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Oral History Transcript — Dr. John Wheeler

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Interview with Dr. John Wheeler
By Kenneth W. Ford
At Jadwin Hall, Princeton University
March 21, 1994


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What piece of work most missed the mark? I think in fission I could have done so much more if I had given more time to the subject, that is, the role of the independent-particle model in influencing the course of fission phenomena, why the nucleus breaks into the fragments that it does break into. And the nuclear shell model work.

There must be things in elementary-particle physics that lay within the doability that I didn't see or go for, and I don't immediately think of what they were. I think the place where I most fell down was not going in for some of the methods of Schwinger and Dyson in electrodynamics. Let me call myself too parochial, too provincial, too set in doing things my own way by my own methods.


The most onerous duties? Reorganizing the American Physical Society had a lot of interest because it was a kind of work new to me, but also had some sides that were sad. Karl Darrow was really the central reason why my colleagues insisted that the Physical Society organization had to be modified. I was the one on whom the burden fell to get it done, because I had good relations with Karl Darrow. He had been a kind host to Janette and me on more than one occasion. He was a great asset to the American Physical Society, a man of great culture and learning. At the Mexico City joint meeting of the American Physical Society with the Mexican colleagues, Karl Darrow gave an address in Spanish, and like other addresses of his, he had memorized his in advance so he didn't have to look at any papers as he gave it. A man of great integrity. But after the reorganization had been done, he used to refer to my part in it as having ousted him. That was a sad response.

There was somebody in the Princeton community who had been involved in the organization of his society. It must have been an engineering society. I ought to be able to remember his name. He drew up constitutional amendments that would accomplish what we needed to do. I checked things out with the fellow members of the Council, but of course we had to have a proper meeting to go over the constitutional provisions, and I knew that the discussion would drag on and on forever if people all sat around the big table with piles of papers and drafts in front of them, so I think I took a rather drastic measure. I had the various pages of the proposed wording and the former wording put on xerox transparencies and projected them in a darkened room at the Council meeting, so that they couldn't see any other papers. [laughs] It really was a wonderful way to focus attention on the questions at issue.


K: h3>Was it that reorganization that led to the divisional structure of APS?




K: John, you skipped one "Most." I don't know whether it was by accident or deliberate. It was the one about your most substantial influence on others' work. I think your comments there would be of interest, especially since so many people say they were positively influenced by you.

Students who worked with me. What was my influence on them? I just hope it wasn't making them feel they couldn't do anything unless they did it with me. I hope that they came to appreciate how much fun it is kicking around a deep question to find an answer to it. This phrase "deep happy mysteries" captures only a part of the story. The word "happy" is not strong enough for the lively give and take of discussion. I think discussion is the key point there. In this weekend trip I've just come back from to Rome, I found myself talking with my colleague Ciufolini, who was kind enough to pick me up at the airport with his car and deliver me to the airport in his car yesterday morning. I got talking about pulsars and gravitational radiation from pulsars, and we found ourselves talking about the millisecond pulsars which are spinning very fast. The magnetic field must stick out from such a thing like the wings of a goldfinch or flycatcher. As these fields turn, they must carry energy around with them and therefore serve as a source for gravitational radiation, high frequency gravitational radiation. So we found ourselves talking about using a tuning fork to detect this, listening to the hum of the tuning fork and putting up near it a hearing aid which would amplify a weak acoustic signal to make a strong acoustic signal. We both have more to do on that subject, and the idea is so appealing that anybody could run away with it, and so I find myself doing what I feel a little ashamed of doing—not talking about it to everybody, so that the credit will not go away from Ciufolini if it works out.

K: One thing we left off this list of "Mosts" was public service. Maybe just to add that, you might comment on what were your most significant or most satisfying experiences in public service in this period.


I can remember serving on the general scientific advisory board of the Air Force and pushing for making missiles with multiple warheads because they pose such an obstacle for anybody with a ballistic missile defense system. I know that some of my colleagues in the arms control community felt very unhappy with the fact that this country had gone in for multiple warhead missiles, feeling it was a great obstacle to the control of nuclear weapons and that one should institute some provision that would outlaw anything but single-warhead missiles. I even drew up a draft of a statement that went into the original draft of the advisory committee of the Air Force on this point. I served for a time on the visiting committee of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and also on the visiting committee for the laboratories at the University of California at Livermore and Los Alamos. A little bit after that time came a strong effort from the faculty at the University of California to get rid of those laboratories or to shut down one of them. There was to be a critical meeting of the Board of Regents of the University of California one morning, and it was not till the day before that I put together a statement on the subject which I hoped would influence them. It was faxed out there, and I think it had some influence in them not getting rid of one of the laboratories.

