John Archibald Wheeler

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John Archibald Wheeler
John Archibald Wheeler1985.jpg
John Archibald Wheeler ( right ) together with Eckehard W. Mielke in front of lake in Holstein before the Hermann Weyl-Conference 1985 in Kiel, Germany
Born (1911-07-09)July 9, 1911
Jacksonville, Florida, United States
Died April 13, 2008(2008-04-13) (aged 96)
Hightstown, New Jersey, United States
Residence United States
Nationality American
Fields Physics
Institutions University of North Carolina
Princeton University
University of Texas at Austin
Alma mater Johns Hopkins University (Ph.D)
Doctoral advisor Karl Herzfeld
Doctoral students Hugh Everett
Richard Feynman
Bahram Mashhoon
James Griffin
Demetrios Christodoulou
Claudio Bunster
Jacob Bekenstein
Robert Geroch
John R. Klauder
Kenneth W. Ford
Charles Misner
Kip Thorne
Arthur Wightman
Bill Unruh
Robert Wald
Milton Plesset
Benjamin Schumacher
Dieter Brill
Bei-lok Hu
Warner A. Miller
Arkady Kheyfets
Edward Fireman
David Kerlick
Harry King
Ignazio Ciufolini
Known for Breit–Wheeler process
Wheeler–DeWitt equation
Popularizing the term "black hole"
Nuclear fission
General relativity
Unified field theory
Wheeler–Feynman absorber theory
Wheeler's delayed choice experiment
Notable awards Albert Einstein Award (1965)
Enrico Fermi Award (1968)
Franklin Medal (1969)
National Medal of Science (1970)
Oersted Medal (1983)
Albert Einstein Medal (1988)
Matteucci Medal (1993)
Wolf Prize in Physics (1997)
Einstein Prize (APS) (2003)

John Archibald Wheeler (July 9, 1911 – April 13, 2008) was an American theoretical physicist. He was largely responsible for reviving interest in general relativity in the United States after World War II. Wheeler also worked with Niels Bohr in explaining the basic principles behind nuclear fission. One of the later collaborators of Albert Einstein, he tried to achieve Einstein's vision of a unified field theory. Together with G. Breit, Wheeler developed the concept of Breit–Wheeler process. He is also known for popularizing the term "black hole", for coining the terms "quantum foam", "wormhole", and "it from bit", and for hypothesizing the "one-electron universe". For most of his career, Wheeler was a professor at Princeton University, and was influential in mentoring a generation of physicists who made notable contributions to quantum mechanics and gravitation.

Early life[edit]

John Archibald Wheeler was born in Jacksonville, Florida on July 11, 1911, to librarians Joseph Lewis Wheeler and Mabel Archibald (Archie) Wheeler.[1] He was the oldest of four children, with younger brothers Joseph and Robert, and a younger sister, Mary. Joseph earned Ph.D. from Brown University and a Master of Library Science[ from Columbia University. Robert earned a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard University, and worked as a geologist for oil companies and at colleges. Mary studied library science at the University of Denver and became a librarian.[2] They grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, but spent a year in 1921 to 1922 on a farm in Benson, Vermont, where Wheeler attended a one-room school. After they returned to Youngstown he attended Rayen High School.[3]

After graduating from the Baltimore City College high school in 1926,[4] Wheeler entered Johns Hopkins University with a scholarship from the state of Maryland.[5] He published his first scientific paper in 1930, as part of a summer job at the National Bureau of Standards.[6] He earned his doctorate in 1933. His dissertation research work, carried out under the supervision of Karl Herzfeld, was on the "Theory of the Dispersion and Absorption of Helium".[7] He received a National Research Council fellowship, which he used to study under Gregory Breit at New York University in 1933 and 1934,[8] and then in Copenhagen under Niels Bohr in 1934 and 1935.[9]

In 1933, Wheeler began seeing Janette Hegner, who was taking graduate courses in history at Johns Hopkins.[10] Their relationship continued in New York the following year, after she began teaching at Rye Country Day School. They became engaged on their third date, but agreed to defer marriage until after he returned from Europe. They were married on June 10, 1935, five days after his return.[11] They had three children; Letitia, James English and Alison Wheeler.[12] Jobs were hard to come by during the Great Depression, but Arthur Ruark offered him a position as an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, at a salary slightly less than Janette was offered to stay at Rye Country Day School.[13]

In 1938 Wheeler moved to Princeton University where he remained until 1976.[12] In a 1937 paper "On the Mathematical Description of Light Nuclei by the Method of Resonating Group Structure", he introduced the S-matrix,[14] - short for scattering matrix – "a unitary matrix of coefficients connecting the asymptotic behaviour of an arbitrary particular solution [of the integral equations] with that of solutions of a standard form."[15] Heisenberg developed the idea of the S-matrix in the 1940s. Due to the problematic divergences present in quantum field theory at that time, Heisenberg was motivated to isolate the essential features of the theory that would not be affected by future changes as the theory developed. In doing so he was led to introduce a unitary "characteristic" S-matrix, which became an important tool in particle physics.[15]

In 1939, Wheeler collaborated with Bohr on the liquid drop model of nuclear fission.

