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John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008)

I discovered the sad news today that physicist John Archibald Wheeler had died on Sunday morning at the age of 96.

For those of you who have never heard of him, Wheeler will probably be most remembered by the general public as the one who invented the term "black hole" for a dead star so dense that not even light could escape its gravitational pull. Oppenheimer and Snyder had suggested this possibility out of Einstein's general relativity, and it was at a conference in 1967 that Wheeler came up with the term.

The concept of a star so massive that not even light could escape had been discussed long before the equations of general relativity suggested the possibility, but no one had come up with a good term for the idea. Probably the most well-know phrase before "black hole" was "frozen star," which doesn't quite create the same image in the mind as "black hole" does.

Black holes have become a longtime staple of science fiction; I even used one for my first cover story, "Escape Horizon" (Analog, March 2000).

As someone who studied general relativity as a graduate student, I used Wheeler's classic co-authored textbook on the subject: Gravitation by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler. It's one of the clearest explanations of general relativity for the physicist that I have ever seen. I also learned some of special relativity out of the classic Spacetime Physics book that Wheeler co-authored with Edwin Taylor; and although I did get to meet Taylor once (when I almost served as his Teaching Assistant), I never did get to meet Wheeler. I wish I had; I understand he was a great teacher. Wheeler was probably the most influential physicist of the 20th century who never won a Nobel Prize, and he deserved one a thousand times over.

If you want to learn more about him, here's a link to his New York Times obituary: John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term 'Black Hole' Is Dead at 96.


His autobiography (_Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics _) is quite good, too. We were at Princeton at the same time but I never met him.

A great loss, but it's hard to complain about a life that complete and productive.

December 2016

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