It was a great treat to meet on that same visiting committee General Jimmy Doolittle, who always sat up so straight, so alert, and had such good questions. I recall also his procedure which he advised us all to follow: If you're going to say something, make it short and strong.

It was in connection with the work of that committee that we learned about one of the measures that the Los Alamos people had taken to make sure that their staff was being protected from accidental exposure to radioactivity or radioactive materials. Somebody in the staff developed a tank of scintillator fluid, and a staff member could strip and be lowered, immersed in that. The scintillator fluid [would] give off flashes from any emission of radioactive particles into the fluid. Well, it turned out that this study showed that men produced typically twice as much radioactivity as women. Was this that they were less careful about cleaning their hands of radioactive materials, or what? Then finally somebody realized there is a radioactivity of natural potassium, and men had more potassium than women, more muscle. So that flap was overcome by natural means.


I suppose the most prestigious committee I served on was the President's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. I think that my being there was at the instance of Kissinger, who was close to Nixon; this was in the administration of Nixon. Being nominated for that committee was not enough; you had to be confirmed by the Senate. I believe if you had been voted on and confirmed by the Senate, you are entitled to use the word Esquire after your name. I've never really found that especially appealing, but it was a reflection of that.

It was the most interesting group of people outside my normal bailiwick. William Casey, the head of the CIA: I always enjoyed talking with. He had . . . there's a new life of Casey, and I must get hold of that and read up about it. He told me about how he got started in setting up a book that had to do with tax law review; the selling of this book brought him in quite a lot of income. It was this income that brought him money; he was a contributor to the Nixon campaign. In the beginning he was appointed to a position in the State Department, where he had a chance to use what influence he could muster with Congress to promote trade with South American countries. But by the time I knew him, he had been in the CIA. I'd like to check whether that was also the time when the destabilization of the government of Chile took place, the Communist government of Salvador Allende, and ended with the death of Allende, and just how you go about destabilizing a country.

Richard Helms I had known previously, who had been involved in a similar enterprise of destabilizing the government in Iran. What point of view should one take toward those actions. In the case of Chile, the whole thing has turned out by now pretty well, in the sense that Chile has become more democratic and is economically one of the most prosperous of the South American countries. I can recall a Russian friend talking about the influence that Russia was winning by converting country after country in South America to the Communist camp. He said, "You watch what we're going to do to you."


I think I mentioned my friend Claudio Teitelboim's father being the leader of the Communist Party in Chile and an elected member of the Chilean Senate, and how he had had to flee. He spent the intervening years in Moscow, but when it was possible to come back, he arrived saying, "Now we must start the revolution." His son had to tell him that was not the climate or not the time. Well, I wonder if I should tell you about Teitelboim's friends in Moscow. One of his friends in Moscow was one of the seven or eight secretaries of Stalin. These secretaries shared two rooms between them, not far from Stalin's office, and one of their duties was to go over the paper every day and make sure there was nothing unfavorable to Stalin, because if there was anything found, it usually meant a death sentence for somebody. Well this friend of this senior Teitelboim one day noticed that on the front page there was a picture of Stalin, but on the back side of that page, in other words on page 2, right at the place overlying the Stalin picture, was a picture of a cow. Well, he thought this was just the sort of thing that would drive Stalin up a tree, and he collected all his things together. He thought it meant the end of the road for him in that office. He collected all his things together. He went around to see each one of these fellow secretaries in turn, essentially saying goodbye to each, and then he went in to see Stalin. Well, Stalin wasn't upset at all. He said most people would never notice the coincidence. But how about living in that life?

Neruda, the Nobel Prize winning poet, was a friend of the senior Teitelboim. Teitelboim has written a fascinating life of Neruda. The University of Texas Press has published the English translation of that Teitelboim life of Pablo Neruda, and it's published also as a separate book many of the poems of Neruda.

K: Is Claudio Teitelboim at Texas, or is he in Chile?