Nuclear weapons[edit]

Together with many other leading physicists, during World War II, Wheeler interrupted his academic career to participate in the development of the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project, working at the Hanford Site in Washington, where several large nuclear reactors were constructed to produce the element plutonium for atomic bombs. Even before the Hanford Site started up the "B-Pile" (the first of its three reactors), Wheeler had anticipated that the accumulation of "fission product poisons" would eventually impede the ongoing nuclear chain reaction by absorbing many of the thermal neutrons that were needed to continue a chain reaction. Wheeler deduced, by calculating its half-life in radioactive decay, that an isotope of the noble gas xenon (Xe135) would be the one most responsible.[16]

Some years later, Wheeler went on to work on the development of the more powerful hydrogen bomb under the nuclear weapons program.

Later life[edit]

After concluding his Manhattan Project work, Wheeler returned to Princeton University to resume his academic career. In 1957, while working on mathematical extensions to the Theory of General Relativity, Wheeler introduced the concept and the word wormhole to describe hypothetical "tunnels" in space-time.

During the 1950s, Wheeler formulated geometrodynamics, a program of physical and ontological reduction of every physical phenomenon, such as gravitation and electromagnetism, to the geometrical properties of a curved space-time. Aiming at a systematical identification of matter with space, geometrodynamics was often characterized as a continuation of the philosophy of nature as conceived by Descartes and Spinoza. Wheeler's geometrodynamics, however, failed to explain some important physical phenomena, such as the existence of fermions (electrons, muons, etc.) or that of gravitational singularities. Wheeler therefore abandoned his theory as somewhat fruitless during the early 1970s.

For a few decades, general relativity had not been considered a very respectable field of physics, being detached from experiment. Wheeler was a key figure in the revival of the subject, leading the school at Princeton, while Sciama and Zel'dovich developed the subject at Cambridge University and the University of Moscow. The work of Wheeler and his students made high contributions to the Golden Age of General Relativity.

His work in general relativity included the theory of gravitational collapse. He used the term black hole in 1967 during a talk he gave at the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS).[17] He was also a pioneer in the field of quantum gravity with his development (with Bryce DeWitt) of the Wheeler–DeWitt equation, which is the equation governing the "wave function of the Universe", as he called it.

Recognizing Wheeler's colorful way with words, characterized by such confections as "mass without mass", the festschrift honoring his 60th birthday was fittingly entitled Magic Without Magic: John Archibald Wheeler: A collection of essays in honor of his sixtieth birthday, Ed: John R. Klauder, (W. H. Freeman, 1972, ISBN 0-7167-0337-8). That same writing style could also attract parodies, including one famous one by "John Archibald Wyler" that was affectionately published by a relativity journal.[18][19]

Wheeler was the driving force behind the voluminous general relativity textbook Gravitation, co-written with Charles W. Misner and Kip Thorne. Its timely appearance during the golden age of general relativity and its comprehensiveness made it the most influential relativity textbook for a generation.

He then became the director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at the University of Texas from 1976 to 1986, when he retired from academic work. At the time of his death, Wheeler had returned to Princeton University as a professor emeritus. Wheeler's graduate students included Richard Feynman, Kip Thorne, Jacob Bekenstein, Charles Misner and Hugh Everett.[7][20] Unlike some scholars, Wheeler gave a high priority to teaching. Even after he became a famous physicist, he continued to teach freshman and sophomore physics, saying that the young minds were the most important. Wheeler supervised more PhD as well as senior undergraduate theses than any other professor in the Princeton physics department.

In 1979, Wheeler spoke to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), asking it to expel parapsychology, which had been admitted ten years earlier at the request of Margaret Mead. He called it a pseudoscience,[21] saying he did not oppose earnest research into the questions, but he thought the "air of legitimacy" of being an AAAS-Affiliate should be reserved until convincing tests of at least a few so-called psi effects could be demonstrated. During his presentation Wheeler incorrectly stated that J. B. Rhine had committed fraud as a student and was forced to retract that statement in a letter to the Science journal.[22] His request was turned down, and the Parapsychological Association remained a member of the AAAS.

In 1990, Wheeler suggested that information is fundamental to the physics of the universe. According to this "it from bit" doctrine, all things physical are information-theoretic in origin.[23]

Wheeler: It from bit. Otherwise put, every "it" — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits. "It from bit" symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-or-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.

Wheeler was awarded the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1997.

