John Wheeler (1911-2008)
April 21, 2008 — Todd Rowland, Academic Director, Wolfram Science Summer School
On Sunday, April 13, 2008, John Wheeler passed away at the age of 96.
He was a central figure in twentieth-century physics, in the middle of it all, working on the H-bomb and studying black holes. His legacy in physics is continued in his influence on a vast number of students, and their students in turn.
His contributions were many. Some have found their way into Demonstrations:
|Zonohedron Turned Inside Out
|Particle Moving around
Two Extreme Black Holes
But I want to mention his role in the history of computation in science. In a sense, he is a spiritual grandfather of NKS and of Mathematica.
He coined the phrase “it from bit”, and thought about the interpretation of physical phenomena as information, that somehow computation was all connected to gravity and fundamental to physics.
The tools he used included not just traditional mathematics, but also computer simulations. The software was too cumbersome to allow for true experimentation, unlike Mathematica, but these computer experiments were the best available.
His many students included Richard Feynman, who in turn explored the connection between computation and physics, for instance in Feynman’s famous “small world” lecture of 1959.
And one of Feynman’s students was Stephen Wolfram.
Whether there is a chain of influence and learning, or whether these people with similar attitudes gravitated towards each other, I do not know, but they all shared a strong belief that science is about discoveries.
Here is a quote from another very successful student of Wheeler’s, Kip Thorne, in Black Holes and Time Warps, p. 236:
…Wheeler was driven by a deep yearning to know what lies beyond well-established law. He was continually reaching, mentally, toward the domain where known laws break down and new laws come into play. He tried to leapfrog his way into the twenty-first century, to catch a glimpse of what the laws of physics might be like beyond twentieth-century frontiers.
This embodies the spirit of Stephen Wolfram’s NKS, although the content of NKS is even more radical. And also the motivations behind Mathematica. One is encouraged to go beyond what is known, to explore spaces that are well beyond normal understanding.
For more on the motivations behind Mathematica, see these papers by Stephen Wolfram.
John Wheeler was an advocate of doing more with less. That is how scientific modeling should be done, rather than heaping on a bunch of parameters to match phenomena—a good model accomplishes more, explains more than what it contains.
This is a simple way of understanding what Stephen Wolfram’s NKS is about, that it is the logical extension. We should be trying to understand the space of all simple rules.
In retrospect, John Wheeler made it well into the twenty-first century even when he was in the middle of the twentieth.