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John Wheeler (1911–2008) summarizes his life in physics

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File:John Archibald Wheeler1985.jpg
Wheeler with E. Mielke, 1985

A life in which he questioned the “It from Bit”:

I think of my lifetime in physics as divided into three periods. In the first period, extending from the beginning of my career until the early 1950’s, I was in the grip of the idea that Everything Is Particles. I was looking for ways to build all basic entities – neutrons, protons, mesons, and so on – out of the lightest, most fundamental particles, electrons, and photons.

I call my second period Everything Is Fields. From the time I fell in love with general relativity and gravitation in 1952 until late in my career, I pursued the vision of a world made of fields, one in which the apparent particles are really manifestations of electric and magnetic fields, gravitational fields, and space-time itself.

Now I am in the grip of a new vision, that Everything Is Information. The more I have pondered the mystery of the quantum and our strange ability to comprehend this world in which we live, the more I see possible fundamental roles for logic and information as the bedrock of physical theory. – J. A. Wheeler, K. Ford, Geons, Black Hole, & Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics New York W.W. Norton & Co, 1998, pp 63-64.

Wheeler coined the term “black hole”:

Over a long, productive scientific life, he was known for his drive to address big, overarching questions in physics, subjects which he liked to say merged with philosophical questions about the origin of matter, information and the universe. He was a young contemporary of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, was a driving force in the development of both the atomic and hydrogen bombs and, in later years, became the father of modern general relativity.

See also: What great physicists have said about immateriality and consciousness

9 Replies to “John Wheeler (1911–2008) summarizes his life in physics

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    as to:

    “The more I have pondered the mystery of the quantum and our strange ability to comprehend this world in which we live, the more I see possible fundamental roles for logic and information as the bedrock of physical theory.”
    John Wheeler

    And as Anton Zeilinger has also noted:

    Why the Quantum? It from Bit? A Participatory Universe?
    Excerpt: In conclusion, it may very well be said that information is the irreducible kernel from which everything else flows. Thence the question why nature appears quantized is simply a consequence of the fact that information itself is quantized by necessity. It might even be fair to observe that the concept that information is fundamental is very old knowledge of humanity, witness for example the beginning of gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word.”
    Anton Zeilinger – a leading expert in quantum teleportation:

    In fact, in regards to Wheeler emphasizing ‘fundamental roles for logic and information as the bedrock of physical theory’, it is interesting to note:

    ‘the Word’ in John1:1 is translated from ‘Logos’ in Greek. Logos is the root word from which we derive our modern word ‘logic’

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

    It is also interesting to note that in Quantum Electro-Dynamics it takes an ‘infinite amount of logic to figure out what one stinky tiny bit of space-time is going to do’:

    “It always bothers me that in spite of all this local business, what goes on in a tiny, no matter how tiny, region of space, and no matter how tiny a region of time, according to laws as we understand them today, it takes a computing machine an infinite number of logical operations to figure out. Now how can all that be going on in that tiny space? Why should it take an infinite amount of logic to figure out what one stinky tiny bit of space-time is going to do?”
    – Richard Feynman – one of the founding fathers of QED (Quantum Electrodynamics)
    Quote taken from the 6:45 minute mark of the following video:

    In fact, in order to make QED work out it was necessary to ‘brush infinite logic under the rug’:

    THE INFINITY PUZZLE: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe
    Excerpt: In quantum electrodynamics, which applies quantum mechanics to the electromagnetic field and its interactions with matter, the equations led to infinite results for the self-energy or mass of the electron. After nearly two decades of effort, this problem was solved after World War II by a procedure called renormalization, in which the infinities are rolled up into the electron’s observed mass and charge, and are thereafter conveniently ignored. Richard Feynman, who shared the 1965 Nobel Prize with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga for this breakthrough, referred to this sleight of hand as “brushing infinity under the rug.”

    I don’t know about Feynman, but as for myself, being a Christian Theist, I find it rather comforting to know that it takes an ‘infinite amount of logic to figure out what one stinky tiny bit of space-time is going to do’:

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

    Of note: Quantum mechanics has now shown that, not only are logic and information necessary as as a bedrock for physical theory, but consciousness is also necessary:

  2. 2
    Axel says:

    … which consciousness, itself, predicates personality and volition, Philip.

