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Last atom bomb scientist, John Wheeler, dead at 96
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16:05, April 16, 2008

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The "only physics superhero still standing," John A. Wheeler, who played a key role in the development of the atom bomb and later gave black holes their name, has died at age 96.

Wheeler, for many years a professor at Princeton University, died of pneumonia Sunday at his home in Hightstown, said his daughter, Alison Wheeler Lahnston. Wheeler rubbed elbows with colossal figures in science such as Albert Einstein and Danish scientist Niels Bohr, with whom Wheeler worked in the 1930s and '40s.

"For me, he was the last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing," Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Max Tegmark told The New York Times.

Born in 1911, Wheeler was 21 when he earned his doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University. In the mid-1930s, he traveled to Denmark to study for a year with Bohr, who won a Nobel Prize for his work describing the nature of the atom.

In early 1939, with war looming in Europe, Bohr arrived in the United States with the news that German scientists had split uranium atoms. Working at Princeton, Bohr and Wheeler sketched out a theory of how nuclear fission worked.

During World War II, Wheeler was part of the Manhattan Project, the scientists charged with using nuclear fission to create an atomic bomb for the United States. Wheeler later helped Edward Teller develop the even more powerful hydrogen bomb.

The name "black hole" — for a collapsed star so dense that even light could not escape — came out of a conference in 1967. Wheeler made the name stick after someone else had suggested it as a replacement for the cumbersome "gravitationally completely collapsed star," he recalled.

In his 1998 autobiography, "Geons, Black Holes & Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics," he wrote that the black hole "teaches us that space can be crumpled like a piece of paper into an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a blown-out flame, and that the laws of physics that we regard as 'sacred,' as immutable, are anything but."

While he spent most of his academic career at Princeton, Wheeler moved to the University of Texas in 1976 because Princeton's retirement age was looming.

His wife of more than 70 years, Janette, died in October. He is survived by three children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


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