John Archibald Wheeler, Physicist

John Archibald Wheeler, (July 9, 1911 – April 13, 2008) the archetypal physics-for-poets physicist, is famed for his analogies and aphorisms, self-made and coopted. Over a long, productive scientific life, he was known for his drive to address big, overarching questions in physics, subjects which he liked to say merged with philosophical questions about the origin of matter, information and the universe. He was a young contemporary of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, was a driving force in the development of both the atomic and hydrogen bombs and, in later years, became the father of modern general relativity.

Looking back over his own career, Wheeler divided it into three parts. Until the 1950s, a phase he called “Everything Is Particles,” he was looking for ways to build all basic entities, such as neutrons and protons, out of the lightest, most fundamental particles. The second part, which he termed “Everything Is Fields,” was when he viewed the world as one made out of fields in which particles were mere manifestations of electrical, magnetic and gravitational fields and space-time itself. More recently, in a period he viewed as “Everything Is Information,” he focused on the idea that logic and information is the bedrock of physical theory.

John Archibald Wheeler (centre right), conversing with Albert Einstein, Homi Bhabha and Hideki Yukawa, at Princeton, 1954. Credit: Alamy

In his autobiography, titled “Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam,” written with his former student, the physicist Kenneth Ford, Wheeler found “the love of the second half of my life” — general relativity and gravitation — in the post-war years. “When they emerged, I finally had a calling,” he said.

A legend in physics who coined the term “black hole” and whose myriad scientific contributions figured in many of the research advances of the 20th century, Wheeler, the Joseph Henry Professor of Physics Emeritus at Princeton University, succumbed to pneumonia on Sunday, April 13, at his home in Hightstown, N.J. He was 96.

Books he authored or co-authored that we recommend:
Geons, Black Holes & Quantum Foam
Spacetime Physics
Exploring Black Holes
Mind In Nature