April 15, 2008
Posted: 10:21 PM ET
On an autumn day in 1967, John Archibald Wheeler gave a lecture on celestial objects called pulsars, speculating that at their center might lie a "gravitationally completely collapsed object." He told the audience he wished he had a better name for this object. “How about black hole?” an audience member offered, according to the Princeton University account of his life. And so it was.
Physicist John Wheeler is seen here in 1991.
Coining the term “black hole” is just one of countless contributions to physics credited to Wheeler, who passed away on Sunday at his home in Hightstown, New Jersey at the age of 96.
Wheeler, a longtime member of the faculty at Princeton University, saw his own career as a three-step process, according to Princeton’s obituary. The first, which he called “Everything Is Particles,” consisted of a time when he searched for how to construct all basic particles like neutrons and protons from the lightest, most fundamental particles. Next, beginning in the 1950s, he thought particles represented electrical, magnetic, and gravitational fields, as well as space-time itself, and saw the world as the result of these fields. This phase he called “Everything Is Fields.” He focused on logic and information in his final phase, which he called “Everything Is Information.”
He coined the physics terms “geon” and “quantum foam,” in addition to “black hole.”
“I had been searching for just the right term for months, mulling it over in bed, in the bathtub, in my car, wherever I had quiet moments," he said of the term “black hole,” the Princeton obituary said. "Suddenly this name seemed exactly right."
After serving on the Princeton faculty from 1938 to 1976, when he retired, he became the director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at the University of Texas-Austin until 1986.
Among his many accomplishments, he worked with Niels Bohr to generate the theory of uranium fission and helped with the development of the hydrogen bomb.
His nuclear work for the government encountered one notable snafu. One morning in January 1953, on train to Washington, D.C. he woke up to realize that the classified paper of the hydrogen bomb was gone, having disappeared overnight, Princeton’s article said. President Eisenhower got military officials to scold him personally.
But 15 year later, he felt forgiven for this incident when President Johnson gave him the Fermi Award for his work for national defense and science.
His other accolades included the Einstein Prize in 1965, the National Medal of Science in 1971, and the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal in 1982. His students included Nobel laureate Richard Feynman.
-Elizabeth Landau, Associate Producer, CNN.com
Filed under: Space
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