the height of the Cold War, when Wheeler, the most of polite and amiable of men, became a reluctant warrior. "I found that getting fallout shelters sold at Princeton was quite an experience, but we did get them sold," says Wheeler, who first aided American nuclear weapons development, then fortified his Princeton home against the looming apocalypse. "Some of my colleagues, my best friends, were arguing strongly on the other side. So I had to debate them publicly."
For the benefit of undergraduates taking his elementary physics course, Great Men, Great Moments, Great Ideas,Wheeler includes pithy quotations in the mimeo
graphed homework assignments, and instructs them to summarize their papers at the beginning in a concise "Einstein sentence."
A recent Wheeler handout to undergraduates contained the thought of Confucius ("Those who know the truth are not equal to those who love it") and John Locke ("The love of truth for truth's sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.")
Wheeler gives his electrodynamics graduate students pages and pages of complex equations but few maxims, comforting them with the observation that he, too, has trouble with the problems at hand.
Displaying charity not generally associated with august professors, Wheeler tells his undergraduates the same thing. When a question to his elementary class meets with embarrassed silence, Wheeler says, "It took me some time to see my way through this problem, so don't feel uncomfortable."
Whatever the problem, Wheeler's approach is the same: first come up with a solution, then bother with calculations. A graduate student asks Wheeler to sign a petition alleging the awful condition of UT's physics library and gets in response a polite rebuff, an instructive anecdote about Gen. George Marshall and a lecture on the methodology of accomplishment. "If you don't have a solution, you can't be very interested in solving the problem," Wheeler tells his momentarily stunned--and infinitely wiser--pupil.
A typical Austin day begins early in the morning for Wheeler, who appears in UT's Robert L. Moore science tower dressed in an immaculate blue blazer.
Before the day ends, he will have stuck to a schedule that sorely tests the stamina of someone a third his age—two classes and three private tutorials; a spirited if arcane dialectic with several professors at lunch; a lecture concerning density matrices by his good friend, Nobel Laureate Eugene P. Wigner; as many out-of-town phone chats with several physicist around the country ("Well, run this through your computer" he exhorts Harvard's Steven Weinberg, author of a book about the first three minutes of creation, as they try to arrange a social visit)—all of it punctuated by Wheeler's quantum leaps up and down back stairwells in the science building.
By evening, when Wheeler is ready to join his wife for dinner, the blue blazer is streaked and smudged with chalk; the middle button is missing. Next morning, the button miraculouslyh as reappeared and the blazer again is immaculate.
"Sitting in an armchair, sipping sherry and reading might be very pleasant for an hour, but I don't think anybody would like to do it day after day," Wheeler says about the pace of his life. "Somehow, things have to be striven for.
"When a person is young, he dates time from the beginning of his existence, and when he's older, he dates time from when his existence will end. And there's a feeling that time is precious, that every day is a gift."
Wheeler, early on, demonstrated a talent for science (a talent so rare, he sometimes likens the scientific community to King Arthur's Roundtable, though he adds: "just because he works with protons and electrons doesn't mean a scientist is equipped to utter wise words about people and philosophies"). Fascinated by gadgetry, the Florida-born Wheeler played house on end by whittling wooden machines--intricate automatic pistols, combination locks and, once, a calculator replete with gears and buttons--graduating to the dissection of his mother's washing machine, and earning extra money in Mexico by rewinding electric motors. By the time he was 22, Wheeler had his doctorate in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
I don't think it would be possible for anybody to work very effectively at some of the things I've been occupied with unless he had a sound record of working with practical things," says Wheeler, whose current pursuits--the exploration of how supposedly immutable physical laws came into being--fall somewhere between hard science and philosophy.
There are so many young people who think they can immediately become Einstein. Well, even Einstein didn't become Einstein immediately." (Wheeler, who sees himself and all scientists as part of an historical continuum, will, in March, appear in a Public Broadcasting Service documentary commemorating Einstein's 100th birthday.)
