I am once again faced with writing about a scientist whose contributions are boundless. Once again, I find myself in the position of the writer, who has to not only give insight into this legend’s mind but also his work. So today, on his birthday, I will try to give you a glimpse into this physicist’s world, a physicist who went under the name of John Wheeler.
If you’ve heard about John Wheeler by now, one of the first things that might come to your mind is that he is somehow related to the concept of ‘black hole.’ And you are right. We will see how exactly did that happen.
Who is John Wheeler?
First things first, John Wheeler was born in 1911 in Florida and studied at the John Hopkins University, where he also got his doctorate, with a paper named “Theory of the Dispersion and Absorption of Helium,” under the supervision of Karl Herzfeld, a leading physicist of the times.
Funny enough, Feynman’s known idea that positrons are electrons that move backward in time can be traced back to Wheeler, which is an unknown fact. He is known to have called Richard Feynman, a graduate student of his, with the simple exclamation: “They are all the same particle!” (more or less exactly like that), something that came to be known as the one-electron Universe postulate. The hypothesis is that all electrons and positrons are actually manifestations of a single entity moving backward and forward in time. Feynman himself recalled the call, saying:
I received a telephone call one day at the graduate college at Princeton from Professor Wheeler, in which he said, “Feynman, I know why all electrons have the same charge and the same mass” “Why?” “Because, they are all the same electron!”
Even during his Nobel speech, he made sure that Wheeler’s contribution to his work is known, stating:
“I did not take the idea that all the electrons were the same one from [Wheeler] as seriously as I took the observation that positrons could simply be represented as electrons going from the future to the past in a back section of their world lines. That, I stole!”
- Combining Special Relativity And Quantum Mechanics: The Discovery Of Antimatter.
- What Are Feynman Diagrams And How Did They Change The Course of Physics?
- Dirac Equation And The Existence Of Antimatter
The Manhattan Project
Another interesting story from Wheeler’s experiences comes from his work in the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the first working atomic bomb. Apparently, he was determined to get the work done for some very personal reasons, as he recalls in his autobiography, which I really do recommend, “Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics.”
His brother Joe was fighting in World War II, and knowing the capabilities of John’s mind and his interest in nuclear physics, expressed through countless conversations with Niels Bohr (the household name when you think about nuclear physics), he sent a letter to John with only two words: “Hurry up.” John became so worried about his brother’s fate that he worked relentlessly on the bomb, knowing that it could end the war. Little did he know at the time of the project’s end, but his brother was already lying dead in Florence.
Black holes, Einstein, spacetime, gravity
A great part of Wheeler’s life was spent studying one of the most beautiful topics in physics: gravity and the theory of relativity. No wonder he is also the writer of one of the best textbooks in the world on these things (if you ask me, it is the absolute best), called, you guessed it, Gravitation (to be fair, he co-authored it, alongside Kip Thorne and Charles Misner).
He was one of the first to teach the subject professionally and lived in Princeton, where the famous Einstein also conducted his late work, a place he is known to have fallen in love with. He studied the Einstein-Rosen bridge, coining a word which would suit it better, namely wormhole. Also, he stumbled upon another gravitational trick, singularities, which are places infinitely small but with infinitely great density, and coined a term for them, black holes.
“Every black hole brings an end to time”He wrote. And so it was.
One last thing
I wish to end this article with a beautiful thing which Wheeler said, in its unaltered form, regarding science and the pursuit of it:
”I like to say, when asked why I pursue science, that it is to satisfy my curiosity, that I am by nature a searcher, trying to understand. Now, in my 80s, I am still searching. Yet I know that the pursuit of science is more than the pursuit of understanding. It is driven by the creative urge, the urge to construct a vision, a map, a picture of the world that gives the world a little more beauty and coherence than it had before. Somewhere in the child that urge is born.”