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Optics, x-rays and radioactivity at Johns Hopkins


Johns Hopkins: doctorate years, summer jobs and tutoring
John Wheeler Scientist
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At Johns Hopkins, the emphasis on research was such that somebody who started in the ordinary Bachelor's program, who got really going in research, could go on and get a Doctor's degree, and that could be regarded as the main aim and purpose of the education. Of course, it couldn't be done in the usual four years, but six years were possible. But most people elected to follow the conventional course of four years and get a Bachelor's degree, and go out in the world and try their chances of getting a job. I went for the research business. But each summer was a little different experience. My first summer was working in a silver mine, which fitted my electrical engineering background, because I was given the job of re-winding electric motors that were down in the deep depths of a mine, to pump out water. They get ground down, and it's too expensive to ship in new motors, it's much simpler to strip the winding off of old motors and put on new winding. So, I worked on that one summer, another summer worked for the National Bureau of Standards, in Washington, helping the great spectroscopist, William Meggers, study the spectrum of different elements and compounds. I had the great salary there of $30.00 a month, and I've recently looked at the Consumer Price Index, today that's equivalent to about $480.00 a month. But it was enough to get a room and buy meals. But later years, I acted as a student assistant, and I also did some tutoring as a way to get money to help me get through school. Later in life I realized how much I had learned by tutoring. So I knew the right answer when a student came in to see me, he said Professor Wheeler, I want your advice on a course I'm flunking. Well, I said, it's not a course of mine, is it? No, no, it's so-and-so's course. Well," I said, are you the worst in the course? He said No, I think there's one other person worse than me. So I said Well, why don't you make a deal to tutor him? So he did. And I learned later, he passed the course. The great thing about teaching is that you learn. But the poor devil that he taught did not pass.

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, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008