Wheeler's career after Johns Hopkins, especially at Princeton, earned him medals enough, including the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award for his work on nuclear fission, presented to him by London Johnson during a ceremony at the White House. His Who's Who listing--which, in keeping with Wheeler's fondness for paradox, ends with the quote, "Only when we recognize how strange the universe is will we understand how simple it is," is among the lengthiest in the volume.
Wheeler’s autobiographical sketch encapsulates the most exotic issues of science and technology:
In nuclear physics, his principal work has been concerned with the alpha-particle model; nuclear reactions; resonating group structure; introduction of the scattering matrix; the mechanism of fission (1938 with Niels Bohr), the design, control safety and xenon of plutonium productions reactors (during the war at Chicago, Wilmington and Hanford and later for the U. S. Reactor Safeguard Committee); the design of thermonuclear devices (at Los Alamos 1950, and for Los Alamos, in charge of Project Matterhorn at Princeton 1951-53; and collective model of the nucleus. More recently, he has been occupied with gravitation physics, gravitational collapse, geons, neutron stars, black holes...
On hearing about his principal work, one marvels that Wheeler finds time to get to the secondary stuff. To say nothing of his voracious reading (he and his wife, Janette, are history buffs), testimony before congressional committees, lecture tours, physical society meetings, the demanding business of teaching and the all-important enterprise of promoting science—most of which survives in the United States at the pleasure of the taxpayers—to the public. But such is the lot of the scientist in general.
"I always wish we had one of those old-fashioned washing machine wringers around here, so we can squeeze people out and get everything we can," Wheeler says wistfully about his Center for Theoretical Physics. "Unhappily, we don't."
Squeezing himself to the limit, Wheeler currently is trying to puzzle out the central issues of quantum mechanics, the study of how subatomic particles interact according to physics laws. It turns out that merely by measuring the actions of these particles, the basis of all matter, one inevitable affects the outcome of their actions.
Wheeler calls this troubling phenomenon, which makes it impossible to monitor the events of nature with complete detachment, "observer-participancy," and says the laws of the universe "came into being through billions of acts of observer-participancy."
Over an ordinary lunch of salad and frigid macaroni, Eugene Wigner, a Hungarian-turned-American who spearheaded the famous Manhattan project which produced the atom bomb, recently put aside his normally gentle demeanor to engage Wheeler in a heated debate over the validity of quantum mechanics.
At no time were the two on the verge of blows. But their discussion, before an audience of several awe-struck college professors (most of them non-scientists), made sparks fly in a sedate, private dining room at the faculty club. "Eugene," Wheeler said, "if I can put words in your mouth, you say no observation is an observation until the result enters the consciousness. In Bohr--"
"What did he say?" Wigner taunted. "I never saw a great statement on the part of Bohr."
"Well," Wheeler started patiently, ignoring his salad, "no observation is an observation until the process in question has been brought to completion by the action of the measuring device. He talks always of measuring devices and, in that respect, he leaves out the human element. But in another respect, he enters it more powerfully than you do because he, instead of talking of one person and one consciousness, says no observation is an observation until one can communicate the result to another in plain language. Which is something that doesn't enter, as you've put it."
Wigner smiled. “With which I agree, but the first part is not clear to me. What does it mean? Does it mean that to put it in Johnny’s words, that the wave function has already collapsed?” "It means," Johnny Wheeler said with a pained exhalation, "that the process has been brought to completion by an irreversible act of amplification, the Geiger counter going off, the photographic plate graying."
"But the geiger counter," Wigner said triumphantly, "does not obey the laws of quantum mechanics!"
“Wheeler frowned. “Well, the idea of describing the process by quantum mechanical analysis doesn’t formally apply, but Bohr always talks of the idea that, if you analyze the geiger counter by quantum mechanics, then the electronic equipment that observes the geiger counter is the next stage of the game, at which point the classical description comes in and you always—”
“You know,” Wigner said “I’ve read a good deal of Bohr on this question and I never really knew what he meant. Does he mean that the apparatus must be described classically?”
