Major figure in 20th century physics

Times Staff Writer

John A. Wheeler, the fertile-minded physicist who popularized mind-stretching ideas about black holes, wormholes and quantum foam and also confounded admirers by helping to conceive some of the most potent weapons of mass destruction, has died. He was 96.

Wheeler died Sunday morning of pneumonia at his home in Hightstown, N.J., according to his daughter, Alison Wheeler Lahnston. He had been in poor health for the last week.

In the world of science, the 20th century was seen as the century of physics, and Wheeler was its most imaginative adman. He was also science’s Zelig, seeming to be present at every important event or discovery. In a career that spanned eight decades, Wheeler consulted with Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer to build the atomic bomb, helped Edward Teller with the hydrogen bomb, argued quantum mechanics with Albert Einstein and then, in middle age, turned his nimble mind to some of the most challenging problems of cosmology.

Are there multiple universes? If there are, how can we move from one to the other? Would anything exist if mankind -- the observer/participator -- wasn’t around to see it?

He fearlessly explored such ideas as the possibility of traveling across deep space in fanciful constructs he named wormholes, by his example giving lesser-known physicists the courage to pursue cosmological questions without fear of ridicule.


Along the way, he nurtured the careers of a new generation of physicists, from Nobel laureate Richard Feynman to Caltech’s Kip Thorne.

To the end, Wheeler asked big questions, adopting a personal mantra: “How come the quantum? How come existence?”

“Some people think Wheeler’s gotten crazy in his later years,” Feynman said. “But he’s always been crazy.”

Born July 9, 1911, in Jacksonville, Fla., John Archibald Wheeler was the eldest of four children of peripatetic librarians. At age 4, he asked his mother about the universe. “Where does it end? How far out can you go?”

Her answer -- if any answer is possible -- didn’t satisfy. “This created a terrible worry in my mind,” he said in a 2003 interview. While still a child, Wheeler turned to J. Arthur Thompson’s “Outline of Science,” which he read in the snow while fetching maple syrup near his Vermont home.

Curious to the point of ignoring the need for self-preservation, he set off bottle rockets indoors and once touched an 11,000-volt power line to see what it felt like.

After several moves across the country with his family, Wheeler attended Johns Hopkins University, earning a doctorate with a dissertation on the dispersion and absorption of helium. In 1933, he embarked upon one of the most profound journeys of his life, traveling to Copenhagen to study with Bohr, the physics giant who won a Nobel Prize for his explorations into the structure of the atom.

“You can talk about people like Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius,” Wheeler told the New York Times in 2002 in discussing Bohr’s inspirational genius. “But the thing that convinced me that such people existed were the conversations with Bohr.”

Wheeler was teaching at Princeton University in 1939 when Bohr arrived in New York for a visit, carrying the alarming news that scientists in Nazi Germany had only weeks earlier found a way to split the uranium atom. “We at once plunged into the understanding of this act of fission,” Wheeler said.

Two months later, he and Bohr were sitting in Einstein’s office at Princeton when the Danish physicist declared that it was possible to make an atomic bomb, though “it would take the entire efforts of a nation to do it.” After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 thrust the United States into World War II, these men were key thinkers in the Manhattan Project, commissioned by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to build an atomic weapon before the Germans.

Though Oppenheimer and other Manhattan Project scientists worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Wheeler consulted with DuPont engineers to build reactors in Hanford, Wash., that would supply the plutonium for the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. It was Wheeler’s idea to house the reactors in domes, which have become the symbol of nuclear power plants.

Though the bomb makers would fall under criticism from succeeding generations of scientists, Wheeler was sorry that work on the bomb hadn’t started earlier, feeling that it would have saved millions of lives, including that of his younger brother Joe. To the end of his life, Wheeler remained haunted by a note he received in 1944 from his brother, who was fighting in Europe. It contained two words: “Hurry up.”

Joe Wheeler died fighting in Italy.

More criticism would come when he joined Teller, the supposed model for the ultrahawkish, deranged Dr. Strangelove of comic fiction, in building the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s. But Wheeler, ever the dutiful patriot nurtured on Cold War ideology, had trouble understanding the other side.

“In my mind, I was answering a call to national service,” Wheeler wrote in his 1998 autobiography, “Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics.”

He recalled Bohr once remarking, “Do you imagine for one moment that Europe would now be free of Soviet control if it were not for the [threat of the] atomic bomb?”

After defense work, Wheeler turned his attention to the cosmological questions that increasingly occupied physicists in the second half of the 20th century, frequently displaying an adman’s touch for coining the word or phrase that would capture the public imagination.

In a 1967 meeting of the Institute of Space Studies, he referred to the idea of a “gravitationally completely collapsed object.” Frustrated with the awkward phrase, he adopted the term “black hole” to describe an exploded star collapsing into an object so dense that nothing can escape its gravity, including light.

He also came up with the term wormholes as well as quantum foam, the world of the very small in which ordinary laws of physics break down.

He struggled, as Einstein had, to reconcile relativity-based ideas of gravity with quantum mechanics, ultimately arriving at the term geon, a ball of light held together by its own gravity. Geons have yet to be found in nature.

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.

“How come the universe? How come us? How come anything?” he wrote in his journal, according to a visiting reporter who saw it in 2002.

Happily, he said, the answer lies in the observers. “That’s us,” he said.

Even at an age when most physicists’ best ideas are decades behind them, Wheeler remained active and relevant. Isaac Asimov’s biographical encyclopedia of science, written in 1982, said Wheeler has “remained in the forefront of theoretical thinking,” matched only by theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

In his 90s, Wheeler took up residence in a retirement home in Hightstown, N.J., but continued to take the bus twice a week to Princeton, where he dictated his thoughts to a secretary. Though to outward appearances his mind remained sharp, he felt, especially after a heart attack in 2001, that his thinking had been disrupted. Instead of ideas, he said, he had “ideas for ideas.”

Privately, he was courteous but reserved. “I was never much for small talk,” he said.

His wife, the former Janette Hegner, died in October 2007 at 99. They had two daughters, Alison Wheeler Lahnston and Letitia Wheeler Ufford of Princeton, N.J., and a son, James English Wheeler of Ardmore, Pa., who survive him along with eight grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, six step-grandchildren and 11 step-great grandchildren.

His hobbies included swimming and working in the woods. But the big questions were never far from his mind, even in times of leisure. “I have to admit that I never stop thinking about physics,” he said.

Once asked if he had a central vision, he replied: “It’s the picture that the whole of this existence will someday have its single, central principle spring to life, that will be so natural we will say to ourselves: ‘How can it have been otherwise? And how could we have been so stupid all these years not to have seen it?’ ”

Wheeler was the author of 13 books and hundreds of articles in scholarly publications. Among his awards were the Einstein Prize in 1965; the Enrico Fermi Award from the Atomic Energy Commission in 1968, which was presented to him by President Johnson; the National Medal of Science in 1971; and the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal in 1982.