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OBITUARIES : John A. Wheeler, 1911 - 2008

Major figure in 20th century physics

April 15, 2008|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

John A. Wheeler, the fertile-minded physicist who popularized mind-stretching ideas about black holes, wormholes and quantum foam and also confounded admirers by helping to conceive some of the most potent weapons of mass destruction, has died. He was 96.

Wheeler died Sunday morning of pneumonia at his home in Hightstown, N.J., according to his daughter, Alison Wheeler Lahnston. He had been in poor health for the last week.

In the world of science, the 20th century was seen as the century of physics, and Wheeler was its most imaginative adman. He was also science's Zelig, seeming to be present at every important event or discovery. In a career that spanned eight decades, Wheeler consulted with Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer to build the atomic bomb, helped Edward Teller with the hydrogen bomb, argued quantum mechanics with Albert Einstein and then, in middle age, turned his nimble mind to some of the most challenging problems of cosmology.

Are there multiple universes? If there are, how can we move from one to the other? Would anything exist if mankind -- the observer/participator -- wasn't around to see it?

He fearlessly explored such ideas as the possibility of traveling across deep space in fanciful constructs he named wormholes, by his example giving lesser-known physicists the courage to pursue cosmological questions without fear of ridicule.

Along the way, he nurtured the careers of a new generation of physicists, from Nobel laureate Richard Feynman to Caltech's Kip Thorne.

To the end, Wheeler asked big questions, adopting a personal mantra: "How come the quantum? How come existence?"

"Some people think Wheeler's gotten crazy in his later years," Feynman said. "But he's always been crazy."

Born July 9, 1911, in Jacksonville, Fla., John Archibald Wheeler was the eldest of four children of peripatetic librarians. At age 4, he asked his mother about the universe. "Where does it end? How far out can you go?"

Her answer -- if any answer is possible -- didn't satisfy. "This created a terrible worry in my mind," he said in a 2003 interview. While still a child, Wheeler turned to J. Arthur Thompson's "Outline of Science," which he read in the snow while fetching maple syrup near his Vermont home.

Curious to the point of ignoring the need for self-preservation, he set off bottle rockets indoors and once touched an 11,000-volt power line to see what it felt like.

After several moves across the country with his family, Wheeler attended Johns Hopkins University, earning a doctorate with a dissertation on the dispersion and absorption of helium. In 1933, he embarked upon one of the most profound journeys of his life, traveling to Copenhagen to study with Bohr, the physics giant who won a Nobel Prize for his explorations into the structure of the atom.

"You can talk about people like Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius," Wheeler told the New York Times in 2002 in discussing Bohr's inspirational genius. "But the thing that convinced me that such people existed were the conversations with Bohr."

Wheeler was teaching at Princeton University in 1939 when Bohr arrived in New York for a visit, carrying the alarming news that scientists in Nazi Germany had only weeks earlier found a way to split the uranium atom. "We at once plunged into the understanding of this act of fission," Wheeler said.

Two months later, he and Bohr were sitting in Einstein's office at Princeton when the Danish physicist declared that it was possible to make an atomic bomb, though "it would take the entire efforts of a nation to do it." After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 thrust the United States into World War II, these men were key thinkers in the Manhattan Project, commissioned by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to build an atomic weapon before the Germans.

Though Oppenheimer and other Manhattan Project scientists worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Wheeler consulted with DuPont engineers to build reactors in Hanford, Wash., that would supply the plutonium for the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. It was Wheeler's idea to house the reactors in domes, which have become the symbol of nuclear power plants.

Though the bomb makers would fall under criticism from succeeding generations of scientists, Wheeler was sorry that work on the bomb hadn't started earlier, feeling that it would have saved millions of lives, including that of his younger brother Joe. To the end of his life, Wheeler remained haunted by a note he received in 1944 from his brother, who was fighting in Europe. It contained two words: "Hurry up."

Joe Wheeler died fighting in Italy.

More criticism would come when he joined Teller, the supposed model for the ultrahawkish, deranged Dr. Strangelove of comic fiction, in building the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s. But Wheeler, ever the dutiful patriot nurtured on Cold War ideology, had trouble understanding the other side.

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