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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Interviewing John Wheeler

Posted by Paul Halpern on 10/14 at 06:36 PM

When I received a Guggenheim Fellowship back in 2002, one of the joys it offered was getting a chance to interview some of the greats in the field of physics.  A particular pleasure was meeting John Archibald Wheeler, who was a student, collaborator, and mentor of some of the most notable physicists of the 20th century. 

In his 90s at the time, Professor Wheeler still maintained an office at Princeton and visited weekly.  When I was researching the history of higher dimensions, a project that ended up becoming my book The Great Beyond, he generously gave several hours of his time for a morning interview.

I was very much impressed by his keen memory of certain events of the 1930s through the 1950s, particularly his interactions with Einstein who was his neighbor. Einstein was kind to Wheeler’s children and later to Wheeler’s students. For one of the first relativity classes ever offered, Einstein offered a friendly hand. In 1948, after Wheeler’s student Feynman proposed Quantum Electrodynamics, Wheeler recalled how Einstein was dubious.

Wheeler’s sense of humor and gracious attitude were readily apparent. It was easy to see why he was so beloved by his students. At one point I commended him for his book (with Thorne and Misner) Gravitation. He proceeded to show me a copy in Chinese, and dryly commented that I could use the book to learn that language.

Wheeler spoke of winning the inaugural Einstein prize for general relativity, along with Peter Bergmann.  He had called Bergmann to congratulate him and had left a message, but before they could speak on the phone, Bergmann had passed away.

Wheeler showed me some of the photographs of him with certain notables such as Yukawa, and explained his interest in discerning the “why” of life. What a remarkable figure in physics, who contributed so much to modern thought. 

Wheeler passed away in 2008 at the age of 96.

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