John Archibald Wheeler

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John Archibald Wheeler (1963)

John Archibald Wheeler (* 9. July 1911 in Jacksonville , Florida ; † 13. April 2008 in Hightstown , New Jersey ) was a US -American theoretical physicist and last emeritus professor at Princeton University .


John Archibald Wheeler grew up in a Unitarian home, where his early interest in the natural sciences was particularly encouraged. He received his doctorate in 1933 at Johns Hopkins University under Karl Ferdinand Herzfeld . In a 1937 paper published in Physical Review , he introduced the S-matrix to nuclear physics. In 1939 he studied together with Niels Bohr , the nuclear fission in the fluid model . The year before, Wheeler had become a professor at Princeton University , where he remained until 1976 when he accepted a professorship at the University of Texas at Austin . He kept his office in Princeton. Wheeler was probably one of the last people to know Albert Einstein , Niels Bohr and other greats from the early days of quantum mechanics .

John A. Wheeler was married with three children.


Wheeler devoted himself intensively to teaching and was very successful in it. For example, he and his first-semester student Albert Einstein visited the nearby Institute for Advanced Study . Among his students at the time were well-known theoretical physicists such as the gravitational physicist John R. Klauder and the Nobel Prize winners Kip Thorne and Richard Feynman . With Feynman he worked out a new formulation of classical electrodynamics in 1941 . During World War II, Wheeler worked on the Manhattan Project in Hanford, where plutonium breeder reactors were developed. He was also involved in early attempts to build the hydrogen bomb .

In January 1953, during a train ride from Princeton to Washington, he left secret documents describing the ignition mechanism of the hydrogen bomb in the train toilet. The whereabouts of the document is still unclear, Wheeler remained unpunished because of its importance for the project.

With Kenneth Ford he investigated the semi-classical approximation in scattering theory . In the 1950s and 1960s, Wheeler developed what is known as quantum geometry . By this he understands a further development of the general theory of relativity (GTR), which not only wants to describe gravitation , as with Einstein , but also the other interactions such as electromagnetism through the geometry of curved spacetime . However, it failed because it could not explain important physical phenomena such as the existence of fermions and could not avoid gravitational singularities as hoped . Such a geometrization not only of gravity, but also of the other fundamental interactions - which are described today by gauge theories - has not yet succeeded, and a quantum theory of gravity is still being fought for.

Eckehard W. Mielke (left) with John Archibald Wheeler (right) at the conference for the 100th birthday of Hermann Weyl in Kiel 1985

As an approach for the quantum theory of gravity, he and Bryce DeWitt introduced the Wheeler-DeWitt equation as a wave function of the entire universe. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he played an important role in the then rapidly developing theory of black holes , which he even gave this name in 1967. The name for the no hair theorem , sometimes called bald head in German , also comes from him (“A black hole has no hair”). Wheeler also coined the term " wormholes " for dumbbell-like bridges in spacetime. In 1973 he published the extensive and pedagogically well-thought-out textbook Gravitation with Misner and Thorne . Wheeler was also interested in the interpretation of quantum mechanics and temporarily supported the " Many Worlds Interpretation " of his student Hugh Everett from 1955, before he distanced himself from it.

Prices and memberships

In 1954 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 1952 to the National Academy of Sciences . He was a Fellow of the Royal Society (1995) and a member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences (1971). In 1983 he received the Oersted Medal , in 1984 the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize , 1982 the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal, 1968 the Enrico Fermi Prize , the National Medal of Science in 1971 , the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1996/97 and in 2003 the Einstein Prize . The American Philosophical Society , of which he was a member, awarded him in 1989 with their Benjamin Franklin Medal . The asteroid (31555) Wheeler is named after him. He was an honorary doctor of eighteen.

The “really big questions” for nature

From his basic Unitarian attitude, John Archibald Wheeler formulated five fundamental questions that go beyond physics and that he called "really big questions":

  1. How does what exists come about? (How come existence?)
  2. Why are there quanta? (Why the quantum?)
  3. Are we part of the universe? (A participatory universe?)
  4. What leads to meaning? (What makes meaning?)
  5. Do beings consist of information? (It from bit?)


