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In memoriam: John Wheeler

April 15, 2008, 10:17 am

John Archibald Wheeler — a giant in the world of physics, colleague of Einstein, teacher/mentor to Richard Feynman, and inventor of such terms as “black hole” — has died at the age of 96. Daniel, who blogs at Cosmic Variance and who was one of Wheeler’s more recent students, has this touching tribute, which serves as a profound example of the power of professors to induct students into the world of ideas for life. 

John Wheeler co-wrote a book on spacetime physics which was the textbook of one of the three most influential academic courses I ever took. The course was a one-hour colloquium/seminar course on spacetime physics for Honors Program students at Tennessee Technological University, and I took it when I was a junior. We learned about special relativity, temporal paradoxes, causality, and all manner of related mind-bending material in that course. The book was just a set of typed-up notes at the time, but extremely well-written and including a learning component which at that time was highly innovative: computer software that gave visual simulations of the physics phenomena we were studying, like the apparent contraction in length of an object moving close to the speed of light. Every Thursday, we’d stagger out of the spacetime physics course, our minds overwhelmed with crazy ideas about photons having mass and time running at different rates for different people. It was fantastic. We all loved — we learned to love – having our minds blown like that each week. It was through that course, I think, that I graduated from being just a student who knows how to score enough points to have a high GPA, to a person who can find passion and enjoyment in the world of ideas bigger than myself. 

At the end of that semester, we made a t-shirt for ourselves with a screenshot of the computer software on the front and a list of “Top Ten Ways to Recognize TTU Spacetime Physics Students” on the back. (“They are constantly resetting their watches”; “They complain about having only \(9 \times 10^{10}\) meters to get to class”; and so on.) We sent t-shirts to Profs. Wheeler and Taylor too. Prof. Wheeler sent a handwritten letter back to us, and I remember him writing something like, “Having fun and learning new things at the same time — who could ask for anything more?” 

Indeed! Thanks, Dr. Wheeler. 

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