Childhood & Early Life
On July 9, 1911, John Archibald Wheeler was born to Joseph Lewis Wheeler and Mabel Archibald Wheeler in the city of Jacksonville, Florida, United States.
Both his parents worked as librarians and he had three younger siblings Joseph, Robert and Mary.
Wheeler attended a local school in Vermont where the family resided during 1921-22 and later studied at the ‘Rayen High School’ in Ohio. He then attended the ‘Baltimore City College’ from where he graduated in 1926.
He received a scholarship to the ‘John Hopkins University’ sponsored by the state of Maryland. While working at the ‘National Bureau of Standards’ during the summer of 1930, he released his first scientific paper.
Under the tutelage of physicist Karl Herzfeld he worked on his thesis for the doctoral studies and was awarded a Ph. D. in 1933. His thesis dealt with dispersion and absorption of the inert gas Helium.
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During 1934-35, he worked in collaboration with physicists Gregory Breit and Niels Bohr. It was in 1934 that Wheeler in collaboration with Breit discovered the mechanism by which light can be converted to matter. The process was named after its founders as the ‘Breit-Wheeler Process’ and marked the beginning of the latter’s scientific career.
He then embarked on his first teaching assignment at the ‘University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’, a public research university. As an assistant professor he was offered an annual salary of $2300.
Owing to his interest in particle physics, in the year 1938 he accepted the position of an associate professorship at the ‘Princeton University’. The same year he collaborated with theoretical physicist Edward Teller to investigate the liquid drop model of atomic nucleus.
In 1939, following the discovery of nuclear fission Archibald collaborated with Niels Bohr and the duo set about examining the phenomenon of fission in Uranium, in order to elucidate the process. They concluded that it was the unstable isotopes of fissionable materials that released the energy upon being bombarded by neutrons.
Wheeler was inducted into the ‘Manhattan Project’ in 1942 and he was a part of the ‘Metallurgical Laboratory’ that was in charge of developing the nuclear reactor. The findings of the research he undertook, with Robert F. Christy another theoretical physicist, were published in a paper ‘Chain Reaction of Pure Fissionable Materials in Solution’.
He was then incorporated into the design department of ‘DuPont’, the chemical manufacture company, which was in charge of constructing the nuclear reactor as well a facility for purification of Plutonium.
During 1943-44, he worked in close association with the engineers and even had to relocate a few times. He even pointed out a technical snag in the design of the reactor, which caused it to shut down.
In 1945, he recommenced teaching at Princeton and he embarked on research of elementary particles in particular the ‘muon’ and in association with Brazilian physicist Jayme Tiomno, explored the decay of radioactive substances and dubbed their findings as the ‘Tiomno Triangle’.
He was then appointed as the director of ‘Cosmic Rays Laboratory’ established in Princeton in 1948.
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Wheeler was then engaged at the ‘Los Alamos Laboratory’ which undertook the assignment to develop the Hydrogen Bomb. It was in 1951 that he established a division of the ‘Los Alamos Labs’ at Princeton through which he engaged students in projects involving nuclear weapons and nuclear energy as an alternative.
Wheeler’s efforts bore fruits in 1953, when the ‘Matterhorn B’, a wing of ‘Project Matterhorn’ initiated by him in Princeton, successfully detonated the first thermonuclear device powered by nuclear fusion.
Continuing his academic profession at Princeton, this eminent theoretical physicist began to study electromagnetism and gravitational force. He coined the term ‘geon’ to describe a wave, be it gravitational or electromagnetic in nature, that is confined in the field propagated by its own force of attraction.
He was also instrumental in reviving the branch of physics that dealt with Einstien’s general relativity. He described the passages in the space-time continuum as mentioned in Einstien’s theory as ‘wormholes’ and inferred by further investigation that they are unstable.
He pioneered ‘Geometrodynamics’, which strives to analyze the geometrical basis of all space-time phenomena, with its ultimate goal being the establishment of a unified field theory.
From 1962-73, he published many books which accounted the details of his research. ‘Geometrodynamics’, ‘Spacetime Physics’, ‘Scouting Black Holes’ and ‘Gravitation’ are some of the works he penned during this time.
In 1967, he coined the term ‘black holes’ to explain the phenomenon of gravitational collapse.
After a career spanning nearly four decades in Princeton, he retired in 1976.
From 1976-1986, he remained at the ‘Center for Theoretical Physics’ affiliated to the ‘University of Texas’. During his tenure he was involved with experiments that dealt with quantum physics.