By Kelline Linton, Staff Writer
World-renown physicist Dr. John Wheeler, who donated his personal library to ACU, died April 13 at age 96, leaving a legacy of brilliance to the world.
Known as the father of modern general relativity, Wheeler donated thousands of volumes of books and periodicals to the Brown Library and was named Friend of the Year by the Friends of the ACU Library in 1999.
His donations included textbooks, recently published discoveries and the complete collections of works of Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein, two men with whom Wheeler collaborated during his lifetime.
Bohr and Einstein won the Nobel Prize in Physics, Bohr, in 1922, for his research on the structure of the atom and Einstein in 1921, for his theory of relativity.
Wheeler inspired a generation of physicists but never received the Nobel Prize, although several of his students did earn the award.
“He was an idea person who influenced others,” said Dr. Donald Isenhower, professor of physics.
Wheeler’s achievements included creating the term “black hole” to describe a fully collapsed gravitational object. This phenomenon referred to areas in deep space where the gravitational field was powerful enough to prohibit even light from escaping them.
He also worked on the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. According to an Associated Press article, Wheeler never regretted his work on the bomb; he regretted that the weapon was not finished in time to affect the war in Europe before his brother Joe died in combat on Italian soil in 1944.
“Modern physicists are usually pegged in a particular area, but Wheeler worked on many areas,” said Dr. Josh Willis, assistant professor of physics. “There are very few people who can make important contributions in so many areas.”
Wheeler was a professor at Princeton University for most of his academic career but joined the University of Texas’ faculty in 1976, where he insisted on teaching a freshman-level class. Wheeler had a passion for teaching science to freshmen and sophomores.
“He thought general core requirements would be the last chance to teach non-majors science,” Isenhower said.
Wheeler even lectured on this idea while at ACU during a 1980 meeting of the Texas Section of the American Physical Society, the American Association of Physics Teachers and the Society of Physics Students.
His passion for undergraduates influenced Isenhower in his own freshman-level astronomy course.
“I try to work hard in my classes,” Isenhower said. “I don’t want them to be fact-oriented, but concept-oriented.”
Wheeler’s affection for ACU’s physics department began with that 1980 visit. He was impressed with the undergraduate research programs, Isenhower said.
ACU’s Department of Physics is known widely as “one of the nation’s top undergraduate programs for leading-edge instruction and collaborative research between students and faculty,” according to an ACU press release.
“Having a good physics department can’t be done in isolation; you need a good math department, chemistry department, liberal arts program and good library,” said Dr. Michael Sadler, professor of physics.
Wheeler’s library was a big legacy for the department, Sadler said.
“The attention that somebody of his stature paid to a small physics department in West Texas is astounding,” Sadler said. “He knew that his time on earth was limited and he wanted to maximize the limited resources he had.” Sadler frequently uses the scientific library, including a book Wheeler co-authored, as a supplemental source in several classes.
“He wanted his books to be used and not placed in just another special collection,” Willis said.