  3. 3
    Axel says:

    …. ultimate truth, Philip, the Most Holy Trinity, being ultra personal.

  4. 4
    Axel says:

    As a minimal qualification for acceptance of a paper for peer-review – never mind acceptance for publication – those who submit them – all scientists in every field, not just physics – should be required to provide a signed affidavit that they concur with the metaphysical findings of quantum physics, relating to matter’s emanating from mind, i.e. mind, as the primordial reality. It is, of course, seminal with regard to an empirically-grounded addressing of the issue of the empirically-established supervention of non-locality, the supernatural at the quantum level.

    If this had been in force, the ‘la-la land’ of current cosmology (and no doubt a lot of other conjectures by people who refuse to accept the most successful paradigm ever, mathematically proven, moreover, to be unimprovable) would not have seen the light of day.

    As it is these obiter dicta from individuals, such as Hawking, can only, through the never-failing good offices of the mainstream media, continue to serve as a distraction from the pursuit of science; and metaphysics (with which it should be in partnership), if it comes to that.

  5. 5
    Axel says:

    What a hilarious irony that atheists pose as ‘rationalists’, when, they demonstrably treat empirically-proven facts as optional tenets in the field of science.

    In a way, it’s a pity that that wonderfully incisive saw (almost worthy of WJM…): ‘You can have your own opinions, but not your own facts’, has such a folksy, ‘down home’ timbre. It needs to be taken absolutely seriously by atheist scientists, as a cardinal principal of reason.

  6. 6
    Gordon Davisson says:

    Axel, as I argued here, there’s no basis for your claims in the actual results from QM. Essentially, the QM tests show that there’s something weird about how causality works in the universe, but no reason to thing that weirdness has anything to do with minds or consciousness. For example, the idea that non-locality = supernatural is just plain nonsense.

    While some experts (like Wheeler) think there’s consciousness plays a special role in QM, most don’t (see question 10 in this survey). Either way, that’s just an argument from authority, and that must always take second place to examination of the actual evidence and logic… and as I said, that doesn’t seem (at least as far as I can see) to provide any basis for these claims.

  7. 7
    bornagain77 says:

    BS quote of the day: “For example, the idea that non-locality = supernatural is just plain nonsense.”

  8. 8
    Gordon Davisson says:

    Wavefunction collapse is nonlocal (if it’s considered to be a real process, not just an abstract part of the QM formalism), because it happens everywhere at once. Do you consider wavefunction collapse to be supernatural?

  9. 9
    bornagain77 says:

    Non-locality is a beyond space and time effect. What blows most people away, when they first encounter quantum mechanics, is that the quantum foundation of our material reality blatantly defies our concepts of time and space. Einstein termed it ‘Spooky action at a distance’. Most people consider defying time and space to be a ‘miraculous & supernatural’ event. I know I certainly do! There is certainly nothing within quantum mechanics that precludes ‘supernatural’, beyond space and time, actions from being possible.

    How can an Immaterial God Interact with the Physical Universe? (Alvin Plantinga) – video

    In fact Quantum Mechanics demands that ‘supernatural’, beyond space and time, actions be considered true! That the wave function is real, not abstract as many worlds proponents hold, is established by the following:

    The following experiment actually encoded information into a photon while it was in its infinite dimensional quantum wave state, thus destroying the notion, held by many, that the wave function was not ‘physically real’ but was merely an ‘abstract’ mathematical description. i.e. How can information possibly be encoded into something that is not physically real but merely abstract?

    Ultra-Dense Optical Storage – on One Photon
    Excerpt: Researchers at the University of Rochester have made an optics breakthrough that allows them to encode an entire image’s worth of data into a photon, slow the image down for storage, and then retrieve the image intact.,,, As a wave, it passed through all parts of the stencil at once,,,

    “By its conventional definition, a photon is one unit of excitation of a mode of the electromagnetic field. The modes of the electromagnetic field constitute a countably infinite set of basis functions, and in this sense the amount of information that can be impressed onto an individual photon is unlimited.”
    Robert W. Boyd – The Enabling Technology for Quantum Information Science 2013 – University of Rochester, Rochester, NY – lead researcher of the experiment which encoded information in a photon in 2010

    Here is a more rigorous measurement of the wave function which establishes it as ‘physically real’;

    Direct measurement of the quantum wavefunction – June 2011
    Excerpt: The wavefunction is the complex distribution used to completely describe a quantum system, and is central to quantum theory. But despite its fundamental role, it is typically introduced as an abstract element of the theory with no explicit definition.,,, Here we show that the wavefunction can be measured directly by the sequential measurement of two complementary variables of the system. The crux of our method is that the first measurement is performed in a gentle way through weak measurement so as not to invalidate the second. The result is that the real and imaginary components of the wavefunction appear directly on our measurement apparatus. We give an experimental example by directly measuring the transverse spatial wavefunction of a single photon, a task not previously realized by any method.

