Memories of John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008)
	John A. Wheeler died April 13 at the age of 96.  He was arguably the last survivor of the great physicists from the generation who contributed to the early years of modern quantum mechanics.  He is best known for his efforts to find a unifying viewpoint that would encompass all of physics and thereby do away with the seeming incompatibilities between quantum mechanics and general relativity.  In the course of these efforts he introduced and/or promoted nomenclature that has entered the popular vocabulary, most notably "black hole" and "wormhole", which are exotic physical phenomena described in the theory of general relativity.  For those who would like to know more about his professional contributions, one can start with his obituaries in leading publications, such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times; I recommend the one on the Princeton University website:

	My purpose here is to recall a few personal reminiscences from the five years when I was in frequent contact with Wheeler at Princeton, four of them pursuing my Ph.D. under his guidance, and a fifth as a physics instructor.  Like so many others I was inspired by his vision of a unified theory.  I expect that I disappointed him by becoming enamored of computer science and spending most of my working life away from physics.

	One of Wheeler's ideas was geometrodynamics (another of his words), which extended to all of physics Einstein's idea that gravity is a manifestation of curved geometry.  If the idea worked (which unfortunately it as yet has not), then a wide range of phenomena would be explicable as being particular warpings of the space-time continuum.  Each such phenomenon would then have entered physical theory without having explicitly to be postulated.  Wheeler expressed this by saying that the theory provided "gravity without gravity", "mass without mass", "electromagnetism without electromagnetism", etc.  About the time that I was leaving Princeton, Wheeler was asked to contribute a chapter on geometrodynamics to a book, Gravitation: an introduction to current research (L. Witten, ed., Wiley & Sons, 1962).  Wheeler told me that he did not have time to devote to the effort and asked that I write the chapter.  I organized the chapter into about a dozen sections, each titled with one of Wheeler's "withouts".  Thus does my name appear on an exposition of Wheeler's ideas.

	The Wheeler family had a summer place, High Island (accessible by automobile), on the coast of Maine near Damariscotta.  In the summer of 1959, soon after I received my degree, my family was invited to spend a week there.  My wife Jill and I and our daughter Linda stayed in a separate guest cabin, pretty much on our own, interacting with the Wheelers as we would with nearby neighbors.  Our two families had a couple of meals together.  One day Jill decided that, since we were in Maine, we should have lobster for dinner.  We went to the market, and Jill chose the biggest one she could find.  When we returned to our cabin, it was found that there was no cooking pot that was up to the task.  So we went over to the Wheelers and asked whether they had a larger pot that we could borrow.  They did, and Jill was able to cook our lobster.  Guess who was given the task of dunking the unfortunate creature into the boiling water.

	One day at the urging of Wheeler's wife Janette we visited Acadia National Park.  Another day we went over to Boothbay Harbor for a boat ride.  All these adventures were accomplished despite Jill's being great with child — or more precisely children, because unknown to anyone at that time (even the doctors) she was carrying twins.  They were born soon after in early September.  So, John Wheeler provided me, not only guidance and insights about physics, but also happy memories of a family adventure.

	Wheeler's office was always open to a student with a question, and he often offered pithy remarks on a variety of subjects.  I remember that, soon after the famed physicist Enrico Fermi died of cancer, Wheeler expressed admiration for how Fermi had spent his last days, continuing to discuss and speculate on the current problems in physics.  I suspect that Wheeler did the same.  Judging by email that I have received on the subject, there will be an overflow crowd for his memorial service at the Princeton University chapel, many, if not most, of the crowd being former students like myself.  Their large number indicates that his vision will not die with him.
by John G. Fletcher
April 29, 2008