Yet, the Universe flies

John Archibald Wheeler was born on May 16th, 1911 in the United States. From an early age, he was possessed by an intense interest in science, and would eventually attain a Ph.D in physics from Johns Hopkins University in 1933.

Black Holes, Quantum Foam and Hydrogen Bombs

As a researcher, most of Wheeler's work has been within those most interesting, arcane and living areas of modern physics: Astrophysics, quantum theory and nuclear physics. He co-authored the 1939 theory of nuclear fission with Niels Bohr, and led the US research team that detonated the world's first hydrogen bomb in 1952. In 1956, he took part in the research group that discovered which materials exist in dead stars, by calculating which element would be the one for which fusion would cease to be an efficient process (which was found to be iron -- it follows that dead, cold stars are predominantly made of iron). The equation used to determine what goes on within the core of a dying star is named the Harrison-Wheeler Equation of State for Cold, Dead Matter, and was co-discovered by Wheeler. Possibly the single most well-known of Wheeler's contributions to science is his coining of the term "black hole". He also went on to coin the less-known phrase "black holes have no hair", which at first seems to imply that the man either has a penchant for stating the blatantly obvious or is a gibbering madman, but actually means that a black hole would be of a perfect geometric shape, with no protrusions or projections whatsoever. It was Wheeler who discovered the size required for a star to implode upon its death (approximately twice the size of the Sun). He has also done work in areas of physics more or less impossible for non-physicists to understand, such as "quantum foam", which is what makes up a spacetime singularity.

Other, more famous physicists that have worked with Wheeler include Richard P. Feynman, Albert Einstein, Kip Thorne, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr and many more. Wheeler was a close friend of Einstein, and would sometimes take his first year students to visit Einstein.

Mentoring and Honours

While Wheeler is definitely one of the greatest currently living physics researchers, his teaching is more or less legendary, often taking on a more mentorly role than your average college professor. One of the more prominent of his pupils is Kip Thorne, who has been said to surpass his mentor as an extremely productive theoretical physicist. Wheeler has been teaching theoretical physics at Princeton since the 1930's, and only recently retired. Another quirk for which he was known far and wide was that he was an extraordinary speaker (for a scientist, at any rate), and would usually put on quite a show when presenting his ideas.

He received the 2003 Einstein Prize, and his many other honours include Israel's Wolf Prize, America's Enrico Fermi Award and Italy's Matteucci Medal. He is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society -- he was elected president of the latter community in 1966.

In documentary film director Errol Morris' A Brief History of Time (a documentary biography of Stephen Hawking), Wheeler had a few appearances, in which he talked about Hawking and his theories.

He is still alive and at large.

Paper in white the floor of the room, and rule it off in one-foot squares. Down on one's hands and knees, write in the first square a set of equations conceived as able to govern the physics of the universe. Think more overnight. Next day put a better set of equations into square two. Invite one's most respected colleagues to contribute to other squares. At the end of these labors, one has worked oneself out into the doorway. Stand up, look back on all those equations, some perhaps more hopeful than others, raise one's finger commandingly, and give the order "Fly!" Not one of those equations will put on wings, take off, or fly. Yet the universe "flies".
-John A. Wheeler (Gravitation)



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