US theoretical physicist, known for his work in nuclear physics and cosmology.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, he was educated at Johns Hopkins University, where he obtained his PhD in 1933. After two years in Copenhagen working with Niels Bohr he returned to America, teaching first at the University of North Carolina and then (1938) at Princeton, where he was professor of physics (1947–76). In 1976 he moved to the University of Texas, where he directed the Center for Theoretical Physics until his retirement in 1986.
It was with Bohr that Wheeler made his first major contribution to physical theory. In 1939 they developed the liquid-drop model of the atomic nucleus and quickly saw that it would have implications for the recently discovered phenomenon of nuclear fission. Calculations showed that the rare isotope uranium-235 would be more fissionable than the common isotope uranium-238. It was this insight that made the atomic bomb a possibility, although it imposed on its builders the enormous task of uranium enrichment. Wheeler himself worked on the project at the Metallurgical Laboratory, Chicago, where he identified the problem of reactor poisoning and proposed design changes to deal with it.
After the war, Wheeler worked (1945–49) with Feynman on the problem of action at a distance. Later, in the early 1950s, he returned to the development of nuclear weapons; this time the problem was to design a hydrogen bomb. With the success of the project Wheeler turned to cosmology and general relativity. In his Geometrodynamics (1962) he attempted to unify the gravitational and electromagnetic fields by introducing the concept of a geon. This proved no more successful than comparable attempts by others. More durable, perhaps, has been his work on black holes, a term he coined. In this field he formulated the so-called ‘No Hair’ theorem: black holes are bald, i e their only known properties are their mass, charge, and angular momentum. His later publications include Journey into Gravity and Spacetime (1990) and At Home in the Universe (1993).
In 1979 Wheeler became the centre of a prolonged and continuing controversy, when at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) he called for the expulsion of the recently admitted parapsychologists. They had produced no hard results, he argued, and until such results had been produced parapsychology should not be granted the respectability of AAAS membership.
Subjects: Contemporary History (Post 1945) — Science and Mathematics.