Physics Mourns the Loss of Eminent American Physicist
John Archibald Wheeler, who some call the godfather of the current UMD Physics Department, died peacefully on April 13, 2008. The science community is mourning the loss of an eminent American Theoretical Physicist.
Wheeler received his Ph.D. from John Hopkins University, in 1933. His graduate work was followed by an outstanding career with many major contributions to physics including the understanding of nuclear fission, coining the term “black hole” and teaching and advising many students.
Additionally, he was a major force in bringing Einstein’s ideas back into the light of mainstream physics. His hope that nature would avoid catastrophic gravitational collapse brought about the attention, and effort, that makes it now seem like a fundamental agent in the evolution of the cosmos. Into this area, he brought the idea that electronic computation would play an essential role in understanding gravity. With Bryce DeWitt and Larry Smarr, he pushed towards the now important field of numerical relativity. Along the way to that, he continued to give teaching a high priority as he managed to advise and make significant impacts on the lives of today’s most distinguished physicists.
“John Archibald Wheeler was a seminal figure in physics of the 20th century,” said Greenberg. “He was an inspiration to all who came in contact with him. When I took his class in general relativity he arranged for the class to have tea with Albert Einstein in his home. This was a memorable experience for all of us. Wheeler later wrote the members of the class for their recollections of this visit with Einstein.”
In 1952, Wheeler was asked to recommend a department chairman for the University of Maryland’s Physics Department. He pushed his newly minted Ph.D. student and off-campus administrative assistant, John S. Toll, to lead the transformation and phenomenal growth of a small department into one of the largest and most competitive research institutions in the country. During his term, Toll, with the help of Wheeler, successfully recruited a number of present day physicists which include Dieter Brill, O.W. Greenberg, James Griffin, Bei-Lok Hu and Charles Misner.
“John Archibald Wheeler, who was often called ‘Johnny Wheeler’ by his friends, was truly a giant among physicists and a gentleman among scholars,” said James Griffin. “We shall all miss him dearly, and cling to our memories of him.”
Through his example, Wheeler spread widely in the physics world the goal of excellent teaching and writing. Those who knew him, as well as those who read of him, stood in awe of what one brilliant, enthusiastic and generous person can accomplish.
To view John Wheeler’s obituary, please visit: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/14/science/14wheeler.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Overbye&st=nyt&oref=slogin