John Archibald Wheeler

John Archibald Wheeler

Overview
John Archibald Wheeler was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 theoretical physicist who was largely responsible for reviving interest in general relativity
General relativity
General relativity or the general theory of relativity is the geometric theory of gravitation published by Albert Einstein in 1916. It is the current description of gravitation in modern physics...

 in the United States after World War II. Wheeler also worked with Niels Bohr
Niels Bohr
Niels Henrik David Bohr was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Bohr mentored and collaborated with many of the top physicists of the century at his institute in...

 in explaining the basic principles behind nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

. One of the later collaborators of Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, effecting a revolution in physics. For this achievement, Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics and one of the most prolific intellects in human history...

, he tried to achieve Einstein's vision of a unified field theory
Unified field theory
In physics, a unified field theory, occasionally referred to as a uniform field theory, is a type of field theory that allows all that is usually thought of as fundamental forces and elementary particles to be written in terms of a single field. There is no accepted unified field theory, and thus...

. He is also known for having coined the terms black hole
Black hole
A black hole is a region of spacetime from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass will deform spacetime to form a black hole. Around a black hole there is a mathematically defined surface called an event horizon that...

, quantum foam
Quantum foam
Quantum foam, also referred to as spacetime foam, is a concept in quantum mechanics, devised by John Wheeler in 1955. The foam is supposed to be the foundations of the fabric of the universe. Additionally, it can be used as a qualitative description of subatomic spacetime turbulence at extremely...

and wormhole
Wormhole
In physics, a wormhole is a hypothetical topological feature of spacetime that would be, fundamentally, a "shortcut" through spacetime. For a simple visual explanation of a wormhole, consider spacetime visualized as a two-dimensional surface. If this surface is folded along a third dimension, it...

and the phrase "it from bit".
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Encyclopedia
John Archibald Wheeler was an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 theoretical physicist who was largely responsible for reviving interest in general relativity
General relativity
General relativity or the general theory of relativity is the geometric theory of gravitation published by Albert Einstein in 1916. It is the current description of gravitation in modern physics...

 in the United States after World War II. Wheeler also worked with Niels Bohr
Niels Bohr
Niels Henrik David Bohr was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Bohr mentored and collaborated with many of the top physicists of the century at his institute in...

 in explaining the basic principles behind nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

. One of the later collaborators of Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, effecting a revolution in physics. For this achievement, Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics and one of the most prolific intellects in human history...

, he tried to achieve Einstein's vision of a unified field theory
Unified field theory
In physics, a unified field theory, occasionally referred to as a uniform field theory, is a type of field theory that allows all that is usually thought of as fundamental forces and elementary particles to be written in terms of a single field. There is no accepted unified field theory, and thus...

. He is also known for having coined the terms black hole
Black hole
A black hole is a region of spacetime from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass will deform spacetime to form a black hole. Around a black hole there is a mathematically defined surface called an event horizon that...

, quantum foam
Quantum foam
Quantum foam, also referred to as spacetime foam, is a concept in quantum mechanics, devised by John Wheeler in 1955. The foam is supposed to be the foundations of the fabric of the universe. Additionally, it can be used as a qualitative description of subatomic spacetime turbulence at extremely...

and wormhole
Wormhole
In physics, a wormhole is a hypothetical topological feature of spacetime that would be, fundamentally, a "shortcut" through spacetime. For a simple visual explanation of a wormhole, consider spacetime visualized as a two-dimensional surface. If this surface is folded along a third dimension, it...

and the phrase "it from bit". For most of his career, Wheeler was a professor at Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

 and was influential in mentoring a generation of physicists who made notable contributions to quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics
Quantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic...

 and gravitation.

Biography


John Archibald Wheeler was born in Jacksonville, Florida
Jacksonville, Florida
Jacksonville is the largest city in the U.S. state of Florida in terms of both population and land area, and the largest city by area in the contiguous United States. It is the county seat of Duval County, with which the city government consolidated in 1968...

. He graduated from the Baltimore City College
Baltimore City College
The Baltimore City College , also referred to as The Castle on the Hill, historically as The College, and most commonly City, is a public high school in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A. The City College curriculum includes the International Baccalaureate Programme and emphasizes study in the classics...

 high school in 1926 and earned his doctorate from Johns Hopkins University
Johns Hopkins University
The Johns Hopkins University, commonly referred to as Johns Hopkins, JHU, or simply Hopkins, is a private research university based in Baltimore, Maryland, United States...

 in 1933. His dissertation research work, carried out under the supervision of Karl Herzfeld
Karl Herzfeld
Karl Ferdinand Herzfeld was an Austrian-American physicist.-Education:...