    The following paper mathematically corroborated the preceding experiments and cleaned up some pretty nasty probabilistic incongruities. Particularly incongruities with quantum entanglement that arose from a purely statistical, ‘abstract’, interpretation of the wave function.

    Quantum Theory’s ‘Wavefunction’ Found to Be Real Physical Entity: Scientific American – November 2011
    Excerpt: Action at a distance occurs when pairs of quantum particles interact in such a way that they become entangled. But the new paper, by a trio of physicists led by Matthew Pusey at Imperial College London, presents a theorem showing that if a quantum wavefunction were purely a statistical tool, then even quantum states that are unconnected across space and time would be able to communicate with each other. As that seems very unlikely to be true, the researchers conclude that the wavefunction must be physically real after all.,,, “This strips away obscurity and shows you can’t have an interpretation of a quantum state as probabilistic,” he says.

    On the reality of the quantum state – Matthew F. Pusey, Jonathan Barrett & Terry Rudolph – May 2012
    Abstract: Quantum states are the key mathematical objects in quantum theory. It is therefore surprising that physicists have been unable to agree on what a quantum state truly represents. One possibility is that a pure quantum state corresponds directly to reality. However, there is a long history of suggestions that a quantum state (even a pure state) represents only knowledge or information about some aspect of reality. Here we show that any model in which a quantum state represents mere information about an underlying physical state of the system, and in which systems that are prepared independently have independent physical states, must make predictions that contradict those of quantum theory. (i.e. Any model that holds the Quantum wave state as merely a abstract representation of reality, i.e. as not a real representation of reality, must make predictions that contradict those of quantum theory.)

    The preceding mathematical interpretation was empirically corroborated:

    Of Einstein and entanglement: Quantum erasure deconstructs wave-particle duality – January 29, 2013
    Excerpt: They concluded that since the two entangled systems are causally disconnected in terms of the erasure choice, wave-particle duality is an irreducible feature of quantum systems with no naïve realistic explanation. The world view that a photon always behaves either definitely as a wave or definitely as a particle would require faster-than-light communication, and should therefore be abandoned as a description of quantum behavior.

    The following experiment went even further:

    Quantum theory survives latest challenge – Dec 15, 2010
    Excerpt: Even assuming that entangled photons could respond to one another instantly, the correlations between polarization states still violated Leggett’s inequality. The conclusion being that instantaneous communication is not enough to explain entanglement and realism must also be abandoned.
    This conclusion is now backed up by Sonja Franke-Arnold and collegues at the University of Glasgow and University of Strathclyde who have performed another experiment showing that entangled photons exhibit,, stronger correlations than allowed for particles with individually defined properties – even if they would be allowed to communicate constantly.

    In fact, completely contrary to the many worlds materialistic presupposition that no beyond space and time actions are possible, with consideration of the particle first, it is possible to entangle particles without the particles even interacting first!

    Qubits that never interact could exhibit past-future entanglement – July 30, 2012
    Excerpt: Typically, for two particles to become entangled, they must first physically interact. Then when the particles are physically separated and still share the same quantum state, they are considered to be entangled. But in a new study, physicists have investigated a new twist on entanglement in which two qubits become entangled with each other even though they never physically interact.,,

    It is also important to note that even the ‘real’ wave function must interpreted in a ‘non-local’, beyond space and time, manner:

    Particle and Wave-Like Behavior of Light Measured Simultaneously (Nov. 1, 2012)
    Excerpt: Dr Peruzzo, Research Fellow at the Centre for Quantum Photonics, said: “The measurement apparatus detected strong nonlocality, which certified that the photon behaved simultaneously as a wave and a particle in our experiment. This represents a strong refutation of models in which the photon is either a wave or a particle.”

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