Sunday, July 1, 2007

Meeting John Wheeler

One of the joys of being a science writer is getting a chance to interview some of the greats in the field. A particular pleasure is meeting someone like John Archibald Wheeler who was a student, collaborator, and mentor of some of the most notable physicists of the 20th century. Professor Wheeler, who is now almost 96, still maintains an office at Princeton. When I was writing my book, The Great Beyond, he generously gave several hours of his time for a morning interview.

I was very much impressed by his keen memory of certain events of the 1930s through the 1950s, particularly his interactions with Einstein who was his neighbor. Einstein was kind to Wheeler's children and later to Wheeler's students. For one of the first relativity classes ever offered, Einstein offered a friendly hand. In 1948, after Wheeler's student Feynman proposed Quantum Electrodynamics, Wheeler recalled how Einstein was dubious.

Wheeler's sense of humor and gracious attitude were readily apparent. It was easy to see why he was so beloved by his students. At one point I commended him for his book (with Thorne and Misner) Gravitation. He proceeded to show me a copy in Chinese, and dryly commented that I could use the book to learn that language.

He showed me some of the photographs of him with certain notables such as Yukawa, and explained his current interest in discerning the "why" of life. What a remarkable figure in physics, who contributed so much to modern thought.


Kay McKenzie Cooke said...

Fascinating. What a lovely, personal insight into two brilliant minds. Thanks Paul.

Paul said...

Kay, Many thanks for your kind comments!