John Wheeler, 1911-2008

14wheeler6001I’d meant to note this piece of sad news a few days ago; John Wheeler has died. In the NYT:

Dr. Wheeler was a young, impressionable professor in 1939 when Bohr, the Danish physicist and his mentor, arrived in the United States aboard a ship from Denmark and confided to him that German scientists had succeeded in splitting uranium atoms. Within a few weeks, he and Bohr had sketched out a theory of how nuclear fission worked. Bohr had intended to spend the time arguing with Einstein about quantum theory, but “he spent more time talking to me than to Einstein,” Dr. Wheeler later recalled.

As a professor at Princeton and then at the University of Texas in Austin, Dr. Wheeler set the agenda for generations of theoretical physicists, using metaphor as effectively as calculus to capture the imaginations of his students and colleagues and to pose questions that would send them, minds blazing, to the barricades to confront nature.

Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said of Dr. Wheeler, “For me, he was the last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing.”

Daniel Holz over at Cosmic Variance remembers his teacher:

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.