John Wheeler 1911-2008

News of the death of John Wheeler came yesterday, and many people have already written detailed, touching and informative pieces about the man, his life and scientific achievements. See for example here, here, and here. With Wheeler gone, physics loses one of its very few living contacts with the early days of quantum mechanics, since his career reached back to the early thirties when he went to study with Bohr.

My most extensive contact with Wheeler was surely through learning GR from the marvelous textbook he co-authored on the subject. By the time I got to Princeton as a student, he had recently left for the University of Texas, in order to evade Princeton’s mandatory retirement age policy. He still was a presence in the department though, returning to give talks (I remember one that was an advertisement for the importance of the notion of a complex: “the boundary of a boundary is zero!” was the slogan). My only conversation with him was at a meeting organized between graduate students and a visiting committee of people evaluating the department. I recall a very friendly older man who came up to talk to me, and listened attentively to my going on for quite a while about how things could be improved. Only after we had finished speaking and he had left did I realize who I had been talking to. My overwhelming feeling immediately was that if I had realized this earlier I’d have much more enjoyed keeping quiet and getting the chance to ask him a few questions.

Update: See here for another article about Wheeler, from the University of Texas. It includes the claim that “Wheeler was the first person to emphasize the importance of string theory”, which, as far as I know, has nothing to do with reality.

Update: For more about Wheeler, see this interview just put on-line, and this discussion at Bloggingheads.

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21 Responses to John Wheeler 1911-2008

  1. Thomas Love says:

    Way back in 1973 I was a pilot in the USAF, thinking about graduate school. I wrote a handwritten letter to Wheeler. In response I received a 5 page handwritten letter from him with very good advice (including advertisements for his books). I only know him through his books and articles, but he had a profound effect on me and my work.

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  3. Wheeler-Thorne-Misner was also for me a very stimulating book, in particular his topological ideas were very inspiring. I remember also Boulder lectures. Without Wheeler’s very positive and detailed hand written summary about the article representing the first version of Topological Geometrodynamics it would have been probably very difficult to publish it. The attribute “Topological” was added to “Geometrodynamics” as the title of article for obvious reasons: I do not remember whether it was Wheeler or David Finkdelstein who proposed this. I am really proud of having had this contact.

  4. MathPhys says:

    Misner, Thorne and Wheeler is on the bookshelves of almost every person I know who trained and/or aspired to be a scientist in the 70’s.

  5. Dr. E says:

    John A. Wheeler was my advisor for my junior projects at Princeton.

    He was a “professor emeritus,” with an office on the third floor of Jadwin Hall.

    The first junior paper was on GR, and the second was on the EPR effect & quantum paradoxes.

    I had first come across Wheeler’s work my freshman year in the awesome book: Quantum Theory and Measurement (Princeton Series in Physics) by John Archibald Wheeler and Wojciech Hubert Zurek.

    There was a copy in my freshman dorm’s library–it was the only physics book in the rather small collection.

    I remember one autumn day, in his office in Jadwin Hall, he clenched his fist lightly and said that today’s culture lacks the noble. And he looked at me and said it was our generation’s duty to bring it back.

    This was around 1990; and think of all that we have seen in the past twenty years or so, in physics, politics, Wall Street, and beyond. It seems we have some work to do….

    Wheeler had walked with Einstein at Princeton and mentored Feynman. He came of age in an era when debates, as manifested by that by the Bohr Einstein dialogues, were marked by an exalted respect–both for one another and for Physical Reality. And he embodied that refined respect; with a humility matching his intellect and monumental accomplishments.

    He said that freshmen ought begin research right away, when he adressed the freshman class of physics majors; and he told us that while the grad students knew a few things, the professors knew even less. He said this with a wink and smile.

    He was a cordial friend to all; and always lent everyone his ear. He was most generous with his time; and his enthusiasm to “know what the show is all about, before its out,” was contagious. He was one of those rare intellectual leaders who inspired the better angels of our nature.

    Well, we will all miss him. And we ought do our best to thank him, by embodying his principles in our daily actions and contemplations–in our pursuit of physical reality’s fundamental nature.

  6. Ali says:

    Hi Peter,
    What is this Princeton’s mandatory retirement age? This is the first time I am hearing of this type of practice in USA.

  7. Peter Woit says:


    Many universities in the US used to have mandatory retirement ages for tenured faculty, typically age 70. This was made illegal in 1994.

  8. nontrad says:

    True, the UT article seems to suggest a quote by Unruh that relates Wheeler to ST. That’s strange, at least to me, since I can’t think of significant contributions to ST made by Unruh or Wheeler. But, I’m probably myopic and mistaken. The mix of folks and folklore and word of mouth can be hard to follow.

    That said, the UT article seems to reiterate a consistent point in the various tributes to Wheeler seen since his NYT obit: He advocated for physic’s future in general; and the younger generations in particular.

    A man who truly made difference.

  9. nbutsomebody says:

    I regret that I did not have the opportunity to meet the last of the giants.

  10. Thomas Love says:

    Peter, This is the only comment by Wheeler on strings that I have found so far:

    “Space and time are not things, but orders of things. If these words of old call to a new and deeper conception of space and time than Einstein’s publications give us, then in what direction are we to look? For a reply, many today would point to string theory or other new and exotic developments. But if we are not yet ready to accept them, with all of their new elements, then where can we look?”

