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April 15, 2008

Atom bomb developer and physicist John Wheeler dies

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,

Filed under: Space

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Franko   April 16th, 2008 5:05 am ET

John Archibald Wheeler was an exceptional teacher
We used one of his Physics books.

“Black holes have no hair.” is a famous quote.

Steve   April 16th, 2008 6:26 am ET

I was honored to know John Wheeler for forty years. He was easily one of the greatest scientists and teachers of the last century. This story should be on the front page of this web site and not buried where I found it. 99% of the stories on the main page of are not as important as his passing and what he contributed to the world.

Brian   April 16th, 2008 9:00 am ET

Shouldn't this man be demonized for helping unleash the scurge of nuclear weapons upon this world. I am not a religous man but the day when the world ends in fire and brimstone is drawing ever nearer.

chris   April 16th, 2008 9:46 am ET

you cant blame the person who formed an idea for what people did with his thought child.

Dale   April 16th, 2008 9:48 am ET


If you wish to place blame on someone for the use of missiles you should look towards the Germans. Nuclear energy was not thought up as a weapon but as an energy source, a theoretical energy source. All the nations of the world have the technology. Wheeler is as much responsible for the state of nuclear politics as is Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus and Archie Bunker. The countless peaceful uses of Nuclear Energy are always forgotten but heaven forbid we forget the destructive. You claim not to be a religious man yet you utter Fire and Brimstone in the same breath. The nuclear age brought us into the 20th century. Imagine a world without nuclear energy. A world where our industrial centers were still powered by coal.......Global Warming much?

Jim Swartz, Florida Inst of Tech   April 16th, 2008 10:39 am ET

Defining the physical nature of all that surrounds us should NEVER be demonized. Consider recently when a nipponese nuclear fuel processing facility caught fire, when a technician didn't understand what John Wheeler and many, many others spent their lives researching and teaching so that everyone may benefit.

John may have opened Pandora's Box, but far more people died of ignorance and neglect than by the hands of their brothers.

Matt   April 16th, 2008 10:40 am ET


Demonizing this man would be wrong. The dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki while tragic, saved countless lives. Millions upon Millions of American and Japanese would have died had we invaded mainland Japan. It allowed Japan to surrender with the nation's pride intact rather than bankrupting the US with an invasion.

His contibutions to science placed him upon a pedistal reserved for other greats like Newton, Einstein, Aristotle, and Hubble.

Bill, Olathe KS   April 16th, 2008 10:42 am ET

A great man, that we all should look up to. He helped make the world we live in today. His contributions to science helped make the United States the great nation that it is. His work in Physics will have lasting effects for many years. Without his reasearch and teachings we would still have many unanswered questions. Of course, the same research will be used as a building block to understanding things that even Wheeler had not thought of, given the time I am sure he would have, though.

Dick   April 16th, 2008 11:04 am ET

John Wheeler sat on the Board of a scientific research corporation that I was employed with about 20 years ago, and once I had the great good fortune to have lunch with him. To this day, I regard him as the most intelligent and perceptive person that I have ever come into contact with, and I have spent my professional career surrounded by very intelligent and perceptive people. Although not as widely known as some of his peers (those few who could really be regarded as "peers"), he was one of the giants of our time, and the world is a lesser place today without him.

Target practice   April 16th, 2008 11:19 am ET

This guy made our country a very safe place to live with his nuclear contributions. Amazing how some people can be so smart!

gdewis   April 16th, 2008 11:20 am ET

@Brian: If you're looking to demonize someone for that, wouldn't it be better to go after the policymakers who commissioned and supported the work?

John   April 16th, 2008 11:59 am ET

I had a chance to meet Professor Wheeler when I worked at the National Academy of Sciences. He was genuinely one of the kindest people I have ever met.

David   April 16th, 2008 1:24 pm ET

I'm puzzled. The article states than an audience member offered up
the term "black hole". Why is it then, that the term in attributed to
Wheeler. Doesn't seem proper to me.

