Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Last Titan, The Only Physics Superhero Still Standing Leaves Us

Today I learned from the Los Angeles Times that John Wheeler had passed away.

OBITUARIES John A. Wheeler, 96; physicist coined the term 'black hole'

The title for this post is from a quote in the New York Times obituary.

My relations to the world of physics is the same as your average couch potato to the New York Giants. I stare fascinated at the exotic worlds envisioned by the minds of physicists and cosmologists though I do not have the formal education, especially math, to fully understand.

I do, however, have a great appreciation for their intelligence and imagination. It was more though with John Wheeler. He knew and discussed with Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr the laws of the universe. He was the Princeton thesis supervisor for both Richard Feynman and Hugh Everett. There is little hesitation to title John Wheeler a patriarch of 20th century American physics but what always came across to me was his humanity. One of my favorite books was Kip Thorne's Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy. In those pages he describes John Wheeler's celebration of his own birthday in which he lit a fireworks display beneath his chair at a Physics Seminar. What was most impressive to me was the conciseness of thought combined with wonder.

Paper in white the floor of the room, and rule it off in one-foot squares. Down on one's hands and knees, write in the first square a set of equations conceived as able to govern the physics of the universe. Think more overnight. Next day put a better set of equations into square two. Invite one's most respected colleagues to contribute to other squares. At the end of these labors, one has worked oneself out into the doorway. Stand up, look back on all those equations, some perhaps more hopeful than others, raise one's finger commandingly, and give the order "Fly!" Not one of those equations will put on wings, take off, or fly. Yet the universe "flies".

John Wheeler

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