I understand from this moving tribute by Daniel at Cosmic Variance that John Archibald Wheeler had passed away. Here is the first three paragraphs of Daniel’s tribute. For the rest of the must-read piece, you have to go to Cosmic variance.

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 80 years old.

Take a look!

**Update**: Sean, in a comment at Daniel’s post, points to this obituary in NY Times by Dennis Overbye:

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.”

Under his leadership, Princeton became the leading American center of research into Einsteinian gravity, known as the general theory of relativity — a field that had been moribund because of its remoteness from laboratory experiment.

“He rejuvenated general relativity; he made it an experimental subject and took it away from the mathematicians,” said Freeman Dyson, a theorist at the Institute for Advanced Study across town in Princeton.

Among Dr. Wheeler’s students was Richard Feynman of the California Institute of Technology, who parlayed a crazy-sounding suggestion by Dr. Wheeler into work that led to a Nobel Prize. Another was Hugh Everett, whose Ph.D. thesis under Dr. Wheeler on quantum mechanics envisioned parallel alternate universes endlessly branching and splitting apart — a notion that Dr. Wheeler called “Many Worlds” and which has become a favorite of many cosmologists as well as science fiction writers.

Recalling his student days, Dr. Feynman once said, “Some people think Wheeler’s gotten crazy in his later years, but he’s always been crazy.”

The obituary also carries a line of tribute that Wheeler paid to Bohr that I found equally moving:

“You can talk about people like Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, but the thing that convinced me that such people existed were the conversations with Bohr,” Dr. Wheeler said.

Tags: John Archibald Wheeler

April 14, 2008 at 12:19 am |

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