John Archibald Wheeler Biography

John Archibald Wheeler is a famous American scientist who explained nuclear fission and fusion reactions and coined the term ‘Black Hole’. To know more about his childhood, career, profile and timeline read on

Quick Facts

Birthday: July 9, 1911

Nationality: American

Famous: Physicists American Men

Died At Age: 96

Sun Sign: Cancer

Also Known As: John A. Wheeler, John Wheeler, Johnny

Born in: Jacksonville

Famous as: Physicist


Spouse/Ex-: Janette Hegner

children: Alison Wheeler Lahnston, James English Wheeler, Letitia Wheeler Ufford

Died on: April 13, 2008

place of death: Hightstown

U.S. State: Florida

More Facts

education: 1933 - Johns Hopkins University, 1926 - Baltimore City College

awards: Oersted Medal
1997 - Wolf Prize in Physics
1988 - Albert Einstein Medal

1968 - Enrico Fermi Award
1965 - Albert Einstein Award
Matteucci Medal
Franklin Medal
1946 - Guggenheim Fellowship for Natural Sciences
US & Canada
1971 - National Medal of Science for Physical Science

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John Archibald Wheeler was a renowned theoretical physicist from America who explained the concept of nuclear fission and fusion. He was instrumental in development of the first atom bomb during World War II and later was involved in the making of the hydrogen bomb. After completing his schooling this scientific genius, associated with the likes of Niels Bohr and Gregory Breit and with the latter he put forth the ‘Breit-Wheeler process’ to convert light into matter. He then began his four decade long association with the Princeton University. It was at Princeton that he developed the concept of S-matrix, which holds good even today. Owing to his expertise in the process of nuclear fission he was inducted into Project Manhattan during WWII. He made significant contribution in the development of nuclear reactor as well as in the purification of Plutonium. After the WWII he resumed his academic responsibilities and was involved in various other research work that included theoretical physics. He spearheaded the revival of theoretical physics and studied the time-space continuum and strived to establish a geometrical basis for phenomenon like gravity. His efforts led to the inception of ‘Geometrodynamics’ and he even studied wormholes and black holes. In fact he was the one to coin the term black hole. Read on to know more about his life and works

Childhood & Early Life
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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.
Major Works
  • John Archibald was renowned for making numerous contributions to the field of science but his work in the field of nuclear fission and fusion reaction is of paramount significance. He was involved in the making of first ever atom bomb and later the Hydrogen bomb.
Awards & Achievements
  • Throughout his career John was lauded with several honours and awards which include the ‘Albert Einstien Award’, ‘Enrico Fermi Award’ and ‘Franklin Medal’.
  • In 1970 he was presented with the ‘National Medal of Science’ by the President of United States.
  • In 2003, he was awarded the ‘Einstein Prize’ by the ‘American Physical Society’ for his contribution in the field of gravitational physics.
Personal Life & Legacy
  • Wheeler got married to Janette Hegner on June 10, 1935 after courting her for two years. Janette was a student of history at the ‘John Hopkins University’ and later took up teaching position at ‘Rye Country Day School’. The couple have three children.
  • This eminent scientist breathed his last on April 13, 2008 in New Jersey, six months after his wife’s demise. He was suffering from pneumonia and was aged 96 at the time of his death.

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John Archibald Wheeler

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