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1976: decision to leave Princeton for the University of Texas


John Wheeler Scientist
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It would be about this big, the smallest black hole, and I base that on the fact that the gravitational mass of the sun is about 2 centimeters and this is a little more than that. But then at the other limit, what's the biggest black hole? I recall the first Texas symposium on relativistic astrophysics, Ivor Robinson, my imaginative Texas colleague at the University of Texas at Dallas, dreamed up this lovely title: Relativistic Astrophysics, to combine his love of relativity with something that was down to earth, practical, real observation - astrophysics. At this meeting the real eye-popper was a report by Maarten Schmidt of the discovery of what today we call Quasars. It was a newspaper reporter who was there at the meeting who dreamed up that short cut way of saying what Maarten Schmidt had been calling a Quasistellar Source. Today these bright spots at the center of some distant galaxies can only be understood as arising from the presence of a black hole which has enough broken down stars in orbit around it to give enormous luminosity. And how much mass are we talking about? We're talking about 5 million solar masses. So five million times this size. But if that's the biggest black hole, then we'll have to do quite a lot of looking before we know which of these quasars is the biggest. But in time we will have a reasonable guess.

John Wheeler, one of the world's most influential physicists, is best known for coining the term 'black holes', for his seminal contributions to the theories of quantum gravity and nuclear fission, as well as for his mind-stretching theories and writings on time, space and gravity.

Listeners: Ken Ford

Ken Ford took his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1953 and worked with Wheeler on a number of research projects, including research for the Hydrogen bomb. He was Professor of Physics at the University of California and Director of the American Institute of Physicists. He collaborated with John Wheeler in the writing of Wheeler's autobiography, 'Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics' (1998).

Duration: 3 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008