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Setting up H-bomb research at Princeton


Theories conceived on a train. Selling the car in Paris
John Wheeler Scientist
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Bohr and I had been writing together on nuclear physics. An idea about particles going around inside of the nucleus, as well as the nucleus being like a droplet, that it could be deformed. And on the train back, I realized that the particle going around inside could actually do the deforming. That same idea came to two of my American colleagues, James Rainwater and [Aage Bohr] the son of Niels Bohr, in New York. And they promptly checked it out and published a paper on it. And I was very pleased at that. But it just shows how ideas can get floating around. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the ideas that I'd come to on the train had not come from Bohr, and that he had also conveyed the same idea to his son. Anyway, I left the family behind in Paris and went to New Mexico. I didn't feel we ought to break the children's school year. Poor Janette was left with the car, and when, at the end of the school year, she had to sell it, she found the French would not allow her to sell it because the title was in my name. So I had to get an official document made up in Los Alamos, with the help of a Los Alamos lawyer, Ralph Carlisle Smith, and then it had to be sent to New Orleans to be stamped by the Consulate of France in New Orleans and then sent on to Janette in Paris so she could sell the car. And Ralph Carlisle Smith said "You want to limit this transfer to just the car, because otherwise her [your] bank account, her [your] house, everything, she could sell." As if I didn't trust her. But he had been through a divorce, apparently, so that's how come he reacted that way. But anyway, I didn't change the document, the document gave her power to any of these things.

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, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008