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R.I.P. John Wheeler, physicist
April 13, 2008 10:22 PM   Subscribe

R.I.P. John Wheeler, theoretical physicist. Famous for the Wheeler-Feynman equations and the term "black hole," which he coined to describe a singular point mass, he has died at age 96. The NYT usually gives pretty good obituary but they outdid themselves this time.

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posted by ikkyu2 (64 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
No idea he was still alive...

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posted by phrontist at 10:23 PM on April 13, 2008


shit.
posted by CitizenD at 10:25 PM on April 13, 2008


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posted by dirigibleman at 10:27 PM on April 13, 2008


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posted by Rumple at 10:32 PM on April 13, 2008


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posted by orthogonality at 10:34 PM on April 13, 2008


How unfortunate that the man who coined the term "black hole" died just before the Large Hadron Collider would have offered him the chance to be swallowed up by one.
posted by bicyclefish at 10:34 PM on April 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


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posted by Pope Guilty at 10:39 PM on April 13, 2008


(> . <)
posted by loquacious at 10:39 PM on April 13, 2008 [3 favorites]


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posted by lalochezia at 10:39 PM on April 13, 2008


That obituary was filled with the kind of quotes you'd really like to see in your obituary:

“For me, he was the last Titan, the only [your field] superhero still standing.”

“You can talk about people like Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, but the thing that convinced me that such people existed were the conversations with [you],”

“The poetic [you] is a prophet,” he said, “standing like Moses on the top of Mount Pisgah, looking out over the promised land that his people will one day inherit.”

Thanks for a great obit post. I'd never heard of this man before today.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:41 PM on April 13, 2008


Goddamn.
posted by jmhodges at 10:42 PM on April 13, 2008


Wow, yeah, I didn't realize he was still alive either. I usually fall in the "." camp or just don't post anything at all (usually the latter) but I have an immense amount of respect for men like this (well, people.) Ninety six? Christ. I hope to live even close to that long, and even having done so I highly doubt I'll have contributed anything near as useful as Wheeler did. R.I.P. indeed.

With any luck the mysteries of the natural universe that physicists push so hard to grasp are somewhat more clear to him now.
posted by Stunt at 10:47 PM on April 13, 2008


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posted by Salmonberry at 10:51 PM on April 13, 2008


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posted by dr. moot at 10:57 PM on April 13, 2008


The NYT usually gives pretty good obituary but they outdid themselves this time.

As is only appropriate...
posted by blm at 11:12 PM on April 13, 2008


These "old school/we stand on the shoulders of giants" physicists are dying out rapidly.

If I were he, I wouldn't be satisfied with a simple . to mark my passing.

Therefore, I leave a(n)

O

/I'm sure he'd get it.
posted by Sphinx at 11:15 PM on April 13, 2008


I plowed my way through bits of Gravitation, a true leviathan of a book. I have since met and spoken with Misner and Thorne and it pains me that now I shall never get a chance to do the same with Wheeler.

This one really hurts.
posted by hindmost at 11:18 PM on April 13, 2008


Black Hole Sun.
posted by Tube at 11:19 PM on April 13, 2008


Anyone who could claim Richard Feynman, Kip Thorne, Hugh Everett, and Bill Unruh as his graduate students was clearly doing something right.
posted by RichardP at 11:32 PM on April 13, 2008 [4 favorites]


“everything comes out of higgledy-piggledy”
RIP John Wheeler.
posted by tellurian at 11:40 PM on April 13, 2008


. <-- 10x mass of sun.
posted by Artw at 12:00 AM on April 14, 2008 [4 favorites]


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posted by Gary at 12:04 AM on April 14, 2008


. (the lone electron)

As a by-product of this same view, I received a telephone call one day at the graduate college at Princeton from Professor Wheeler, in which he said, "Feynman, I know why all electrons have the same charge and the same mass" "Why?" "Because, they are all the same electron!" And, then he explained on the telephone, "suppose that the world lines which we were ordinarily considering before in time and space - instead of only going up in time were a tremendous knot, and then, when we cut through the knot, by the plane corresponding to a fixed time, we would see many, many world lines and that would represent many electrons, except for one thing. If in one section this is an ordinary electron world line, in the section in which it reversed itself and is coming back from the future we have the wrong sign to the proper time - to the proper four velocities - and that's equivalent to changing the sign of the charge, and, therefore, that part of a path would act like a positron."
posted by scodger at 12:33 AM on April 14, 2008 [5 favorites]


How unfortunate that the man who coined the term "black hole" died just before the Large Hadron Collider would have offered him the chance to be swallowed up by one.

