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House of Representatives Honors John Archibald Wheeler

Richard M. Jones
Number 50 - April 23, 2008  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Yesterday the House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring John Archibald Wheeler, who died on April 13. Representative Bill Foster (D-IL) introduced this measure. Foster recently won a special election to replace Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), who resigned from the House.

Before passage of this measure several representatives rose to honor Wheeler. Excerpts from their remarks follow:

REP. BRIAN BAIRD (D-WA):

"I rise today to pay tribute to a great American scientist, Dr. John Archibald Wheeler. Dr. Wheeler passed away recently at the age of 96. He was a pioneer in the fields of nuclear and theoretical physics. Along with Niels Bohr, Dr. Wheeler worked out the first explanation of how nuclear fission actually worked. During the war years, Dr. Wheeler went to work on the Manhattan Project, helping to understand the theoretical basis for plutonium production. After the war, Dr. Wheeler continued his work for the country by helping to develop the American hydrogen bomb.

"After returning to academia, Dr. Wheeler continued his contributions to the field of physics. In 1957, Dr. Wheeler created the concept of wormholes to describe tunnels in space-time, and in 1967 he coined the term 'black hole,' not to describe Congress, but as part of the theory of gravitational collapse.

"John Wheeler also contributed greatly to the scientific community with his devotion to teaching and training the next generation of scientists. He was a devoted teacher and textbook author, and served as a professor for over 70 years. Some of his graduate students included Richard Feynman, Kip Thorne, and Hugh Everett, all renowned physicists in their own right.

"Mr. Speaker, last week we lost one of the truly great scientific minds of the 20th century. I urge my colleagues to support this resolution honoring John Wheeler's achievements and expressing our profound condolences on his passing."

REP. FRANK LUCAS (R-OK):

"I rise today in support of House Resolution 1118, honoring the life and achievements of John Archibald Wheeler and expressing condolences on his passing. Dr. John Archibald Wheeler, who was one of America's greatest physicists, passed away this last week at the age of 96. Dr. Wheeler's wife of over 70 years passed away in 2007; and he is survived by three children, eight grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, six step grandchildren, and 11 step great-grandchildren. What a fruitful life.

"Dr. Wheeler was a man who was decades ahead of his time. He not only played a key role in the development of the theory of nuclear fission with Niels Bohr, but also became the first scientist to give black holes and wormholes a name.

"Dr. Wheeler is described as a visionary physicist and teacher. His work on the Manhattan Project in 1941 helped build the atomic bomb. Always seeking answers to the larger questions of the universe, he would spend his time debating the meaning of the quantum theory and the nature of reality with Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr.

"John Archibald Wheeler was born on July 9, 1911, in Jacksonville, Florida. Dr. Wheeler earned his Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University at the old age of 21 years.

"Dr. Wheeler accomplished many things during his lifetime. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was his ability to inspire generations of physicists and scientists through his teachings at Princeton and at the University of Texas, and his constant ambition to answer the greatest questions of the universe.

"In 1981, Dr. Wheeler wrote: 'We are no longer satisfied with insights only into particles, or fields of force, or geometry, or even space and time; today we demand of physics some understanding of existence itself.' Think about that. It is for this constant quest for knowledge that inspired his life and will continue to inspire the American scientific community. Mr. Speaker, I urge my colleagues to support House Resolution 1118."

REP. BILL FOSTER (D-IL):

"Mr. Speaker, earlier this month the United States lost a colossus within the science community, a visionary who advanced our understanding of the universe while inspiring generations of younger scientists. John Archibald Wheeler is perhaps best known to the public for coining the term 'black hole,' but throughout his career he also worked alongside the likes of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr on theoretical physics' most puzzling questions, helped develop the hydrogen bomb, and, upon his death on April 13, was appropriately called: The last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing.

"For 22 years, I was a particle physicist at Fermi National Laboratory, working with my colleagues on giant experiments to move beyond the horizons of current scientific understanding. As a graduate student at Harvard and as an undergraduate before that, I could not escape the mention of John Wheeler's name engraved on the promontories or floating on the delicate backwaters of what is now called modern physics.

