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Father and Johns Hopkins University scholarship


John Wheeler Scientist
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Well, my mother could go to the grocery store and while the clerk was adding up, in those days before computers, adding up the cost of the various items, my mother, looking at the same piece of paper but, of course, to her, upside down, could come to the total quicker than the clerk could and check out what the clerk came out with. But I think my mother's spirit is shown as well as any in an incident that happened to her in school. She had to walk somewhere between three and five miles from her house to a school every day, and back, of course, at night. The teacher had something happen in class during the day, and she insisted that whichever student was responsible should confess. Well, nobody confessed. And then she said we'll all wait here until the person who did it, did confess. And the teacher kept the class after hours, and the shades of night came on, it got darker and darker. And one by one, the students gave in, and were released. But my mother wouldn't. And finally, at the end, the teacher had to give in, in order to go home, and so my mother could make her lonesome way home in the dark. That was in Trinidad, Colorado, was it not? This was- yes, at the frontier between Colorado and New Mexico, is where my mother lived. But, at one time, one of the cows got out of the ranch fence and got into the alfalfa. And drinking water, and having eaten alfalfa, is very dangerous, because gas develops, and the cow's stomach became distended. The cow would surely die unless my mother and her mother did something about it. So the two women- all the men were off, doing whatever they did- they had to plunge a knife into the belly of the cow to release the pressure and save its life. That's a little bit of experience of ranch life and of having to deal with a crisis by an act of courage. My father grew up in New England. His father was a minister. He had a sense of fun. He, among the five sons of the Reverend George Stephens Wheeler, would sit in the front pew at church, Sunday morning, and at one point he saw his father particularly serious, at one point in the sermon, and the little boy looked at him with a wink and a grin, and his poor father was in real trouble about breaking down with laughter. He loved to have jokes at the dinner table. So he had the great pleasure, and to him it was a thrill, of meeting President Theodore Roosevelt, during the time we lived in California. And ever after he liked to cite Roosevelt's adage: do what you can with what you have, where you are. And I've found that a very useful guide. But he had a little additional point of his own, I guess my father had added, saying: there's nothing that can't be done better. You have to stop at some point.

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: 5 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008