Voice of Reason   April 16th, 2008 1:38 pm ET

It's a shame he used his brilliance to kill others. I hope he made his peace before he left the world.

David, Chicago, IL   April 16th, 2008 4:57 pm ET

>It’s a shame he used his brilliance to kill others. I hope he made his
>peace before he left the world

Voice of Reason, indeed!

Why is it that so many people on CNN draw such erroneous conclusions from a CNN posting. I didn't read that he killed anyone.

Was he part of Bush's cabinet when they initiated the Iraqi War on forged evidence? Or is it something else that he did? Was he part of the Gulf of Tonkin provocation. Or maybe he was responsible for the Dresden fire bombings? Did he pilot the Enola Gay? I'm sorry, I'm just not getting the connection...please explain!

Oh, he was a theoretical physicist? Oh, well that explains it, they kill people all the time. Can't trust them theoreticians.


Nathan Kreeger   April 17th, 2008 9:41 am ET

@Voice Of Reason He did NOT use his Brilliance to Kill others. Others used his Brilliance to kill others. Iformation and Knowledge are not evil or bad but can as we all know be used for such. Stick that reason in your pipe and smoke it.

Mark   April 17th, 2008 1:07 pm ET

Did the person who invented the knife do it so you could cut your food, or kill someone? The demon is the user.

Aussie Jane   April 17th, 2008 3:56 pm ET

You can justify nuclear power, but you cannot justify nuclear weapons. The Bomb was mankind's most evil invention, and I would like to see all of the world's arsenal dismantled. Nuclear weapons are not defense, they are destruction. It's too bad there is such a fine line between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. Iran knows this and that is why we have our eye on them.

Franko   April 17th, 2008 8:30 pm ET

Threat of nuclear weapons eliminated nuclear wars.
Why start a war that will kill you ?
The enemy dying more horribly than you is no victory !
During WW2 and the Cold War death was around the corner.
John Archibald Wheeler and other weapons developers scared the world to choose life .

Roger   April 18th, 2008 4:35 am ET

My dad was one of his student when he was the director of the Center for Theoretical Physics at UT. He has a funny story he once told me about Dr. Wheeler. When my father enrolled in his class he asked Dr. Wheeler if he could tape record his lectures... Dr. Wheeler responded, "I'll have to charge you." My father then asked, "How much?" Dr. Wheeler then smiled and said, "Hmmm, how does one penny a lecture sound?"

I hope Dr. Wheeler will live forever in his scientific work. He was a great man.

Thomas   April 18th, 2008 10:53 am ET

Having a nuclear weapon doesn't make a country wicked or evil. Sometimes the best way to stopan enemy is to show them your guns bigger.

Nathan Kreeger   April 20th, 2008 10:17 am ET

The discovery of one (Nuclear Energy) inexorably led to the other (Nuclear Weapons) It is easy to say that this man was evil and that the nuclear arsenal should be dismantled but people need to realize one thing..The information is out and that there is no way to put this thing back. If Wheeler hadn't theorized on this then someone else would have. It's development was inevitable. He was a great man, not the devil.

Mike   April 21st, 2008 5:03 pm ET

First, I agree with David. The name should be attributed to a unknown person in the audience. Interesting historical point.

Also, it should be noted that Robert Oppenheimer originally came up with the concept of black holes (although obviously not the name), but never developed it fully enough to get a Nobel Prize. Oppy jumped from theory to theory.

One last point. Japanese schoolgirls were given bamboo spears, and told to kill just one invader. Some of their generals spoke of every single person fighting to the death – the end of all Japanese, rather than surrender. There existed no possibility of any negotiated surrender – they would never have agreed to any occupation. We would have not agreed to less.

Without the atom bomb, many more Japanese lives would have been lost. Plus, the Cold War may have turned hot.
MAD worked, as mad as that seems.

