Physicist John Wheeler dies at age 96

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Monday, April 14, 2008

Theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler died of pneumonia at his residence in Hightstown, New Jersey yesterday. Wheeler is most known in the popular culture for popularizing the term "black hole" to describe stars which had become so dense that nothing, not even light, could escape their gravitational pull. Although Wheeler initially objected to the idea, he later accepted the idea and coined the term "black hole" to describe such objects.

Wheeler was also known for his work along with Richard Feynman and others in the Manhattan Project, which produced the first nuclear fission bomb. He was later involved in the work to build the first fusion bomb. As much as he was known for his research, Wheeler was known for his skill and accomplishment in teaching.

Wheeler was born July 9, 1911, in Jacksonville, Florida and went on to earn his doctorate in physics at the early age of 21. He then went on to work in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr and later returned to the United States to become part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Wheeler continued to work in physics after the war and was involved in the United States Matterhorn project to build a hydrogen bomb before the Soviet Union. His politics were more militaristic than many of his fellow scientists at the time, in that he supported the Vietnam War and the building of the hydrogen bomb.

For a long time Wheeler was at Princeton University as the doctoral adviser for many prominent physicists including Kip Thorne and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. Wheeler went on to the University of Texas at Austin in 1976 when Princeton's mandatory retirement age neared.

Wheeler continued to work until near his death. Physicists both young and old have paid tribute to Wheeler; cosmologist Max Tegmark told the New York Times that Wheeler had been "the only physics superhero still standing".

He is survived by three children, along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.