This week, John Archibald Wheeler died, from pneumonia at the age of 96.
Wheeler was a spectacular physicist, who worked in the areas of General Relativity among other areas, he is the guy who popularised the words “black hole” and “wormhole”, and worked with Einstein in his last years. I hadn’t known that he had worked on the Manhattan project, and that unlike other scientists, didn’t regret his role in the project but merely the fact that it didn’t save his brother’s life. I also hadn’t known that he supervised one of my other great physics heros Richard Feynman, but I was impressed with his work even before that.
I met his work when I was about 15 or 16. My maths teaching at secondary school had been, well, uneven to say the least for the first few years, but I got a good teacher in 4th and 5th form, Ken Brown. I started to realise that mathematics made logical coherent sense and that if I worked a bit harder I could get on top, and then understanding the next bit took little effort. I also found that, even with this basic mathematics, I could understand a lot of Special Relativity which fascinated me, but not so much as the General theory. In our local library in Bangor I found the book Gravitation
by Misner, Thorne, and of course, Wheeler. Now, my memories of this book are old, and I don’t have a copy, but nostalgia almost prompts me to buy one. But I can remember my impression of the book.
It’s not a layman’s account, although there are many good examples of that, but it is beautiful, the illustrations, the mathematics, I enjoyed poring over all of it, and I think I did come to understand the theory better for it, even if the bulk of the material was beyond me then. It inspired me to study physics, and mathematics, and although when I reached university the mathematics itself began to captivate me more than the physics, still, two of my final year modules were Quantum Mechanics and Tensor Field Theory (the mathematical basis for General Relativity). In fact, I picked these out as modules I wanted to do when I was in first year, and planned everything around them. In the end I am more of a Pure Mathematician, and though back in school I always wanted to work on GR I guess it’s very unlikely I now ever will, it was an inspiration to me, and people like Einstein, Feynman and Wheeler showed the way.