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Ken Bloom | USLHC | USA

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Physics Last Month

Now that the school year is over, and I’m only working one job instead of two, I have just a little more time on my hands to catch up on things that I’m backlogged on.  One thing that I’m finally getting some traction on is my reading of Physics Today, the monthly magazine published by the American Institute of Physics that is a benefit of membership to any of AIP’s member societies (including the American Physical Society).  It really is a nice publication, and I wish I could keep up with it more, as there is often timely news in there that is less timely by the time I get to it.  (Don’t even get me started on American Scientist, the high-quality magazine of Sigma Xi, which I also really enjoy for its well-written articles on all scientific fields, which I think I’m now a year behind on.)

Anyhow, I have finally managed to finish Physics April (before the end of May, even!).  I’m glad I got to this particular edition, which was devoted to John Wheeler (1911-2008), a theoretician who spent many years on faculty at Princeton.  I had certainly heard of the guy, and definitely had it in the back of my head that he was Richard Feynman’s thesis adviser, and had co-written an important textbook on general relativity.

But the April articles taught me that he was so much more than that!  Wheeler started out in nuclear physics, where he worked with Niels Bohr to develop the liquid-drop model of nuclear physics, and helped develop the atomic and hydrogen bombs.  But in the 1950’s, he had the courage to completely change his field of research, and started working in general relativity.  I had no idea that at the time, GR was considered something of an intellectual backwater.  But he developed many interesting GR concepts, such as the black hole (he invented that famous name too) and the possibility of gravitational waves (which I’ve discussed here before).  And then, still later in life, he made another switch and started exploring issues of quantum measurement, which at the time was considered best left to philosophers.  That too he made into a scientifically rigorous pursuit.  (Philosophy is also rigorous, but not in the same way!)

But all the more amazing is that in the midst of all this, he mentored a very large number of students, many of whom became leaders of the field in their own right.  In forty years at Princeton, he supervised 43 PhD theses and another 43 senior undergraduate theses.  As a professor myself, that’s many more students than I could ever imagine working with, if nothing else because good mentoring can be so time-intensive (and I don’t even claim to be a good mentor, necessarily).  When I read about the likes of Wheeler, I sometimes wonder why I bother to come in to work each day.  But I suppose we all find our little ways to contribute.

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