    —Daniel H. Wesley and John A. Wheeler, “Towards an Action-at-a-Distance Concept of Spacetime”, in A. Ashtekar et al (eds.), “Revisiting the Foundations of Relativistic Physics”, pp. 421-436, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003

    That doesn’t sound like a supporter of string theory.

  11. Peter Woit says:

    My best guess would be that the claims about Wheeler and string theory are based on someone mistaking the S-matrix for string theory. The recognition of the importance of the S-matrix is often attributed to Wheeler, back in 1937.

  12. rob says:

    The statement about string theory is bizarre indeed. My guess is along the same lines as Peter’s: Bill Unruh probably said Wheeler was one of the first people to think about quantum gravity. The reporter probably confused quantum gravity with string theory, as so many people do.

  13. Luiz says:

    Ali and Peter,

    Sorry for the off-topic but maybe this “mandatory retirement age” wasn’t such a bad idea after all.


  14. Pingback: Mort de John Wheeler at Whitedwarfs

  15. Professor R says:

    Hi Peter,
    your tribute ‘my most extensive contact with Wheeler was surely through learning GR from the marvelous textbook he co-authored on the subject’ is very fine, and probably the sort of tribute Wheeler would have appreciated most.
    I suspect the passing on of knowledge becomes very important to the giants of science as they get older, jst as it does for musicians etc. It must be fantastic to see one’s students and grand-students making progress in theoretical physics – but a good textbook can reach a much larger audience!

  16. Jimbo says:

    Much continues to be said about Johnny Wheeler, but if you’d like to watch him describe his remarkable life, here is a link to a series of in-depth video interviews he gave just a few years ago.

  17. Daniel Wesley says:

    remember that John Wheeler he occasionally expressed a desire to learn more about string theory. He wasn’t overly critical of, but he certainly never tried to sell me on it. To that extent I think it is probably not accurate to describe him as a strong supporter of string theory. I think it would be just as inaccurate to describe him as a foe.

    To extrapolate from my own experience, I think the issues that string theory has been successful in addressing are not necessarily the ones that he was most interested in: things like the nature of (space) time, the connection between physics and information (”it from bit”), why quantum mechanics is so strange, and so on. I think he believed that the big advance in quantum gravity would come from a conceptual breakthrough (a la Einstein) rather than a technical one. He believed that once we had the right answer we’d be able to explain it easily to “the man on the street,” and I don’t think any of the ideas we’ve come up with so far pass this test!

    I was very sorry to hear about John’s passing. He was a great inspiration to me, and I cherish the lessons I learned from him. I’ve met very few scientists of his stature who were so generous with their time and energy. He had a sign in his office, which said “Encourage! Encourage! Encourage!” and he lived that motto in an
    exemplary way.

  18. Eric H says:

    From the comments I’m reading I believe Mr Wheeler was a compassionate person and a scientifically great man in the technical sense. The only thing that bothers me about his legacy is that he seems to have given so much credence to bad ideas, such as “delayed choice”, “quantum fluctuations” in the absense of describable forces, etc. While he understood that great ideas have an intuitive aspect to them the ideas he ended up being famous for were exactly the opposite of that realization. Its really unfortunate that good people can end up being the promulgators of these types of ideas.

    Because he seems to have been a kind and encouraging person many of these ideas that have led to a dead end in quantum physics have been promulgated by his students. Now, if he had had a nasty temperament I’m sure this wouldn’t have been the case. How many times through history has the sociological aspect of the teacher/student relationship had an impact on what gets taught rather than the quality of the ideas?

  19. Eric H says:

    At the risk inflaming feelings and becoming a scapegoat I will add one further observation about John Wheeler. His attitude about quantum mechanics was summarized in this quote:

    “To Wheeler, quantum mechanics was a “great smoky dragon,” particularly with respect to the bizarre behavior of the electron, which defied classification as a wave or a particle. It could be anywhere, everywhere or nowhere, depending on the observer.

    This led him to the conclusion that reality, as we know it, comes into existence only because we are here to see it and bring it to life. ”

    I believe this conclusion that he came to that there is no external reality apart from our observation is the single most deluded and erroneous conclusion about quantum mechanics that has ever been foisted on the scientific community and the public at large. This is what allows scientists to speculate about alternate universes being created when a quantum choice is initiated. Because all possibilities are simultaneous realities then there “must” be an alternate universe created whenever a quantum choice is made.

    To me it is incredible how scientists just go along like sheep with such ideas because the scientist making them, John Wheeler, is well regarded in other aspects of physics. It just shows how stupid physicists can be and how they can be led astray even more than the general public on these types of things. Poor William of Occam would shudder at the ineconomy of having to create an entire universe out of whole cloth every time a decision is made.

  20. Peter Woit says:


    I don’t think you can blame Wheeler for multiple universes. The recent interest in them comes from a very different direction.

    Actually, just about all physicists not only don’t follow Wheeler like sheep, but happily ignore his idiosyncratic views about quantum mechanics. Even among those who are more interested and would pay some attention to his views, I don’t know of anyone who would follow them because of their source. More typically, such people have their own idiosyncratic views…

  21. Eric H says:

    I hope you’re right about independent thought. I used to believe in it much more than I do now. There seems to be unconscious processes that go on in all of us that make us want to fit in with the herd. I don’t think it is a very attractive characteristic – especially so in the different fields of science. I sincerely wish I was wrong but I don’t see evidence of it.

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