John A. Wheeler
Wolf Prize Laureate in Physics 1996/7
John A. Wheeler
Affiliation at the time of the award:
Princeton University, USA
University of Texas, USA
“for his seminal contributions to black holes physics, to quantum gravity, and to the theories of nuclear scattering and nuclear fission”.
With his analysis of the fate of cold massive objects, Professor John A. Wheeler catalyzed the emergence of black hole physics. Wheeler recognized that black holes are sinks of information, enunciated the highly influential principle of black hole uniqueness, “black holes have no hair”, and laid (with Regge) the foundations of black hole stability theory. To face the challenge posed by total gravitational collapse, he formulated the basis of canonical quantum gravity theory, including geometrodynamics, superspace, and (with B. DeWitt) the celebrated Wheeler-DeWitt equation. Well before the discovery of pulsars, he recognized that the Crab supernova remnant should be energized by a magnetized spinning neutron star. In the heyday of nuclear physics, he introduced the concept of the S-matrix (scattering matrix), which is now used in many branches of physical science, and (with Bohr) originated the theory of nuclear fission. His views of the role of the quantum principle in physics are among the most farseeing of our time. In the course of his long career, he trained and stimulated several generations of physicists.
John Archibald Wheeler of the Princeton University and the University of Texas at Austin, was cited in the Wolf Prize in Physics for leading the development of black hole physics . After recognizing that any large collection of cold matter has no choice but to yield to the pull of gravity and undergo total collapse, Wheeler in 1968 dubbed the resulting object a “black hole”. Black holes have since become focus in gravitation theory, astrophysics, and elementary particle theory. Many features of the modern theory of black holes were developed by Wheeler and his students.
When a cold mass is not big enough to collapse to a black hole, it forms, according to theory, a neutron star, a body of nuclear matter the size of a medium city, but with a mass of the sun. In 1966, Wheeler suggested that the energy required to power the Crab Nebula, a glowing gas cloud in the Taurus constellation, the Bull, known to be the remnant of the fatal explosion of a star observed in 1054, could come from a spinning neutron star, embedded in the Nebula. A year later radioastronomers discovered the first pulsars, which were quickly identified with the previously hypothetical neutron stars. The discovery of a pulsar in the Crab Nebula verified Wheeler’s imaginative prediction.
On the eve of World War II, Wheeler, working with Niels Bohr, developed the theory of nuclear fission, which quantifies the mechanism whereby heavy nuclei break apart to free energy and neutrons that can initiate a nuclear chain reaction. Both the atomic bomb and nuclear power reactors were designed in accordance with this theory.
John A. Wheeler is famous as a teacher, and during his long career has trained and stimulated generations of physicists. The great American theorist, Richard Feynman, was his first doctoral student.