A memorial service will be held Monday, May 12, at 10 a.m. in the Princeton University Chapel for John A. Wheeler, the physicist who helped invent the theory that led to the atomic bomb and who coined the term “black holes.” Wheeler died April 13 at his home in Hightstown. He was 96.
Below, two of his former students remember the renowned physicist.
by Arch Davis
As one obituary put it, “The last of the physics giants has passed away.” When I came to Princeton for graduate school in the late 1960s from a Midwestern university, more of the physicists and mathematicians that had developed quantum theory from the ’30s were still living: Valentine Bargman, Bob Dicke, Eugene Wigner. Einstein and vonNeumann had been gone for over 10 years, although I had the privilege of working with “Johnny’s” post-doc, Joe Smagorinsky.
That first year in graduate school was rich from the immersion in a sea of talent and greatness from the old guard to the fellow students. It seemed that the very atmosphere in the Fine-Palmer complex was filled with the ghosts of these giants studying beside me. But regarding the Manhattan Project history, a building manager called Palmer “the building that changed the world.” Ironically in the spring of 1970, the basement of the newly-emptied building, still with radioactive residues, became the headquarters of Princeton students’ “strike against the war.”
I was fascinated by Wheeler’s concentration in cosmology. He wanted to see the scope of creation from the sub-atomic to the vastness of a 12-dimensional space of confluent universes. It was a grand panorama. Although theologians criticized him for being naive regarding past thought, and secular physicists criticized his conversations with theological greats such as Tommy Torrance, he maintained a reverence to the existential. His honesty was too great for him to give lip service as a Christian as he apparently never made such a commitment. He said he did not always feel comfortable either with much of Unitarian thought.
Dealing with cosmology, even defined as physics, you will come close to theology of some kind these days. Even in my undergraduate years, my physics advisor, Don Elkins, reminded us that “empty space is chock full of things.” (Wheeler: quantum foam.)
One of Princeton’s research faculty in neuroscience and I were once discussing Richard Dawkins. He said, “I consider him very religious. On the dark side!” Except for dark matter and energy, John Wheeler was certainly not on the dark side. Even in the sea of talent and greatness that the Princeton community is, he was the deepest individual I ever have known. His latest musings on “all is information” goes toe to toe with John 1:1 and Genesis 1:1. Everything is created out of the Word.
I regret I did not spend time with him in the later years, but in the ’70s I edited a paper with him on cosmology. I remember being in his new office in Jadwin Hall when he searched for a related paper. “It’s somewhere here in a pre-Cambrian layer.” Like many scholars with a comprehensive interest, papers were piled high on the desk. Elizabeth Tukey, wife of another contemporary great, and my “second mom” had complained [benignly] of the papers all over their house.
As much as he studied the great issues of cosmic structure, Wheeler had a personal bond with colleagues that also ran deep. In one of his last public lectures in A10 Jadwin, he related his history with Neils Bohr. Along with discussion of the quantum theory as then formulated by the two and its development since, he told a story of a time when Bohr was out in the water in a small boat with his son. “The boy went overboard, and despite an afternoon of searching, was never found.” Wheeler wept from the podium. “He had no religion: nothing, not Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim. He had to go home and tell his wife they had lost their son.” And he wept some more.
Another human side shows Wheeler, the cosmologist and co-inventor of the greatest explosives the world has known, setting off dynamite to crack logs in the back yard of his New England summer home. Was this for his own entertainment or for some ulterior research goal? But he was known as an unequaled mentor for graduate students, and a warm, inspiring, cheerful presence in the Physics Department at Princeton.
An excerpt from the Nobel Lectures on Bohr’s life sums the significance of their work:
Hereby he could show how deeply the changes in the field of physics have affected fundamental features of our scientific outlook and how the consequences of this change of attitude reach far beyond the scope of atomic physics and touch upon all domains of human knowledge.
Another generation of physicists continues in Princeton: Ed Witten, Juan Maldacena, Nima Arkani-Hamed. We have a critical mass of string theorists in town today. Will this lead to an explosion of knowledge as in the days of Wheeler and Bohr? Time will tell. (And they are studying time.)
Arch Davis runs a Princeton-based computer consulting firm, Davis Systems Engineering, www.davisys.com
Daniel Holz submitted the following post at cosmicvariance.com at 8:05 p.m. on April 13:
One beautiful fall day 17 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 the 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 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.
Daniel Holz, a 1992 Princeton alumnus, is a Feynman Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, in the Theoretical Astrophysics group.