John Archibald Wheeler, RIP

There is plenty to read about John Wheeler around the web today. Start with Dennis Overbye’s obituary in Times, read Daniel Holz’s moving remembrance over at Cosmic Variance, and then browse at will through what will be an increasingly overwhelming tide of tributes, all deserved.

Everything I’ve heard from people who knew him much better than I confirms the initial impression you will get from even a cursory look at the reaction to his passing. He was a man in love with learning new stuff; he was happy when he could do it himself; he was Cheshire Cat satisfied if he could catalyze the desired outcome in students.

I’m not a physicist of course, and I only met Wheeler once — so I can’t add anything meaningful to what has come to me second hand. But I do have one story, coming from that single meeting, that captures a little bit of the man.

It was back in 1995, when he was a mere 83 years old. I and a colleague had gone down to Princeton to talk to Wheeler about the film we were getting ready to shoot — a new and hopefully more complete portrait of Einstein than had made it to PBS at the time. We hoped Wheeler might work as an interviewee for the film, but he was already slowing down a little, and we instead sought as much of a sense of the Einstein he knew as possible, in the hopes that his memory would inform our movie.

So, 83 and all, he led us up Princeton’s campus and down. His secretary asked us to try to make sure he took it easy, but no amount of attempting by stealth to slow our pace worked. He just charged along. He took us what had once been called Fine Hall, home of the Princeton math department, and temporary quarters from 1933-39 for the Institute of Advanced Study. Wheeler, who became friends with Einstein after the older man arrived in Princeton in 1933, was also close to Niels Bohr, an occasional visitor.

As he was taking us through the old building (complete with Einstein’s quip “Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber Boshaft ist Er nicht — Subtle is the Lord, but not malicious — engraved over the fireplace in the lounge), he started to tell us a tale. Einstein, he said, was unbothered by his apostacy, his disinterest and disinclination for quantum mechanics. Rather, his insouciant unconcern for what seemed to almost every other physicst still breathing to be the vital center of the subject bothered Niels Bohr much more.

Eventually, Einstein would cease his once impressively persistant effort to poke logical holes in quantum theory. (See his and Leopold Infeld’s Evolution of Physics for a graceful acknowledgment of the theory’s success — aimed at a broad audience, no less.) But at the point of Wheeler’s memory, Bohr and Einstein were still at it, and Einstein could still make his friend nervous.

So, Wheeler tells us, this one day, he encounters Einstein in the hall. They walk together. Einstein has left something in Bohr’s office, maybe a pouch of pipe tobacco. As they get closer to the door, they hear Bohr muttering (when did he do anything else but mutter?): “Einstein…Einstein……Einstein, Einstein….Einstein.”

Albert grinned. He held his finger up to his mouth — be quiet Wheeler! — and waited behind the jam as Bohr paced the length of his office. When he turned –“Einstein…Einstein” — the real thing snuck in behind him, and stood next to the table, picking up the tobacco and waiting.

Bohr completed the circuit, still whispering “Einstein,” turned…and then leaped out of his skin at the sight Albert in the flesh, conjured, as it were, out of his torment.

Wheeler was then a young scientist, keeping company with legends. He laughed at the time, he said, but a little awkwardly. Not now. He could still see Bohr in shock almost six decades on, and the sight in his mind’s eye delighted him.

John Wheeler. A great physicist, perhaps a better teacher, a very generous man. My only other contact with him was in a nice letter that he wrote to my editor saying how much he liked my Einstein book — unsolicited, unexpected, an enormous balm to this writer’s heart. And he loved a good joke, told a good story.

Another one to be missed.

Update: Link added for Einstein/Infeld, minor grammar edits.

Image: Spitzer Space Telescope image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Among Wheeler’s gifts was a genius for naming stuff. We owe him the term “black hole,” a substantial example of which is located in the center of our galaxy, somewhere out of sight but not of mind in the photograph above.


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