Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Goodbye, and thanks for all the mistakes

Posted by Arjendu on April 14, 2008

John Archibald Wheeler passed away yesterday, and there will be personal tributes in many fora from all sorts of people — he was a legend. I arrived in Texas a little late to be as heavily influenced by his ideas on quantum mechanics as a previous generation of students, some from my group (Wojciech Zurek, Bill Wootters, Ben Schumacher, for example) were, but his presence there was still strong. Since Wheeler wrote papers with Wojciech, who of course wrote papers with his Ph.D. adviser Bill Schieve, and Bill is my Ph.D. adviser and co-author as well, my ‘collaboration distance’ from Wheeler (generalized version of the Erdos number) is 3, and that’s pretty much as close as I got to doing physics with him.

I have a few disconnected memories of Wheeler, though: Mostly from running into him a few times in the corridors of RLM (which housed the physics, astronomy, and math departments at UT-Austin), when I was always struck by the intensity of gaze and his smile. The one time I spoke physics with him was while attending a seminar given by him in the Philosophy Department. In response to a question of mine, he turned on his smile, and threw me a penny — I gathered later that this is how he rewarded interactivity in his seminars. I’ve stolen that trick of his for my own courses for majors –of course my students don’t get quite the thrill out of getting a penny from me that I got out of getting that penny from him, but hey, it’s worth a shot.

There’s are a couple of quotes of Wheeler’s that I have frequently used and would like to re-evoke here: “The job of a theoretical physicist is to make mistakes as fast as possible.” As well as: ‘We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.’

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