Claudio Teitelboim was a faculty member at Texas for a time, but he had courage enough to give that up, feeling that he couldn't be two people at once; he couldn't be professor of physics there and also a leader of restoration of science in Chile. But he comes from time to time to the Institute for Advanced Study as a way to keep in the swim of things. I certainly advocate the view that nobody can be anybody without somebodies around, and Claudio Teitelboim, by going to the Institute, has that. I have been very pleased that he has set up a foundation, a Chilean foundation, to support the work of his center. He has told me what an experience it was for him to meet businessmen. He was unaccustomed to them. He spoke about how direct and practical they were, kept their mind and eye on the ball, moving things ahead. And it's certainly a good thing for Chile to have that experience. I don't know how the Chileans as a whole feel about science. It's a hard thing to absorb. But I was struck that the observation of that fascinating supernova 1987A took place at one of the observatories in the north of Chile.


Modern Mechanics book

We were talking about things that didn't work out so well. That makes me think of projects that I started but never finished. One was a book called Modern Mechanics, designed to show simple ways through complicated problems like the three-body problem. I know Arthur Wightman told me he felt that I didn't really deserve the title of "Modern Mechanics," I didn't deserve to steal it, because there was no reference in it to the Arnold and Avez work on ergodic motion. My course notes were designed to be a start toward that book. I suppose that's because in my first arrival in Princeton the course I was given to teach was mechanics for juniors.

The Acapulco Effect

Another book for which I continue to collect materials is called The Acapulco Effect and Other Interesting Physical Effects. The visit to the Scripps Oceanographic Institute at La Jolla, California, every time I make it, is a joy because of Walter Munk's ingenious ideas. He told me about the measurement of the spectrum of the tides and the ocean waves that hit the shore and how the typical period between wave peaks is about 8 seconds, but this can change because these waves that one typically gets are due typically to storms within a few thousand miles of the point in question on the shore where one is. But if there had been a prolonged period without any storm within a few thousand miles, there still come waves on a typical point of observation on the Pacific Rim, but [with a] period of more like 10 seconds. Where do those waves come from? They come from much greater distances, and the distance filters out preferentially the quicker vibrations, leaving the longer period vibrations to come. But where do they come from? Typically from the Tasman Sea south of Tasmania, the stormiest area in the world. So far it all makes sense. But then, when one measured the spectrum of the ocean height at Acapulco, it turned out there were not only these 8- to 10-second waves of other typical spots around the Pacific, but also a peak around 20 minutes. Well, what could generate a wave of 20 minutes? Of course, one can think immediately of Old Faithful in Yellowstone going off every hour, and one can think of the so-called Jesuit Spring under the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Bar Harbor in Maine. But Old Faithful going off every hour, could there not just as well be an Old Faithful beneath the ocean off the coast of Acapulco? Walter had another idea, which proved out. His idea was based on what one knows about an organ pipe. If one puts an organ pipe with a low frequency tone in a room where all kinds of noises are being generated, then one will hear near the mouth of the organ pipe the typical long period tone of that organ pipe generated by the random noise in the room. His thought was that around Acapulco there could be a body of water which resonates to this 20-minute period of random disturbances in the outlying ocean. So he calculated what would have to be the outer limit of the organ pipe to give it the 20- minute period. One knew enough about the depth of the water already in the nearer portions of the Bay of Acapulco. Under his instigation surveys were carried out further out, and indeed there was found a lip in the topography of the ocean bottom which gave that body of water in effect a 20-minute period. Well, there are other interesting physical effects that one can find throughout nature, and they would be the subject of that proposed book. It would be fun if one had an infinite number of lives to do an infinite number of projects in one's retirement years.

Elan and morale

But I think more important, and a project that would have more influence, would be one collecting instances of what affects the elan and morale of a community or a person. I have several drawers full of materials on that topic. I once gave a talk on the subject. Well, when my mind goes further than it has already, I can undertake one or another of those projects.

Super-heavy nuclei

Frederick Werner and I did an analysis by the very simplest means of what nuclei one could expect to find in nature, especially in the super-heavy domain. We did not take account of nuclear shell effects, but the discoverer of spontaneous fission, Flerov, did consider shell effects and concluded that the domain of nuclear stability would not run uninterrupted to the numbers so high as we had, that instead there would be a domain where instability won before one got to the more extended region where there was once again stability. That more remote region of stability he called the island of stability. It's illustrated with a lovely diagram on the front cover of the book by him. He has a special right to speak on the subject, since he's the one who first observed spontaneous fission. Rick Werner and I would have loved to go on with that subject, but his health is such and my time is such that we never manage it.

