Wheeler, who gave "black holes" their name, dead at 96

Other News Materials 15 April 2008 01:36 (UTC +04:00)

John Archibald Wheeler, the theoretical physicist who gave black holes in space their name and worked on the Manhattan Project to build the atom bomb, has died at age 96, media reports said Monday. ( dpa )

Wheeler, a young contemporary of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, died Sunday at home in Hightstown, New Jersey.

Wheeler was born in 1911 in Florida, earned his doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, then sailed to Denmark to work with Bohr - the genius who started the revolution of quantum mechanics.

Wheeler worked on the Manhattan Project that raced to produce the atomic bomb in 1945, helped develop the hydrogen bomb and contributed to developing the missile defence system.

But he is most famous in the field of popular science for coining the name "black hole" in 1967 to describe the phenomenon of collapsing stars which condense all matter and block even light from escaping with extreme gravity.

The idea of the collapsing star masses was first floated by J Robert Oppenheimer, the lead Manhattan Project scientist, in 1939. It was an outgrowth of Einstein's theory of relativity and the space time continuum.

Wheeler challenged Oppenheimer about the idea of stars that could collapse in 1958, the New York Times reported, but was later brought around by mathematical demonstrations.

In his 1999 autobiography, Wheeler wrote that the black hole "teaches us that space can be crumpled like a piece of paper into an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a blown-out flame, and that the laws of physics that we regard as 'sacred,' as immutable, are anything but."

Astronomers have since proven the existence of black holes by observing how light and the path of space bodies are bent around apparent centres of nothingness in the universe.

From the late 1930s to mandatory retirement in 1976, Wheeler taught at Princeton University, where he helped make the school where Einstein also taught a national and world leader in the study of theoretical physics.

After leaving Princeton, he moved to the University of Texas.

Wheeler is as famous for his own work as he is for that of his students and the "crazy" ideas he floated to them.

One of them was Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, who explored the physics of superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium and the life of subatomic particles. He also was a pioneer in quantum computing and nanotechnology.

"Some people think Wheelers gotten crazy in his later years, but hes always been crazy," Feynman was quoted as saying by The New York Times.

Another of his students was Hugh Everett, whose doctoral thesis posited parallel alternate universes - an idea Wheeler called "many worlds" and which inspired much science fiction writing.