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Johns Hopkins University


Spanish-American war cannon
John Wheeler Scientist
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My son was not at a loss on one birthday what to send me for a birthday present. He put in the mail from Baltimore, where he was going to medical school, a postcard, to me in the state of Maine, saying, your birthday present is on its way by Railway Express, but when the notice comes from the Express office to pick up the package, don't go, because there another one that will soon be on its way. So, sure enough, soon there came another postcard. And I went to the Railway Express office, twenty miles away, and presented the notice. And here was this cannon. Jamie had found a junkyard in Baltimore that had about a half a dozen cannons left over from the Spanish-American War. The breach loading had corroded, so no longer could one open the back up easily. He picked one and had the back welded up and had a hole drilled in the side to insert a fuse, so one could convert a modern breach loading cannon into an ancient front loading cannon. But then the rest of the shipment was wheels, wagon wheels from Tennessee and kegs of gunpowder. The wheels were to mount the cannon on. We got the cannon set up. But then what with cannon, gunpowder and fuse, what were we to use for the projectile? We looked in the kitchen, all the cans were either too big or too small to fit. Then we looked in the refrigerator, in desperation, there was a can of beer just the right size. But who would want to waste beer by firing it out! So we consumed the beer and filled the can with gravel, and put in the gunpowder and the fuse and some wadding, to make a better fit, and then the empty beer can with its load of gravel. Boom! Swwwwwt! And it goes out into the ocean with a splash. Later on, a graduate student visiting presented me with three pictures, the first showed a sailboat out there, the second showed the cannon going off, full of flame and smoke. Of course, the picture did not show the noise. And the third picture showed the ocean again, but no sailboat.

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, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008