, was on the theory of the dispersion and absorption of helium.

Wheeler started his academic career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a public research university located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States...

 in 1935 and in 1938 moved to Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

 where he remained until 1976. He then became the director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at the University of Texas
University of Texas at Austin
The University of Texas at Austin is a state research university located in Austin, Texas, USA, and is the flagship institution of the The University of Texas System. Founded in 1883, its campus is located approximately from the Texas State Capitol in Austin...

 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. Professor Wheeler's graduate students included Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman
Richard Phillips Feynman was an American physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics...

, Kip Thorne
Kip Thorne
Kip Stephen Thorne is an American theoretical physicist, known for his prolific contributions in gravitation physics and astrophysics and for having trained a generation of scientists...

, Jacob Bekenstein
Jacob Bekenstein
Jacob David Bekenstein is an Israeli theoretical physicist who has contributed to the foundation of black hole thermodynamics and to other aspects of the connections between information and gravitation.-Biography:...

 and Hugh Everett
Hugh Everett
Hugh Everett III was an American physicist who first proposed the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, which he termed his "relative state" formulation....

. 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.

Wheeler made important contributions to theoretical physics. In 1937, he introduced the S-matrix, which became an indispensable tool in particle physics
Particle physics
Particle physics is a branch of physics that studies the existence and interactions of particles that are the constituents of what is usually referred to as matter or radiation. In current understanding, particles are excitations of quantum fields and interact following their dynamics...

. Wheeler was a pioneer in the theory of nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

, along with Niels Bohr
Niels Bohr
Niels Henrik David Bohr was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Bohr mentored and collaborated with many of the top physicists of the century at his institute in...

 and Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi was an Italian-born, naturalized American physicist particularly known for his work on the development of the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, and for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics...

. In 1939, Wheeler collaborated with Bohr on the liquid drop model of nuclear fission
Nuclear fission
In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts , often producing free neutrons and photons , and releasing a tremendous amount of energy...

.

Together with many other leading physicists, during World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, Wheeler interrupted his academic career to participate in the development of the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project
Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

, working at the Hanford Site
Hanford Site
The Hanford Site is a mostly decommissioned nuclear production complex on the Columbia River in the U.S. state of Washington, operated by the United States federal government. The site has been known by many names, including Hanford Works, Hanford Engineer Works or HEW, Hanford Nuclear Reservation...

 in Washington, where several large nuclear reactor
Nuclear reactor
A nuclear reactor is a device to initiate and control a sustained nuclear chain reaction. Most commonly they are used for generating electricity and for the propulsion of ships. Usually heat from nuclear fission is passed to a working fluid , which runs through turbines that power either ship's...

s were constructed to produce the element
Chemical element
A chemical element is a pure chemical substance consisting of one type of atom distinguished by its atomic number, which is the number of protons in its nucleus. Familiar examples of elements include carbon, oxygen, aluminum, iron, copper, gold, mercury, and lead.As of November 2011, 118 elements...

 plutonium
Plutonium
Plutonium is a transuranic radioactive chemical element with the chemical symbol Pu and atomic number 94. It is an actinide metal of silvery-gray appearance that tarnishes when exposed to air, forming a dull coating when oxidized. The element normally exhibits six allotropes and four oxidation...

 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
Nuclear chain reaction
A nuclear chain reaction occurs when one nuclear reaction causes an average of one or more nuclear reactions, thus leading to a self-propagating number of these reactions. The specific nuclear reaction may be the fission of heavy isotopes or the fusion of light isotopes...

 by absorbing many of the thermal neutrons that were needed to continue a chain reaction. Wheeler deduced that an isotope of the noble gas
Noble gas
The noble gases are a group of chemical elements with very similar properties: under standard conditions, they are all odorless, colorless, monatomic gases, with very low chemical reactivity...

 xenon
Xenon
Xenon is a chemical element with the symbol Xe and atomic number 54. The element name is pronounced or . A colorless, heavy, odorless noble gas, xenon occurs in the Earth's atmosphere in trace amounts...

 (Xe135), by calculating its half-life in radioactive decay
Radioactive decay
Radioactive decay is the process by which an atomic nucleus of an unstable atom loses energy by emitting ionizing particles . The emission is spontaneous, in that the atom decays without any physical interaction with another particle from outside the atom...

, would be one most responsible.