Kevin   April 21st, 2008 6:03 pm ET

I would wager that Dr. Wheeler was as dismayed at the misuse of his and others contribution to nuclear physics as anyone. Dr. Wheeler is not to blame for other's destructive use of his brilliant research. Nagasaki and Hiroshima changed the course of history for the worse, but the decision to use the technology for evil purposes wasn't theirs. Their research was provided to labs who were contracted by our not-so-brilliant politicians to build the ultimate weapon that may yet end up causing the extinction of humankind.

Chuck   April 21st, 2008 6:36 pm ET

Brian, with or without John Wheeler the bomb would have been developed. Just be glad that we as a nation had the fortirude to develop and use this rotten weapon to end the war with Japan. The man was not a demon as you insinuate but a brilliant scientist that used his knowledge to help end a war that(much like the one we are in today) had no end in sight.

John Galt   April 21st, 2008 8:44 pm ET

There are few individuals that offer so much of their lives to teaching and molding the scientific minds of tomorrow, John Wheeler was one of those people. Of course there are pieces of time that took Wheelers talents for developing destructive weapon technologies, but what would we have said about him if he refused to help his nation at a time when humanity showed itself for the psychotic beasts that we are. Wheelers drive can be seen in the talent that explains how our universe came to be with explanations detailing the most extreme objects in the universe that gives, and eats information. John Wheeler was one of those who couldn't live long enough, that can't be said about many people.

Donald   April 22nd, 2008 1:01 am ET

Wheeler is as responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese as the Wright Bros. are for the Space shuttle accidents.

Brian   April 22nd, 2008 1:46 pm ET

I'm glad I was able to open up this dicussion. Quite frankly I was only trying to goad someone into responding to my blog. Nuclear energy is used around the world for energy and that, some may say, is a good thing. But I also wanted people to look at the damage it has caused also. But I do have to respond to at least one comment that I read.

Matt, and Chuck. The war was all but won before we dropped the bombs on Japan. Just think of all the birth defects we brought upon the nation that now is a one of our greatest allies. Another question I have is why we still have a military presence on Okinawa, are we afraid Japan will start the war all over again? With all the American soldiers raping little girls on Okinawa, shouldn't we send those soldiers to Iraq where they could at least die in the service of our country instead of being monsters?

That only opens up another point of contention, why are we still in Iraq? Let the Iraqi government try to defend their own country. Since we were deceived into going to Iraq in the first place, shouldn't someone in our government at least be held accountable? OIL is not a good enough reason. Just look at how far oil prices have exploded since we went into Iraq.

By the way, does anyone know how much stock the Bush family has in oil companies? Begin the discussion.

James   April 24th, 2008 4:17 pm ET

Why are the blogs always so negative and unoriginal? People respond more openly to positive topics.

Chris   April 26th, 2008 8:40 pm ET

About eight years ago I read a quote that has been attributed to Dr. Wheeler: "Time is Nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once." I liked the quote very much (and still do) and wanted to get Dr. Wheeler's permission to use it for something I was working on, so I called Princeton University on the off chance that I might be able to leave him a message. The person who answered the phone said he came in once or twice a week to his office and then, much to my surprise, asked me if I'd like his home phone number! I said after a startled pause, "Well, sure." So I called him, his wife answered, and I tried to explain why I wanted to use the quote. She finally went to get him and it felt like several minutes had gone by when he picked up the phone. I explained the situation to him and he said something like, "Well, you can use the quote but I read it off a bathroom wall in Austin, Texas." I said, Dr. Wheeler, that's amazing because that's where I'm calling from! As some of you readers know, Dr. Wheeler did spend some time here at UT. Well, that's my connection to this great man anyway. I hope he somehow knows all the secrets of the Universe now wherever he may be.

Joao   April 29th, 2008 5:48 pm ET

Nice blog, thanks.

Franko   May 1st, 2008 3:34 am ET

This is why banning cloning is bad.
Just think if we had 10 more of Wheeler !
Every university would want one.

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