John Archibald Wheeler was one of the most accomplished physicists of the 20th century. He helped develop the theory of nuclear fission. And he made key contributions to Einstein's theory of gravity and the shadowy realm of quantum mechanics. When he died in 2008, however, the lead paragraph in almost every story focused on a single accomplishment: He coined the term "black hole."
Wheeler, who was born 100 years ago today, studied under Danish physicist Niels Bohr. They developed the theory of nuclear fission that led to the development of the atomic bomb. Wheeler worked on the bomb and, after World War II, on the new hydrogen bomb, before turning to general relativity -- Einstein's theory of gravity.
Before the war, another atom-bomb pioneer had calculated that a star could collapse to such great density that nothing could escape its gravitational pull, including light.
Wheeler was intrigued by the idea, but thought it was flawed. As he did his own calculations, though, he slowly became convinced that such "dark" stars could exist. In fact, he became one of the world's leading experts on the subject.
One problem, though, was that no one really knew what to call such bizarre objects. So in late 1967, Wheeler introduced a new name for them: black holes.
The name stuck, earning Wheeler a spot in the history books and giving Hollywood scriptwriters -- and all the rest of us -- a catchy name for those bizarre "dark stars."
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
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