In Memoriam: John Archibald Wheeler

John Archibald Wheeler, who died on April 13, 2008 at the age of 96, was one of the great physicists of the 20th century. Not only that, he was one of the great minds of the 20th century.

In 1933, at the age of 22, Wheeler went to Copenhagen to study with the great Danish physicist, Niels Bohr. It was the beginning of a collaboration that was to last until Bohr¹s death in 1962. In 1939, inPrinceton, Wheeler and Bohr came up with the “liquid drop” model, an explanation of the way fission of the atomic nucleus occurs which became the basis for building the atomic bomb.

That same year saw the first of Dr. Wheeler¹s disagreements with Robert Oppenheimer when Oppenheimer, working with Hartland Snyder, produced a theory of the way stars die. While at first he rejected the theory, later on, after it had been mathematically vindicated, Wheeler accepted it and gave the collapsed star its name, the “black hole.”

Wheeler unintentionally played a fateful role in Oppenheimer¹s career. In 1949 and 1950 the two men, who were both based in Princeton, differed over the wisdom of developing the hydrogen bomb and, in early 1953, the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, under the aegis of its staff director, William Borden, produced a paper purporting to show that Oppenheimer had tried to delay development of the weapon.

In violation of secrecy regulations, Borden entrusted a ten-page condensation of the paper to Wheeler for vetting. But Borden reckoned without the scientist¹s well-known absent-mindedness – Wheeler lost the paper on a night train from Trenton to Washington D.C. The document, which contained highly classified secrets of the hydrogen bomb program, was never recovered, and when President Eisenhower learned after his inauguration that secrets of the atomic energy program had been compromised, he subjected his top atomic energy advisers to a withering display of anger.

Months afterward, in what may partly have been an effort to repair the damage to his career, Borden, who had long harbored doubts about Robert Oppenheimer, wrote a letter to the FBI charging that Oppenheimer’s opposition to the hydrogen bomb had been motivated by disloyalty and that he was in all likelihood an agent of the USSR. Borden¹s letter, dated November 7, 1953, led to the 1954 security proceeding in which Oppenheimer was deprived of his security clearance.

The punishment suffered by Oppenheimer for no known breach of security contrasts sharply with the treatment accorded Dr. Wheeler. He continued to be trusted by officialdom in Washington and in 1958, as adviser to the government at arms negotiations in Geneva, he accidentally left his briefcase in the headquarters of the Soviet delegation. The chairman of the delegation immediately called his U.S.counterpart and, with some amusement, sent back the briefcase.

There are rumors of still a third “Wheeler incident” involving a breach of security: if such rumors are true, the facts still are classified by the U.S. government.

The government continued to seek Wheeler¹s advice despite these unheard of violations, and not only because it felt safe with his staunch right-wing views. Atomic energy officials argued that his attributes as a physicist were so unique that he was indispensable to the H-bomb program. Outside government, in the scientific community, he was a beloved figure despite his politics and was viewed as a reconciler who tried to revive the comity that had existed worldwide among physicists prior to World War Two.

He had nothing against Oppenheimer: indeed, he was probably abashed at any part he may inadvertently have played in Oppenheimer¹s fall from grace. While the author was doing research for this book, he pointed her to documents at Princeton which he believed would show that Oppenheimer had tried to obtain university funds for Project Matterhorn, Wheeler¹s special contribution to the H-bomb program, and thereby disprove the old charge that Oppenheimer had tried to obstruct the program.

The first time the author interviewed Wheeler, he allotted time after a hectic conference to talk with her in a taxicab to the airport. The conversation went so swimmingly that he escorted her aboard his plane and, had the stewardess not swept her out moments before takeoff, she would have found herself conversing with Dr. Wheeler all the way to Houston. As she left the plane, he handed her a token to help her return home on the subway.

Personally as well as politically, Wheeler was extremely close to Edward Teller and, when Teller was ostracized among physicists for his role in the Oppenheimer case, Wheeler did his utmost to bring Teller back into the good graces of the scientific community. And when Teller died in 2003 Wheeler, aged 92 and more absent-minded than ever, flew across the country and delivered a memorial address that brought tears to the eyes of those who heard it.

Remarkable as he was as a human being, Dr. Wheeler was also without equal as physicist and philosopher. During the 1950¹s he fell in love with general relativity and spent the rest of his life trying with Einstein and others to reconcile relativity with quantum physics. In the effort, as he put it, to “push gravitation physics to its limits,” he wrote three major books, including, with his students Charles Misner and Kip Thorne, the 1,300-page classic, “Gravitation.” Trying to divine what he called the “deep, happy mysteries” of nature, Wheeler claimed that he owed most of his inspiration to his students, and they responded in kind. Kip Thorne, for one, called him the “most influential mentor of young scientists” he had ever known.

In his autobiography, Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam, Wheeler wrote, “I have to admit that I never stop thinking about physics. I have never been able to let go of questions like how come existence? How come the quantum? What is my relation to the universe and its laws? Can spacetime be all that there is? Is there an end to time? I have not been able to stop puzzling over the riddle of existence. There is no definable point where the truly curious physicist can say, I can go only this far and no farther.”

There will be a memorial service for Dr. Wheeler at the Princeton University Chapel on Monday, May 12, at 10 a.m.

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