Processes of atomic physics

He had given me help in earlier days on yet another project that I later abandoned—that is, I had in mind a book on the elementary processes of atomic physics, the Compton effect being one where statistical methods are a pleasure to use and give one a great deal of insight. The Compton effect and the Raman effect. I think that my interest in that project—the proposed book on elementary processes of atomic physics—arose out of my always delight in the book of Mott and Massey on the Theory of Atomic Collisions. There was so much more that one could add.

Scattering of gamma rays by atoms

And Richard Feynman and I had once looked into the Compton scattering of gamma rays by the statistical-atom model of Thomas and Fermi. That was a problem that Heisenberg had written on, if I remember correctly. It was just fun. What is the fun element? I suppose it's the business of getting concrete predictions and making nice diagrams that illustrate those predictions in a way that appeals to the imagination and the understanding.

Other thoughts on unfinished projects

Among the topics in a book that might be written on the Acapulco effect and other interesting physical effects is the method by which bats locate their prey: echo ranging, I guess that's the title for it. If I understand it right, it's not only bats, but other animals that have the equivalent technique.

My son and his wife brought me back from a visit to Greece a piece of marble from the garden of the Groves of Academe, where Plato and Aristotle used to walk and talk. It's always appealing to the imagination to think of a little oven in which one could shove such a stone that would bring out the sounds captured from long ago so one could hear them talking. I've never tried to make a numerical estimate as to whether that's within the bounds of imaginability.


I had been at a Solvay Congress in 1958 [later? '76±? K] and, if I remember right, George Sudarshan of The University of Texas was there and spoke to me about how they would love to have me visit and come there. I think his favoring that idea was what led the department at Texas to make a direct overture. I can't recall exactly how that came, but there was a letter from the then chairman of the department, Tom Griffy. The letter from him came just as I was going to Florida to the conference organized there on elementary processes of molecular and atomic physics. Janette was going with me, so we took that letter along to talk it over. I took the proposed draft of a reply to the department secretary there, and she was kind enough to type it up, and we sent it air mail to Tom Griffy. Then there came a call and I made a quick trip from Florida to Austin to review the situation, and that's when we decided to go. I figured it was straight-out resigning from Princeton, because I was not yet at what I consider to be Princeton's retirement age of 70, but my good friend Aaron Lemonick, Dean of the Faculty at Princeton, had another think. He said, "If you call it resignation, that's one thing, but if you call it retirement, that's another. You get some retirement benefits, and the university can keep up your medical care policy, and so on." So he was kind enough to set it up that way, as retirement rather than resignation. I tried to indicate to my friends in Princeton there was nothing at fault with the university that led to my going. I just simply pointed to a clock going around inside me that said, "Boy, you ought to slow down."

K: At that time, was the mandatory retirement age at Princeton 70, not 65?

Yes, 70. I think I'm right, but I never really studied it carefully. But it really was not so much retiring as starting a new life.

It took some time—I would say maybe four years—to build up a level of activity on that tenth floor that was what I wanted, where you'd meet one person in the hall—that would give you one thought, helping you on the way; then another person would help you along the way, and another way, and so on.

Let's see, we came back to Princeton, planning to go to Texas. This visit to Florida was obviously in the winter, but by the spring we moved. We put the house up for sale. The land on which it was built we got from the Institute for Advanced Study, and, according to the agreement with the Institute, they had to have first right of purchase at the price to be set by appraisers appointed by mutual agreement. We had decided that we really ought to sell rather than keep the house. We didn't want to live half in one place and half in the other. It was a psychological motive behind what we were doing rather than a financial motive. We would have today got a far better price for it than we did then. Carl Kaysen wanted the house, but he was not yet quite set for retirement. He was not to retire for another year. But he had worked out some deal by which some architect acquaintance would live in the house for the first year. At any rate, that resulted in air conditioning being put in. Carl Kaysen did not feel particularly welcome among the colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study, if I understand it right. One of them had developed a name for him, never called him Kaysen but always referred to him as Quondam, the Latin word for a has-been. Kaysen ultimately moved to the MIT environment.

We knew well Marshall Clagett, the historian of science, and his wife, and we knew that they were thinking of getting a house closer to the Institute. It was to them that, in the end, we sold the house.

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