Wheeler has speculated that reality is created by observers in the universe. "How does something arise from nothing?", he asks about the existence of space and time (Princeton Physics News, 2006). He also coined the term "Participatory Anthropic Principle" (PAP), a version of a Strong Anthropic Principle. From a transcript of a radio interview on "The anthropic universe":[24]

Wheeler: We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago. We are in this sense, participators in bringing about something of the universe in the distant past and if we have one explanation for what's happening in the distant past why should we need more?
Martin Redfern: Many don't agree with John Wheeler, but if he's right then we and presumably other conscious observers throughout the universe, are the creators — or at least the minds that make the universe manifest.

On April 13, 2008, Wheeler died of pneumonia at the age of 96 in Hightstown, New Jersey.[25]

In April 2009, Wheeler was the focus of the monthly periodical Physics Today published by the American Institute of Physics. The articles contained reflection by prominent physicists, including many of those for whom he served as an academic advisor.


  • Wheeler, John Archibald (1962). Geometrodynamics. New York: Academic Press. OCLC 1317194. 
  • Misner, Charles W.; Kip S. Thorne; John Archibald Wheeler (September 1973). Gravitation. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-0344-0. 
  • Wheeler, John Archibald (1979). Some Men and Moments in the History of Nuclear Physics: The Interplay of Colleagues and Motivations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. OCLC 6025422. 
  • Wheeler, John Archibald (1990). A Journey Into Gravity and Spacetime. -Scientific American Library. New York: W.H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-6034-7. 
  • Wheeler, John Archibald (1992). Spacetime Physics: Introduction to Special Relativity'. New York: W. H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-2327-1. 
  • Wheeler, John Archibald (1994). At Home in the Universe. New York: American Institute of Physics. ISBN 1-56396-500-3. 
  • Ciufolini, Ignazio; Wheeler, John Archibald (1995). Gravitation and Inertia. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-03323-4. 
  • Wheeler, John Archibald (1998). Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-04642-7. 
  • Wheeler, John Archibald (2000). Exploring Black Holes: Introduction to General Relativity. Addison Wesley. ISBN 0-201-38423-X. 

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wheeler & Ford 1998, pp. 64, 71.
  2. ^ Wheeler & Ford 1998, pp. 71-75.
  3. ^ Wheeler & Ford 1998, pp. 78-80.
  4. ^ Leonhart 1939, p. 287.
  5. ^ Wheeler & Ford 1998, p. 85.
  6. ^ Wheeler & Ford 1998, p. 97.
  7. ^ a b John Archibald Wheeler at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
  8. ^ Wheeler & Ford 1998, pp. 105-107.
  9. ^ Wheeler & Ford 1998, pp. 123-127.
  10. ^ Wheeler & Ford 1998, p. 102.
  11. ^ Wheeler & Ford 1998, pp. 121-122.
  12. ^ a b MacPherson, Kitta (April 14, 2008). "Leading physicist John Wheeler dies at age 96". News at Princeton. 
  13. ^ Wheeler & Ford 1998, pp. 144-145.
  14. ^ Wheeler, John A. (December 1937). "On the Mathematical Description of Light Nuclei by the Method of Resonating Group Structure". Physical Review (American Physical Society) 52 (11): 1107–1122. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.52.1107. 
  15. ^ a b Mehra & Rechenberg 1982, p. 990.
  16. ^ Rhodes, Richard (1986). The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster. pp. 558–60. 
  17. ^ Wheeler, John Archibald (1998). Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics. p. 296. 
  18. ^ John Archibald Wyler, "Rasputin, Science, and the Transmogrification of Destiny," General Relativity and Gravitation, Vol.5, No.2 (1974), pp. 175-182. Reprinted.
  19. ^ Charles W. Misner (2010) in General Relativity and John Archibald Wheeler (Ignazio Ciufolini and Richard A. Matzner, eds.) New York: Springer, p. 22
  20. ^ Simon Saunders (2010). Simon Saunders, Jonathan Barrett, Adrien Kent, & David Wallace, ed. Many Worlds? Everett, Quantum Theory, and Reality. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-19-956056-1. 
  21. ^ Gardner, Martin (1981). Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus. Prometheus Books. p. 185ff. ISBN 0-87975-144-4. 
  22. ^ Wheeler, J. A. (1979). Parapsychology - A correction. Science, 205 (4402), p. 144
  23. ^ Wheeler, John A. (1990), W. Zurek, ed., Information, physics, quantum: The search for links, Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information (Redwood City, California: Addison-Wesley) 
  24. ^ The anthropic universe, Science Show, 18 February 2006 
  25. ^ Overbye, Dennis (April 14, 2008). "John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term ‘Black Hole’, Is Dead at 96.". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-15. "John A. Wheeler, a visionary physicist and teacher who helped invent the theory of nuclear fission, gave black holes their name and argued about the nature of reality with Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, died Sunday morning at his home in Hightstown, N.J. He was 96." 


External links[edit]