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

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
Wormhole
In physics, a wormhole is a hypothetical topological feature of spacetime that would be, fundamentally, a "shortcut" through spacetime. For a simple visual explanation of a wormhole, consider spacetime visualized as a two-dimensional surface. If this surface is folded along a third dimension, it...

to describe hypothetical "tunnels" in space-time.

During the 1950s, Wheeler formulated geometrodynamics
Geometrodynamics
In theoretical physics, geometrodynamics generally denotes a program of reformulation and unification which was enthusiastically promoted by John Archibald Wheeler in the 1960s.-Einstein's geometrodynamics:...

, a program of physical and ontological reduction of every physical phenomenon, such as gravitation
Gravitation
Gravitation, or gravity, is a natural phenomenon by which physical bodies attract with a force proportional to their mass. Gravitation is most familiar as the agent that gives weight to objects with mass and causes them to fall to the ground when dropped...

 and electromagnetism
Electromagnetism
Electromagnetism is one of the four fundamental interactions in nature. The other three are the strong interaction, the weak interaction and gravitation...

, 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 (electron
Electron
The electron is a subatomic particle with a negative elementary electric charge. It has no known components or substructure; in other words, it is generally thought to be an elementary particle. An electron has a mass that is approximately 1/1836 that of the proton...

s, muon
Muon
The muon |mu]] used to represent it) is an elementary particle similar to the electron, with a unitary negative electric charge and a spin of ½. Together with the electron, the tau, and the three neutrinos, it is classified as a lepton...

s, etc.) or that of gravitational singularities. Wheeler therefore abandoned his theory as somewhat fruitless during the early 1970s.

For a few decades, general relativity
General relativity
General relativity or the general theory of relativity is the geometric theory of gravitation published by Albert Einstein in 1916. It is the current description of gravitation in modern physics...

 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
Dennis William Sciama
Dennis William Siahou Sciama FRS was a British physicist who, through his own work and that of his students, played a major role in developing British physics after the Second World War. He is considered as one of the fathers of modern cosmology.-Life:Sciama was born in Manchester, England...

 and Zel'dovich
Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich
Yakov Borisovich Zel'dovich was a prolific Soviet physicist born in Belarus. He played an important role in the development of Soviet nuclear and thermonuclear weapons, and made important contributions to the fields of adsorption and catalysis, shock waves, nuclear physics, particle physics,...

 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
Golden age of general relativity
The golden age of general relativity is the period roughly from 1960 to 1975 during which the study of general relativity, which had previously been regarded as something of a curiosity, entered the mainstream of theoretical physics...

.


His work in general relativity included the theory of gravitational collapse. The term black hole
Black hole
A black hole is a region of spacetime from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass will deform spacetime to form a black hole. Around a black hole there is a mathematically defined surface called an event horizon that...

was coined in 1967 during a talk he gave at the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS). He was also a pioneer in the field of quantum gravity
Quantum gravity
Quantum gravity is the field of theoretical physics which attempts to develop scientific models that unify quantum mechanics with general relativity...

 with his development (with Bryce DeWitt
Bryce DeWitt
Bryce Seligman DeWitt was a theoretical physicist renowned for advancing gravity and field theories.-Biography:...

) of the Wheeler-DeWitt equation
Wheeler-deWitt equation
In theoretical physics, the Wheeler–DeWitt equation is a functional differential equation. It is ill defined in the general case, but very important in theoretical physics, especially in quantum gravity. It is a functional differential equation on the space of three dimensional spatial metrics...

 or, as he called it, the "wave function of the Universe."

Recognizing Wheeler's colorful way with words, characterized by such confections as "mass without mass", the festschrift
Festschrift
In academia, a Festschrift , is a book honoring a respected person, especially an academic, and presented during his or her lifetime. The term, borrowed from German, could be translated as celebration publication or celebratory writing...

 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
John R. Klauder
John R. Klauder is an American professor of physics and mathematics and author of over 250 published articles on physics....

, (W. H. Freeman, 1972, ISBN 0-7167-0337-8).

Wheeler was the driving force behind the voluminous general relativity textbook Gravitation
Gravitation (book)
In physics, Gravitation is a very important reference book on Einstein's theory of gravity by Charles W. Misner, Kip S. Thorne, and John Archibald Wheeler. Often considered the "Bible" of General Relativity by researchers for its prominence. It is frequently called MTW after its authors' initials....

, co-written with Charles W. Misner
Charles W. Misner
Charles W. Misner is an American physicist and one of the authors of Gravitation. His specialties include general relativity and cosmology. His work has also provided early foundations for studies of quantum gravity and numerical relativity....

 and Kip Thorne
Kip Thorne
Kip Stephen Thorne is an American theoretical physicist, known for his prolific contributions in gravitation physics and astrophysics and for having trained a generation of scientists...