As I recall (from his autobiography, Geons Black Holes and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics) Wheeler was giving a talk about what we now call black holes, complained a bit about the awkwardness of the terms he was using to refer to them, and someone in the audience suggested "black holes"-- shouted it out, I hope, but I don't remember for sure.
posted by jamjam at 12:43 AM on April 14, 2008


Thanks for a great obit post. I'd never heard of this man before today.
posted by Bookhouse at 6:41 AM on April 14 [+] [!]


I guess thats one good thing to come out of this then. For those of us in the world of physics, it is difficult to explain how much of a Giant this man is/was.

Besides his own considerable achievements, he was also the Great Mentor, the wise man on the hill to which Feynman and others made pilgrimages to. Even at an old age, Wheeler still had the daring creativity of a youth. I think he was last working on developing one of his pet ideas - that the history of the Universe in many ways is still being created in the same way as its future, one huge interwoven narrative with seams running backward and forward through time.

He was the Einstein of our own age and although he lived many long years it is still a tragedy to see such a great mind, such a beautiful and complex construction, now die and decay.
posted by vacapinta at 12:54 AM on April 14, 2008


Great obit. Every time I read a quote about him from someone, it was always one of admiration - whether it was about his intellect, personality, the lot. I think 'the last titan' is completely fitting, and I can't think of anyone else who could deserve such a title.

Sad day.
posted by dowcrag at 1:00 AM on April 14, 2008


For Wheeler's 90th Birthday, all these great physicists held a meetup in his honor called:
Science and Ultimate Reality.
posted by vacapinta at 1:08 AM on April 14, 2008


Fig. A: ______________________________

Fig. B: ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::


As the . is affected by tidal forces upon passing through the Event Horizon,
will it be stretched like spaghetti [Fig. A] or dissembled into foam [Fig. B]? Explain your answer.

posted by Smart Dalek at 3:57 AM on April 14, 2008 [3 favorites]


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posted by Skorgu at 4:05 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by The Monkey at 4:14 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by Westringia F. at 4:16 AM on April 14, 2008


what a loss
posted by Pia at 4:36 AM on April 14, 2008


Whoa--I'm in the middle of a book on the "current state of physics" (they have to publish a new one every few days) and Wheeler is all over the place. Just last night I was thinking "how is this guy still alive?"
posted by DU at 4:41 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by effwerd at 4:51 AM on April 14, 2008


shit.
posted by flippant at 4:55 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by TedW at 5:16 AM on April 14, 2008


DU: please start thinking about Britney. (You never know your luck).
posted by Leon at 5:26 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by elmono at 5:34 AM on April 14, 2008


An inspirational life.
posted by snarfodox at 6:04 AM on April 14, 2008


An extremely moving tribute from Wheeler's student and collaborator Daniel Holz (on CosmicVariance).
posted by Westringia F. at 6:07 AM on April 14, 2008


Great obit, with a perfect mix of physics and life. Some more pull quotes:

Recalling his student days, Dr. Feynman once said, “Some people think Wheeler’s gotten crazy in his later years, but he’s always been crazy.”

Two years later, Dr. Wheeler was swept up in the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. To his lasting regret, the bomb was not ready in time to change the course of the war in Europe and possibly save his brother Joe, who died in combat in Italy in 1944.

In 1973, Dr. Wheeler and two former students, Dr. Misner and Kip Thorne, of the California Institute of Technology, published “Gravitation,” a 1,279-page book whose witty style and accessibility — it is chockablock with sidebars and personality sketches of physicists — belies its heft and weighty subject. It has never been out of print.

And his wife died last fall... at 99.

Thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 6:09 AM on April 14, 2008


One interesting little fact about JAW: he was missing the tip of his index finger. When interviewing him nearly two decades ago, I asked him about it. It turns out that Wheeler -- who was an important part of the hydrogen-bomb program and spent a great deal of intellectual effort pondering the big bang -- had blown it off with a blasting cap when he was ten.

"I always liked explosions," he told me.
posted by cgs06 at 6:16 AM on April 14, 2008 [4 favorites]


This kind of thinking frustrated Einstein, who once asked Dr. Wheeler if the Moon was still there when nobody looked at it.

That sounds like a line from a Jim Harrison poem. Really.


In the summers, Dr. Wheeler would retire with his extended family to a compound on High Island, Me., to indulge his taste for fireworks by shooting beer cans out of an old cannon.

I used to write obits for the Chicago Tribune, and it was this sort of minute detail that made it so interesting and rewarding.

It's heartwarming to think he will remembered fondly, both by some of the greatest scientists alive today, and by some guy up in Maine who would hear a boom look across the bay and think...

"Ayyupp. Dahm professah got his howitzah out agin"

nice piece ikky
posted by timsteil at 6:39 AM on April 14, 2008


Wow.

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posted by adamdschneider at 7:15 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by ob at 7:38 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by schyler523 at 7:48 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by halonine at 8:11 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by samsara at 8:20 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by eriko at 8:41 AM on April 14, 2008


I've read lots about him, but until now didn't realize he had still been alive.

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posted by cerebus19 at 8:50 AM on April 14, 2008


One of the best obituary posts I've read on Metafilter. When you study science, these figures really do stand as something very much like titans: they are larger than life. And like the WWII generation in general, they are nearly all gone now. Thanks for a great post ikkyu2.
posted by nanojath at 8:50 AM on April 14, 2008


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posted by casarkos at 9:53 AM on April 14, 2008


Dammit, that dot was black on preview.
I'll bet I wasn't the first person here to try that.

It's kind of terrible that I learn about so many neat people like Wheeler only when they die.
posted by casarkos at 9:58 AM on April 14, 2008


vacapinta: "Thanks for a great obit post. I'd never heard of this man before today.
posted by Bookhouse at 6:41 AM on April 14 [+] [!]


I guess thats one good thing to come out of this then. For those of us in the world of physics, it is difficult to explain how much of a Giant this man is/was.

Besides his own considerable achievements, he was also the Great Mentor, the wise man on the hill to which Feynman and others made pilgrimages to. Even at an old age, Wheeler still had the daring creativity of a youth. I think he was last working on developing one of his pet ideas - that the history of the Universe in many ways is still being created in the same way as its future, one huge interwoven narrative with seams running backward and forward through time.
"

I see he's been hitting the DMT pipe again. Calling Terence McKenna!

Yes, yes, I know, they're not even in the same league. Just saying. Terence called, he wants his Time Wave back.
posted by symbioid at 10:30 AM on April 14, 2008


Whenever I hear Wheeler's name, I always think of this image, which Wheeler drew and included in one of his papers. (I thought it was pretty famous, so when trying to hunt it down I was somewhat surprised to find it only on a couple crazy spirituality sites.)

It's a representation of Wheeler's participatory anthropic principle, which states that the universe could not have come into existence had it not led to the emergence of conscious beings that could observe it. Too weird.
posted by painquale at 12:04 PM on April 14, 2008


...then he melted a record and madfe it into an ashtray!
posted by Artw at 12:06 PM on April 14, 2008


"Time is nature's way to keep everything from happening at once." -- John Wheeler
posted by McLir at 12:15 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]


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posted by monocot at 12:45 PM on April 14, 2008


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posted by alby at 12:55 PM on April 14, 2008


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posted by RussHy at 1:12 PM on April 14, 2008


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posted by Crabby Appleton at 4:27 PM on April 14, 2008


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posted by Quietgal at 7:11 PM on April 14, 2008


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Taught me everything I know about number theory. He is infinity... infinite dots...
posted by zengargoyle at 10:53 PM on April 14, 2008


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posted by joedan at 3:54 PM on April 15, 2008


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