It has been about a week since John Wheeler passed away at age 96. Plenty of blogs (including The Pontiff) and other sites have deftly reported on various aspects of Wheeler’s enormous influence on physics and/or have written worthy obituaries. I will not attempt either. Rather, I will share my one and only John Wheeler story (that pales in comparison to most others, but is at least genuine).
I used to attend the APS’ April Meeting (as opposed to the March Meeting) and, in 2002, the Forum on the History of Physics, in conjunction with a few other APS units, sponsored a Eugene Wigner Centennial Symposium. Wheeler spoke on Wigner’s changing view of quantum theory.
When I entered the conference room, without realizing it at first, I happened to sit next to him and his son. Part of the way through his talk, something he was talking about triggered a memory of his brother who had been killed in the invasion of Italy in WWII. The memory brought him to tears and he couldn’t continue. While I’m sure many people in attendance wrote the incident off to old age and perhaps even felt sorry for him, the moment touched me greatly since it was very obvious, regardless of its manifestation at that moment, that his brother’s death had affected him greatly.
After the session a number of people approached him simply to shake his hand since he was a bit of a celebrity to physicists and astronomers. For whatever reason, despite sitting right next to him, I did not. Sometimes I can be oddly shy and reticent in situations like that but I also think part of me thought that introducing myself would have been a wholly selfish act. He was already 91 at the time and looked tired. I suspect shaking his hand would have only been meaningful to me, though there are times (such as now) that I wonder if I should have taken that fleeting opportunity to shake hands.
In any case, he was a giant among physicists and has left an enduring legacy as one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century.