"As a member of the tribe of experimental physicists, that is, people like me who did real experiments in the real world, we were always surrounded by a wondrous shimmering cloud of theoretical physicists. These are men and women who spend their days bobbing and weaving through the world of what might be mathematically possible, of what might show up in experiments that have yet to be invented, or what might have shown up if we had just done the last experiment just a little more carefully. John Wheeler was one of the most luminous droplets in that shimmering cloud.

"As young scientists, we studied the legacy of those great minds, physicists like Einstein, Bohr, Enrico Fermi, and John Archibald Wheeler. To a fellow physicist, the breadth of John Wheeler's achievements are staggering. Born in Jacksonville, Florida on July 9, 1911, he graduated from high school at 15, and earned his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University at the age of 21. He sailed to Copenhagen a year later to begin work with the eminent physicist Niels Bohr, and in 1939 the pair produced the first description of how nuclear fission works. During the Second World War, Dr. Wheeler joined with scientists working on the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb. He continued to work with the U.S. government well after the war, and was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award by President Johnson in 1968.

"By the time he returned to academic life, Dr. Wheeler had become fascinated with Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Studying gravitational collapse, he introduced not only the term black hole, but also the concept of the wormhole, a hypothetical tunnel in space-time. Dr. Wheeler was willing to passionately consider seemingly incomprehensible phenomena. In 1999, he wrote that the black hole 'teaches us that space can be crumpled like a piece of paper into an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a blown-out flame, and that the laws of physics that we regard as sacred, as immutable, are anything but.' His work in the 1960s revived and transformed this field.

"In the last years of his career, Dr. Wheeler considered the mysterious and sometimes bizarre world of quantum mechanics, seeking connections between science and philosophy to explain fundamental questions of existence.

"Despite these high achievements, Dr. Wheeler remained committed to the nurturing of the next generation of scientists. He continued to teach introductory classes to undergraduates throughout his career, and he mentored some of the century's most noted theoretical physicists. Any physicist with the amount and color of the hair that I possess will also have indelible memories of 'MTW,' the big black book called Gravitation authored by Misner, Thorne, and John Archibald Wheeler that describes in intuitive terms what is really going on in Einstein's general theory of relativity.

"So at a time when the primacy of our Nation's science programs are in peril, John Wheeler's example should remind us of our own commitment to the next generation of American scientists and innovators.

"Mr. Speaker, it is an honor to introduce this resolution, and I urge my colleagues to join me in honoring the life and achievements of John Wheeler. The power of his intellectual accomplishments and the memorable color of his phrases will grace physics textbooks forever."

The text of the House Resolution follows:

JOHN ARCHIBALD WHEELER -- (House of Representatives - April 22, 2008)

H. Res. 1118

Whereas John Archibald Wheeler was born July 9, 1911, in Jacksonville, Florida;

Whereas John Wheeler graduated from high school at age 15 and earned a Ph.D. in physics from Johns Hopkins University at age 21;

Whereas Dr. Wheeler then moved to Copenhagen to work in the field of nuclear physics with pioneering physicist Niels Bohr;

Whereas, while still in his 20s, Dr. Wheeler, then a Professor of Physics at Princeton, along with Dr. Bohr in 1939 worked out the first explanation of how the newly discovered nuclear fission actually worked;

Whereas Dr. Wheeler spent the war years at Hanford, Washington working on the theoretical understanding of nuclear reactions that led to production of plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki and later worked on the development of the American hydrogen bomb under Project Matterhorn B;

Whereas Dr. Wheeler then returned to Princeton where, after discussion with Albert Einstein, he switched from the study of nuclear physics to working on extending the theory of general relativity, including in 1957 creating the concept of wormholes to describe tunnels in space-time and in 1967 coining the term black hole as part of the theory of gravitational collapse;

Whereas Dr. Wheeler was a visionary who could see farther on the horizon than most people by way of his physical intuition;

Whereas Dr. Wheeler was a beloved academic who trained some of the best minds in the next generation of physicists, a gifted communicator sometimes called a physics poet, and an active researcher for over 70 years; and

Whereas Dr. Wheeler was, in the words of Dr. Max Texmark, the last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing until the time of his death on April 13, 2008: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives--

(1) honors the life and accomplishments of Professor John Archibald Wheeler and expresses condolences on his passing; and

(2) recognizes the profound importance of Dr. Wheeler's record as a pioneer in nuclear and theoretical physics and a long-time contributor to advancing mankind's understanding of the nature and workings of the universe.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095