Wheeler maintained his patience, but raised his voice a notch. “you have your choice. But if you choose to describe it quantum mechanically, then you have to come back to something that itself looks at the apparatus.”
“What? What?” Wigner said incredulously.
At that point—and this seemed to reassure the non-scientist at the table—the two men had trouble understanding each other.
Don’t be so reassured,” says Feynman, Wheeler’s former research assistant. “Two scientists can discuss anything, and ultimately they will always understand each other."
Links to some other articles on Wheeler:
"What Happens at the End of Thing? "
The Acalde UT Alumni Magazine, Nov/Dec 1985
John ran a weekly problem session where he answered questions about the homework problems he assigned from John David Jackson's Classical Electrodynamics. As every physicist knows, these are very difficult problems. John would arrive at the help sessions, not having worked the problems out in advance. Students would ask their questions. Often John would preface his answers with the comment, " I am going to solve the problem, but likely will not get the constants right, but hopefully the important parameter dependence will be correct." He would begin usually with some idealization of the geometry and/or an electrical property, e. g. perfect conductor. Though he might stumble slightly along the way, he inevitably would arrive at his promised answer. At the next help session, he would show up with the complete solution worked out, with the correct constants, and distribute them to the class. During a visit by Jackson for a colloquium, I told him this story. His comment, "I would not show up cold for a problem session on Jackson problems!"
John and Janette invited my wife, Pat and me for dinner. Their guests included Yuval Ne'eman and Emilio Segré. Emilio's son, Claudio Segré, was a professor of history at UT. Claudio and his wife, Elizabeth, had a daughter, Francesca, who was a close friend of our daughter, Mardie. Janette and Pat were both supporters of the League of Women Voters. Because of the various connections, Claudio, Elizabeth, Pat and I were invited. The Wheelers had recently moved into their new home. We brought some home-baked bread, however, we were trumped by Ne'eman's gift of an ancient vase from Israel. During dinner, we noticed that there were names on the table cloth. When asked about this, Janette said, " When we have famous guests for dinner, we asked them to sign the cloth, and I embroider the autograph." Some of those I remember were: A. Einstein, N. Bohr and Thurgood Marshall.
After John retired, he would visit Austin to consult with graduate students. I met him in the Faculty Club at lunch during one of his visits at the end of the semester. He welcomed me and asked, "Mel, I have to write an article for the Scientific American about the history of modern physics. I would prefer, first, to give a talk on the topic and then use the transcript as a start for the article. Do you know of a class that I might give that talk to? Providence smiled on me that day. I was teaching the junior level modern physics class and had emphasized the history of the topic. My class was later that day. I offered it to John and he accepted with one condition, that I record the talk so he could have his secretary transcribe it. I readily agreed. At 2 pm, John was introduced to the admiring class of about 30 students. He gave a very personal account of the rise of modern physics, including stories about the founders and his interactions with them. As the lecture drew to a close, he told of his last visit with Einstein. While doing so, tears came to his eyes, and he choked up. You could have heard a pin drop, but alas, not the tape recorder. I had forgotten to turn the tape over after the first side finished. John was understanding. The students and I knew that we had experienced a very special event, never to be forgotten.
Two special things I recall from John's talk. The first was his contention that Rutherford very early had an inkling of quantum physics. Rutherford believed that the randomness of radioactivity was not explainable with classical ideas. He felt something really new was needed. The other story involved Einstein. John said that Einstein had become friends with a neighborhood boy. One day the boy was visiting and Einstein was shaving. He was using only water, no lather. The boy listened to the painful sounding scrapings as the razor moved over Einstein's face. On his next visit, the boy brought Einstein some shaving lather. He watched as Einstein tested it. Einstein remarked, "This is really smooth." The boy was naturally pleased that he had been able to improve Einstein's routine. Time passed and the boy happened to visit again during the morning. He walked in on Einstein shaving. No lather, just the loud scraping sound.
John Archibald Wheeler Photo and Document Album