Image: John Wheeler
University of Texas
Wheeler, who died at 96, was "the only physics superhero still standing," a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was quoted saying.
updated 4/14/2008 2:15:37 PM ET 2008-04-14T18:15:37

Physicist John A. Wheeler, who had a key role in the development of the atom bomb and later gave the space phenomenon black holes their name, has died at 96.

Wheeler, for many years a professor at Princeton University, died of pneumonia Sunday at his home in Hightstown, said his daughter, Alison Wheeler Lahnston.

Wheeler rubbed elbows with colossal figures in science such as Albert Einstein and Danish scientist Niels Bohr, with whom Wheeler worked in the 1930s and '40s.

"For me, he was the last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing," Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Max Tegmark told The New York Times.

Born in 1911, Wheeler was 21 when he earned his doctorate in physics from Johns Hopkins University. In the mid-1930s, he traveled to Denmark to study for a year with Bohr, who won a Nobel Prize for his work describing the nature of the atom.

Manhattan Project
In early 1939, with war looming in Europe, Bohr arrived in the United States with the news that German scientists had split uranium atoms. Working at Princeton, Bohr and Wheeler sketched out a theory of how nuclear fission worked.

During World War II, Wheeler was part of the Manhattan Project, the scientists charged with using nuclear fission to create an atomic bomb for the United States.

Unlike some colleagues who regretted their roles after bombs were dropped on Japan, Wheeler regretted that the bomb had not been made ready in time to hasten the end of the war in Europe. His brother, Joe, had been killed in combat in Italy in 1944.

Wheeler later helped Edward Teller develop the even more powerful hydrogen bomb.

Popularizing 'black holes'
The name "black hole" — for a collapsed star so dense that even light could not escape — came out of a conference in 1967. The name was shouted out as a suggestion from the audience, and Wheeler seized on it as a substitute for the more cumbersome phrase "gravitationally completely collapsed star."

"After you get around to saying that about 10 times, you look desperately for something better," he told The New York Times.

Wheeler and his colleagues expounded on black holes and other features of Einsteinian relativity in 1973, in a 1,300-page book titled "Gravitation."

In Wheeler's 1998 autobiography, "Geons, Black Holes & Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics," he wrote that the black hole "teaches us that space can be crumpled like a piece of paper into an infinitesimal dot, that time can be extinguished like a blown-out flame, and that the laws of physics that we regard as 'sacred,' as immutable, are anything but."

Among Wheeler's students in the early 1940s was the future Nobel Prize-winner Richard Feynman.

While he spent most of his academic career at Princeton, Wheeler moved to the University of Texas in 1976 because Princeton's retirement age was looming.

His wife of more than 70 years, Janette, died in October. He is survived by three children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.

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