  • With Kenneth Ford: Geons, black holes, and quantum foam - a life in physics. Norton, New York / London 1998, ISBN 0-393-04642-7 (autobiography).
  • With Charles W. Misner and Kip S. Thorne: Gravitation. WH Freeman and Company, San Francisco 1973, ISBN 0-7167-0334-3 .
  • With Edwin F. Taylor : Spacetime Physics. WH Freeman and Company, San Francisco 1963/1966, ISBN 0-7167-0336-X .
  • With Edwin F. Taylor: Exploring black holes - introduction to general relativity. Addison-Wesley Longman, San Francisco 2000, ISBN 0-201-38423-X .
  • At home in the universe. AIP Press, Woodbury NY 1994, ISBN 0-88318-862-7 .
  • Frontiers of time. North-Holland, Amsterdam 1979 (Enrico Fermi course), ISBN 0-444-85285-9 .
  • With Martin J. Rees and Remo Ruffini: Black holes, gravitational waves and cosmology - an introduction to current research. Gordon and Breach, New York / London 1976, ISBN 0-677-04580-8 .
  • Einstein's vision - what about Einstein's vision of seeing everything as geometry today? Springer, Berlin / Heidelberg 1968.
  • Geometrodynamics. 1962 (reprint volume, inter alia "Geons", Physical Review 1955).
  • Geometrodynamics and the issue of the final state. In: de Witt (Ed.): Relativity, groups and topology. Les Houches Lectures, 1963.
  • Superspace and the nature of geometrodynamics. In: Cecile M. De Witt, John A. Wheeler (eds.): Relativity, groups and topology - Battelle rencontres 1967. Seattle Center, July 16 to August 31, 1967. WA Benjamin, New York / Amsterdam 1968.
  • With Remo Ruffini : Introducing the black hole. Physics Today, January 1971.
  • Beyond the black hole. In: Woolf (Ed.): Some strangeness in proportion. Einstein centennary volume. 1980.
  • Law without law. In: Wheeler and Zurek (Eds.): Quantum theory of measurement. 1983.

Here Wheeler expresses his admiration for Hermann Weyl :

John Archibald Wheeler, Hermann Weyl and the Unity of Knowledge. In: Wolfgang Deppert , Kurt Hübner, Arnold Oberschelp, Volker Weidemann (eds.): Exact Sciences and their philosophical Foundations / Exakte Wissenschaften und their philosophical foundations, lectures at the International Hermann Weyl Congress. Kiel 1985, Peter Lang Verlag, Frankfurt / Main 1988, ISBN 3-8204-9328-X , pp. 469-503. First in American Scientist, July 1986.

Wheeler published his memories of Einstein in: Aichelburg und Sexl (ed.): Albert Einstein. 1979, and in the physical sheets from the same year.


  • John R. Klauder: Magic without magic. John Archibald Wheeler, a collection of essays in honor of his sixtieth birthday. Freeman, San Francisco 1972.
  • Herbert Pfister and Wolfgang P. Schleich: In memory of John Archibald Wheeler. In: Physics Journal. Volume 7, Issue 8/9, 2008, p. 126.
  • Kenneth Ford: John Wheeler's work on particles, nuclei, and weapons. In: Physics Today. April 2009, p. 29 ( ).
  • Kenneth Ford: Article Wheeler. In: Thomas Hockey (Ed.): Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. Springer 2007.
  • Kenneth Ford: Giant of physics John Wheeler dies. In: Physics World. May 2008, p. 7.
  • Physics Today. April 2009, issue on John Archibald Wheeler, alongside the article by Ford.
    Wheeler: Mechanism of Fission. P. 35.
    Misner, Thorne and Zurek: John Wheeler, relativity, and quantum information. P. 40.
    Remo Ruffini, Wheeler: Introducing the black hole. P. 47.
    Terry Christensen: John Wheeler's mentorship. An enduring legacy. P. 55.
  • Charles W. Misner , Kip S. Thorne , John Archibald Wheeler: Gravitation. Freeman, New York 2000, ISBN 0-7167-0334-3 (the famous "Three Men Bible" which contains almost everything).


"Wheeler's First Moral Principle: Never make a calculation before you know the answer. Make an estimate before every calculation, try a simple physical argument (symmetry, invariance, conservation). "

“Wheeler's first golden rule: Never do a calculation that you don't know about the result. Before each calculation, make an estimate using simple physical arguments (symmetry, invariance, conservation laws). "

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ John A. Wheeler: On the mathematical description of light nuclei by the method of resonating group structure. In: Physical Review. Vol. 52 (1937), pp. 1107-1122.
  2. ^ Niels Bohr, John Archibald Wheeler: The mechanism of nuclear fission. In: Physical Review. Vol. 56 (1939), pp. 426-450.
  3. Kitta MacPherson: Leading physicist John Wheeler dies at age 96., April 14, 2008, accessed April 25, 2018 .
  5. Nadja Podbregar: When the H-bomb recipe disappeared. How a US physicist lost top secret documents on a train ride in 1953. December 27, 2019, accessed December 29, 2019.
  6. Kenneth W. Ford, John A. Wheeler: Semiclassical description of scattering. In: Annals of Physics. Volume 7 (1959), pp. 259-286.
  7. 31555 Wheeler (1999 EV2). At:
  8. M. Hargittai, I. Hargittai (Ed.): Candid Science IV. Conversations with Famous Physicists. World Scientific, 2004, p. 425, with an interview by Wheeler.
  9. Purpose. At: Science & Ultimate Reality. Program of the John Templeton Foundation and the Peter Gruber Foundation.
  10. As a guide to the "Exercise" section in Taylor, Wheeler: Spacetime Physics. P. 60.