John Archibald Wheeler


General relativity was forgotten after the Second World War, but it was John Archibald Wheeler who revived the interest for this scientific subject. He was one of the collaborators of none other than Elbert Einstein himself and he tried to achieve the vision of having a unified field theory, which was proposed by Einstein. Wheeler was an American theoretical physicist who also worked with Neils Bohr to explain the principles of nuclear fission. More notably, he is responsible for the popularization of the term “black hole” and coining terms such as “wormhole” and “quantum foam.” He had been a professor at the Princeton University and was one of the most influential figures who made significant contributions to gravitation and quantum mechanics.

Early Life and Educational Background

John Archibald Wheeler was born on the 9th of July, 1911 in Jacksonville, Florida to his librarian parents Mabel Archibald Wheeler and Joseph Lewis Wheeler. In 1926, he finished his high school education from the Baltimore City College and in 1933, was able to earn his doctorate after finishing his studies in the John Hopkins University. His research work and dissertation about the dispersion as well as absorption of helium had been carried out with Karl Herzfeld supervising him. Karl Herzfeld is also a notable name in the field of physics especially for his work on kinetic theory and ultrasonics.

His career in the academe began in 1935 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Three years later, however, he moved to Princeton University and this was where he stayed until 1976. After his time in Princeton, he worked at the University of Texas for ten years until 1986, where he was made the director of The Center for Theoretical Physics.

Compared to other scholars who focused on their work for science, Wheeler gave a high importance to his teaching career. This was seen and proved because even after he was already a famous physicist, he still taught physics to freshmen as well as sophomore students with the thought that young minds were the most important minds. Some of his most famous students were Kip Thorne, Richard Feynman, Jacob Bekenstein, and Hugh Everett. When he died in the year 2008, he had been able to supervise more PhD and senior undergraduates who were working on their theses compared to any other professor in Princeton’s physics department.

Contributions to Physics

He made a number of important contributions to physics, especially particle physics. It was in 1937 when he introduced what is now known as the S-Matrix, which is now an indispensable tool for the study of particle physics. He had also been one of the proponents of nuclear fission alongside Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr. Two years after he created the S-Matrix, he along with Niels Bohr, worked on the liquid drop model used for nuclear fission.

The Manhattan Project and Wheeler’s Personal Involvement

John Archibald Wheeler was 33 when he received a postcard from his brother, Joe, who was fighting in the front lines back in the Second World War. The postcard had just two words and it read: “Hurry up.” Joe had been aware of what John Archibald was working on, and hoped that by this time, whatever comes from the nuclear fission experiments can also be used for the Second World War, and to help end it.

Wheeler then worked as quickly as he possibly could, and he was able to do so at the Manhattan Project at the Hanford Site in Washington. The project was completed, and it was in Jornada del Muerto Desert in New Mexico where physicists detonated the first ever nuclear explosion in the history of mankind. In Hanford, John Archibald was hoping that he wasn’t too late in making this happen. Little did he know that around that time, Joe had already been dead.

He was devastated after learning the news, and he had hoped that if they started earlier and completed sooner, he could have helped save millions of lives—including his brother Joe’s. After the conclusion of his work in the Manhattan Project, he went back to Princeton University to get back to his academic career.

Latter Years

It was in 1957 when he introduced the term “wormhole” to the scientific community. He had been working on mathematical extensions concerning the Theory of General Relativity when he described the wormholes as “tunnels” in the space-time continuum. He was able to work on geometrodynamics which was concerned with electromagnetism and gravitation, mainly the geometrical properties of the curved space-time continuum. Since it was aiming at identifying matter and space, it was thought that geometrodynamics was the continuation of philosophy (of nature) as thought of by Spinoza and Descartes. However, the geometrodynamics idea of Wheeler was unable to explain some important observed physical phenomena such as why electrons, muons, and fermions exist. Because of this, he abandoned this theory in the 1970s.

In 1967 he used the term black hole when he gave a talk at the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies. He had also been a pioneer when it comes to quantum gravity, which is what happens to be the “wave function of the Universe.”

In 1979, he had some words with the American Association for the Advancement of Science when he asked them to expel parapsychology which he called as a kind of pseudoscience. It was admitted as a kind of scientific field ten years earlier after Margaret Mead requested it. He said that he did not oppose the research which parapsychology does, but that it should have more convincing tests before being part of the AAAs. His request was not granted and parapsychology is still credited by the AAAS to this day.

In 1997, he was awarded the Wolf Prize in Physics because of his contributions, which included the Participatory Anthropic Principle during his time in Princeton among other significant contributions to physics. It was on the 13th of April when he died from pneumonia. He was 96, and he died in Hightstown, New Jersey.