The twentieth century saw the shrouds surrounding the mysteries of science and creation being pulled back to reveal a universe of incredible, awe-inspiring wonder. From large galaxies millions of light years away to the smallest subatomic particles, science has advanced humanity’s understanding of physical laws. Physicist John Wheeler was part of much of this Earth-shattering work, such as understanding the structure of the atom, working on the atomic bomb and researching the nature of some of the largest objects in the universe. Wheeler not only advanced our understanding of the universe, he helped the general public understand it as well, popularizing many scientific phrases used today.
John Archibald Wheeler was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1911 to a husband-wife team of librarians. He inherited their love of the written word and was captivated by math and technology. The family moved several times, but he ultimately graduated from high school in Baltimore at the age of 15. He enrolled at Johns Hopkins University on a scholarship and earned a doctorate in 1933, concentrating his studies on the nature of the atom.
In 1934, he spent a year working with Danish physicist Neils Bohr, the pioneer who uncovered the modern structure of the atom. In 1935, Wheeler took a teaching position at the University of North Carolina. Three years later, he switched to Princeton University, attracted by its growing reputation in scientific research. While at Princeton, he worked with such brilliant minds as Albert Einstein and trained such groundbreaking physicists as Richard Feynman and Kip Thorne.
Wheeler worked again with Bohr when he visited Princeton in 1939. Together, the two wrote an article describing what they termed “the liquid-drop model” of the atomic nucleus to describe how nuclear fission could take place. Wheeler, as a result, became one of thousands of scientists working on the Manhattan Project during World War II, America’s attempt to build an atomic bomb. Wheeler helped design nuclear reactors to produce plutonium, the key element that allows the bomb to work.
He continued to consult the federal government on a number of issues involving defense and space exploration. By the early 1950s, he turned his attention from nuclear physics to general relativity. Over the next several decades, he worked with other scientists and brought ideas that once seemed on the outer edge of science fiction into the mainstream of scientific fact.
As early as the 1940s, Wheeler had been researching antimatter. Through his studies and examination of the mathematics surrounding such known antimatter particles as the positron, he postulated that positrons could simply be regular electrons traveling backward in time. The conclusion was stunning, but he developed the “one-electron universe” postulate to describe one electron bouncing forward and backward in time, changing directions. This has since become an inseparable part of research into these particles and the most advanced levels of subatomic research.
In 1957, his research into relativity — Einstein’s idea that the fabric of space is curved by gravitation — revealed a fascinating byproduct. Working with Charles Misner, Wheeler coined the term “wormhole” to describe tunnels in space and time created by intense gravitation and bizarre subatomic reactions. Though not yet observed, the math behind the wormhole theory was impeccable.
Wheeler’s research also bolstered Einstein’s idea of the gravity wave, another idea developing from relativity. Astronomers in just the past couple of years have confirmed the existence of gravity waves. His work also led him to study the collapse of stars due to their own extreme gravity. He popularized the term “black hole” to describe these collapsed stars where not even light can escape their pull. Evidence of the existence of black holes began appearing in the 1960s.
He retired from Princeton in 1976. Though he was technically at retirement age at 65, he was far from ready to stop working. The questions that science was researching were too tempting for him to stay away from teaching. The University of Texas quickly appointed him as director of the Center for Theoretical Physics, and he quickly moved to Austin.
The university already had an impressive team of physicists and astronomers, and the addition of Wheeler increased that prestige. Wheeler was a popular professor at the university and made teaching a priority as he had throughout his entire career as he believed that helping young minds understand science was as critical as the research he had performed. He had a tremendous impact on a generation of Texas scientists who went through the university. In 1986, he retired from UT. After his retirement, the Wheeler Lecture Hall in the university’s astronomy and physics building was renamed in his honor.
He wrote nine books in his career, including “At Home in the Universe” (1994) and “Exploring Black Holes” (2000). Wheeler died in New Jersey in 2008 at the age of 96.
Personal Note: Merry Christmas, Toby and Kaleb. Love, Dad.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org