. Its timely appearance during the golden age of general relativity and its comprehensiveness made it the most influential relativity textbook for a generation.

In 1979, Wheeler spoke to the American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Association for the Advancement of Science
The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization with the stated goals of promoting cooperation among scientists, defending scientific freedom, encouraging scientific responsibility, and supporting scientific education and science outreach for the...

 (AAAS), asking it to expel parapsychology
Parapsychology
The term parapsychology was coined in or around 1889 by philosopher Max Dessoir, and originates from para meaning "alongside", and psychology. The term was adopted by J.B. Rhine in the 1930s as a replacement for the term psychical research...

, which had been admitted ten years earlier at the request of Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead
Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist, who was frequently a featured writer and speaker in the mass media throughout the 1960s and 1970s....

. He called it a pseudoscience
Pseudoscience
Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific method, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status...

, saying he didn't 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. His request was turned down, and the Parapsychological Association remained a member of the AAAS.

In 1990, Wheeler has 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.
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
Anthropic principle
In astrophysics and cosmology, the anthropic principle is the philosophical argument that observations of the physical Universe must be compatible with the conscious life that observes it. Some proponents of the argument reason that it explains why the Universe has the age and the fundamental...

. From a transcript of a radio interview on "The anthropic universe":
On April 13, 2008, Wheeler died of pneumonia
Pneumonia
Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition of the lung—especially affecting the microscopic air sacs —associated with fever, chest symptoms, and a lack of air space on a chest X-ray. Pneumonia is typically caused by an infection but there are a number of other causes...

 at the age of 96 in Hightstown, New Jersey
Hightstown, New Jersey
Hightstown is a Borough in Mercer County, New Jersey, United States. As of the 2010 United States Census, the borough population was 5,494.Hightstown was incorporated as a borough by an Act of the New Jersey Legislature on March 5, 1853, within portions of East Windsor Township. The borough became...

.

In April 2009, Wheeler was the focus of the monthly periodical Physics Today
Physics Today
Physics Today, created in 1948, is the membership journal of the American Institute of Physics. It is provided to 130,000 members of twelve physics societies, including the American Physical Society...

 published by the American Institute of Physics
American Institute of Physics
The American Institute of Physics promotes science, the profession of physics, publishes physics journals, and produces publications for scientific and engineering societies. The AIP is made up of various member societies...

. The articles contained reflection by prominent physicists, including many of those for whom he served as an academic advisor.

Books by Wheeler

  • A Journey Into Gravity and Spacetime (1990). Scientific American Library. W.H. Freeman & Company 1999 reprint: ISBN 0-7167-6034-7
  • Spacetime Physics: Introduction to Special Relativity (1992). W. H. Freeman, ISBN 0-7167-2327-1
  • At Home in the Universe (1994). American Institute of Physics 1995 reprint: ISBN 1-56396-500-3
  • Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics (1998). New York: W.W. Norton & Co, hardcover: ISBN 0-393-04642-7, paperback: ISBN 0-393-31991-1 — autobiography and memoir.
  • Exploring Black Holes: Introduction to General Relativity (2000). Addison Wesley, ISBN 0-201-38423-X
  • Gravitation and Inertia(1995). Ignazio Ciufolini and John Archibald Wheeler. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey. ISBN 0-691-03323-4.

See also

  • Holographic principle
    Holographic principle
    The holographic principle is a property of quantum gravity and string theories which states that the description of a volume of space can be thought of as encoded on a boundary to the region—preferably a light-like boundary like a gravitational horizon...

  • Wheeler's delayed choice experiment
    Wheeler's delayed choice experiment
    Wheeler's delayed choice experiment is a thought experiment proposed by John Archibald Wheeler in 1978, and later confirmed. Wheeler proposed a variation of the famous double-slit experiment of quantum physics, one in which the method of detection can be changed after the photon passes the double...

  • Genealogy of theoretical physicists
    Genealogy of theoretical physicists
    The following is an academic genealogy of theoretical physicists and is constructed by following the pedigree of thesis advisors. If an advisor did not exist, or if the field of physics is unrelated, an academic genealogical link can be constructed by using the university from which the theoretical...

  • List of theoretical physicists
  • Edwin Power
    Edwin Power
    Edwin Albert Power was an English physicist and a emeritus professor of applied mathematics at University College London. He made several contributions to the field of non-relativististic quantum electrodynamics ....


External links