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John Wheeler
(9 Jul 1911 - 13 Apr 2008)

American physicist who helped develop the theory of nuclear fission. He coined the terms black hole and wormhole used in astronomy. His contributions to other subjects include fundamental work in nuclear structure, scattering theory, relativity and geometrodynamics. The Nobel prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, was one of his students.


Science Quotes by John Wheeler (18 quotes)

To Wheeler's comment, If you haven't found something strange during the day, it hasn't been much of a day, a student responded, I can't believe that space is that crummy. Wheeler replied: To disagree leads to study, to study leads to understanding, to understand is to appreciate, to appreciate is to love. So maybe I'll end up loving your theory.
— John Wheeler
Quoted in Charles Birch, Biology and the Riddle of Life (1999), 10.
Science quotes on:  |  John Wheeler (25)

A black hole has no hair.
[Summarizing the simplicity of a black hole, which shows only three characteristics to the outside world (mass, charge, spin) and comparing the situation to a room full of bald-pated people who had one characteristic in common, but no differences in hair length, style or color for individual variations.]
— John Wheeler
In Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam (2000), 297. Quote introduced previously as the No-Hair Theorem in Charles W. Misner, Kip S. Thorne and John Wheeler, Gravitation (1973).
Science quotes on:  |  Black Hole (8)  |  Characteristic (36)  |  Identification (7)

I always keep two legs going, with one trying to reach ahead.
— John Wheeler
Quoted in James Gleick, Genius: the Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1993), 93.
Science quotes on:  |  Ahead (8)  |  Keep (9)  |  Leg (4)  |  Reach (30)  |  Try (34)

If there’s one thing in physics I feel more responsible for than any other, it’s this perception of how everything fits together. I like to think of myself as having a sense of judgment. I’m willing to go anywhere, talk to anybody, ask any question that will make headway. I confess to being an optimist about things, especially about someday being able to understand how things are put together. So many young people are forced to specialize in one line or another that a young person can’t afford to try and cover this waterfront — only an old fogy who can afford to make a fool of himself. If I don't, who will?
— John Wheeler
Stated during a 1983 interview. Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).
Science quotes on:  |  Autobiography (48)

If this is what the McCarran Act means in practice, it seems to us a form of organized cultural suicide.
In a letter co-signed with his Princeton University physics professor colleagues, Walker Bleakney and Milton G. White, protesting that Nobel Prize-winning, Cambridge professor, Dirac having been invited for a year's visit to Princeton, had been denied a visa by the U.S. State Department under section 212A of the Immigration and Naturalization Act (McCarran Act). Quoting a report in Physics Today, this regulation includes 'categories of undesireables ranging from vagrants to stowaways.' The real reason remains unclear, but was perhaps related to Dirac's prior science-related visits to Russia. Robert Oppenheimer's security clearance had recently been revoked, and this was the era of McCarthy's rabid anti-Communism hearings.
— John Wheeler
'Letters to the Times: Denial of Visa to Physicist Seen as Loss to American Science'. New York Times (3 Jun 1954), 26. In A. Pais, 'Playing With Equations, the Dirac Way'. Behram N. Kursunoglu (Ed.) and Eugene Paul Wigner (Ed.), Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist (1990), 108.
Science quotes on:  |  Paul A. M. Dirac (32)

In any field find the strangest thing and then explore it.
— John Wheeler
Quoted in James Gleick, Genius: the Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1993), 93.
Science quotes on:  |  Exploration (48)  |  Field (69)  |  Strangest (2)

In the fall of 1967, [I was invited] to a conference ... on pulsars. ... In my talk, I argued that we should consider the possibility that the center of a pulsar is a gravitationally completely collapsed object. I remarked that one couldn't keep saying 'gravitationally completely collapsed object' over and over. One needed a shorter descriptive phrase. 'How about black hole?' asked someone in the audience. I had been searching for the right term for months, mulling it over in bed, in the bathtub, in my car, whenever I had quiet moments. Suddenly this name seemed exactly right. When I gave a more formal Sigma Xi-Phi Beta Kappa lecture ... on December 29, 1967, I used the term, and then included it in the written version of the lecture published in the spring of 1968. (As it turned out, a pulsar is powered by 'merely' a neutron star, not a black hole.)
[Although John Wheeler is often identified as coining the term 'black hole', he in fact merely popularized the expression. In his own words, this is his explanation of the true origin: a suggestion from an unidentified person in a conference audience.]
— John Wheeler
In Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam (2000), 296-297.
Science quotes on:  |  Black Hole (8)  |  Conference (5)  |  Neutron Star (2)  |  Nomenclature (102)

Individual events. Events beyond law. Events so numerous and so uncoordinated that, flaunting their freedom from formula, they yet fabricate firm form.
— John Wheeler
'Frontiers of Time', cited in At Home in the Universe (1994), 283. Quoted in James Gleick, Genius: the Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1993), 93.
Science quotes on:  |  Coordination (4)  |  Event (49)  |  Firm (4)  |  Form (70)  |  Formula (29)  |  Freedom (41)  |  Individual (59)  |  Law (273)  |  Numerous (6)

