John Archibald Wheeler April 16, 2008Posted by Peter Hornby in Science.
I saw from the BBC yesterday that John Archibald Wheeler had died at the age of 96. It seems to me, as someone with no professional standing in the area (but a healthy amateur interest), that Wheeler did three things extraordinarily well, two of them probably as well as anyone has ever done them.
First, he was, by any standards, a great physicist, over many, many decades, as far back as his groundbreaking work on nuclear fission with Niels Bohr in the late thirties. He was probably the force behind the rehabilitation of general relativity and the study of gravity as an active, vibrant field of study in the late fifties and early sixties, leading to the great results of Penrose, Hawking and others.
Second, he was a great teacher and adviser. Some of the best physicists of the century spent time working with him and for him – Feynman, Misner, Thorne and many others – and all of them attest to the formative – and transformative – effect he had on them, even when, as in Feynman’s case, he was not much older than his student.
Third, he was an absolutely peerless writer about physics. I don’t mean to classify him primarily as a populariser, although he did that uncommonly well too. Rather, he was able to convery deep physical insights in a way which was transparently clear, deeply illuminating and instantly identifiable as his work. Maybe the defining example of this characteristic is the monumental 1972 book “Gravitation“, written with Kip Thorne and Charles Misner and still available. I’m not qualified to comment on how well “Gravitation” has held up over thirty-six years (although it did play a central role in my being able to survive the paper on General Relativity in my final examinations as a mathematics student at Oxford University in 1975!). What I do know is that the style and approach were instantly clear and refreshing. I still recall feeling a shock of understanding when I read the sentence on page 5 in the very first chapter – “Space acts on matter, telling it how to move. In turn, matter reacts back on space, telling it how to curve“. That was John Archibald Wheeler at his incisive, intuitive, inspiring best.
Rest in peace.