Is the very mechanism for the universe to come into being meaningless or unworkable or both unless the universe is guaranteed to produce life, consciousness and observership somewhere and for some little time in its history-to-be?
— John Wheeler
Quoted in P.C.W. Davies, God and the New Physics (1984), 39, from J.A. Wheeler, 'Genesis and observership', Foundational Problems in the Special Science (1977), 39.
Science quotes on:  |  Consciousness (36)  |  Existence (150)  |  Life (460)  |  Mechanism (25)  |  Universe (291)

No phenomenon is a physical phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.
— John Wheeler
Quoted in Robert J. Scully, The Demon and the Quantum (2007), 191.
Science quotes on:  |  Observation (264)

The laws of physics must provide a mechanism for the universe to come into being.
— John Wheeler
As restated in Alan Lindsay Mackay, A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (1991), 260. Compare with P.C.W. Davies, God and the New Physics (1984), 39, for quotation footnoted from J.A. Wheeler, 'Genesis and observership', Foundational Problems in the Special Science (1977), 39.
Science quotes on:  |  Creation (129)  |  Law (273)  |  Mechanism (25)  |  Physics (156)  |  Universe (291)

The universe does not exist 'out there,' independent of us. We are inescapably involved in bringing about that which appears to be happening. We are not only observers. We are participators. In some strange sense, this is a participatory universe. Physics is no longer satisfied with insights only into particles, fields of force, into geometry, or even into time and space. Today we demand of physics some understanding of existence itself.
— John Wheeler
Quoted in Denis Brian, The Voice Of Genius: Conversations with Nobel Scientists and Other Luminaries, 127.
Science quotes on:  |  Observation (264)  |  Physics (156)  |  Understanding (231)  |  Universe (291)

There is no law except the law that there is no law.
— John Wheeler
Quoted in James Gleick, Genius: the Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1993), 93.
Science quotes on:  |  Law (273)

There is nothing in the world except empty curved space. Matter, charge, electromagnetism, and other fields are only manifestations of the curvature of space.
— John Wheeler
(1957) Quoted in New Scientist, 26 Sep 1974.
Science quotes on:  |  Charge (13)  |  Electromagnetism (14)  |  Field (69)  |  Matter (135)  |  Space (68)

Time is defined so that motion looks simple.
— John Wheeler
In Gravitation (1973).
Science quotes on:  |  Motion (64)  |  Simplicity (92)  |  Time (170)

We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.
— John Wheeler
In Scientific American (1992), Vol. 267. Quoted in Clifford A. Pickover, Wonders of Numbers (), 195.
Science quotes on:  |  Ignorance (110)  |  Knowledge (679)

You can talk about people like Buddha, Jesus, Moses, Confucius, but the thing that convinced me that such people existed were the conversations with Bohr.
About his time working with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen.
— John Wheeler
Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).
Science quotes on:  |  Niels Bohr (35)

[The black hole] teaches us that space can be crumpled like a piece of paper into an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a blown-out flame, and that the laws of physics that we regard as 'sacred,' as immutable, are anything but.
— John Wheeler
In John A. Wheeler and Kenneth Ford, Geons, Black Holes & Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics. Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).
Science quotes on:  |  Black Hole (8)



Quotes by others about John Wheeler (7)

For me, [John Wheeler] was the last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing.
Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).

[John Wheeler] rejuvenated general relativity; he made it an experimental subject and took it away from the mathematicians
Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).

The poetic Wheeler is a prophet, standing like Moses on the top of Mount Pisgah, looking out over the promised land that his people will one day inherit.
Spoken at a 90th birthday celebration. Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).

Some people think Wheeler’s gotten crazy in his later years, but he’s always been crazy.
Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).

To Wheeler's comment, If you haven't found something strange during the day, it hasn't been much of a day, a student responded, I can't believe that space is that crummy. Wheeler replied: To disagree leads to study, to study leads to understanding, to understand is to appreciate, to appreciate is to love. So maybe I'll end up loving your theory.
Quoted in Charles Birch, Biology and the Riddle of Life (1999), 10.

If this plane were to crash, we could get a new start on this quasar problem.
Said to colleagues, dramatically cupping his hand over his brow, shortly after the take-off of a propeller plane leaving Austin, Texas, after the Second Texas Symposium for Relativistic Astrophysics in Dec 1964. Various different theories had been presented at the conference. The flight passengers included many of the major scientists in quasar research, including Margaret and Geoffrey Burbridge, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, John Wheeler and Maarten Schmidt.
As quoted by Arthur I. Miller, Empire of the Stars (2005), 226.
Science quotes on:  |  Airplane (16)  |  Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (4)  |  Crash (2)  |  Quasar (4)  |  Maarten Schmidt (2)  |  Theory (353)

Wheeler hopes that we can discover, within the context of physics, a principle that will enable the universe to come into existence “of its own accord.” In his search for such a theory, he remarks: “No guiding principle would seem more powerful than the requirement that it should provide the universe with a way to come into being.” Wheeler likened this 'self-causing' universe to a self-excited circuit in electronics.
In God and the New Physics (1984), 39. Wheeler quotation footnoted 'From the Black Hole', in H. Woolf (Ed.),Some Strangeness in the Proportion (1980).
Science quotes on:  |  Circuit (10)  |  Discovery (360)  |  Electronics (6)  |  Existence (150)  |  Principle (97)  |  Theory (353)  |  Universe (291)


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  • todayinsci icon 9 Jul - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Wheeler's birth.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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