John Archibald Wheeler

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We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.

John Archibald Wheeler (July 9, 1911April 13, 2008) was an eminent American theoretical physicist. One of the later collaborators of Albert Einstein, he tried to achieve Einstein's vision of a unified field theory. He is also known for having coined the term wormhole and the phrase "it from bit". He also popularized the term black hole (In December 1967, a student reportedly suggested the phrase "black hole" at a lecture by John Wheeler; Wheeler adopted the term for its brevity and "advertising value", and it quickly caught on, leading some to credit Wheeler with coining the phrase.).


Sorted chronologically
  • Space tells matter how to move
    Matter tells space how to curve
    • Gravitation (1973), Misner, Thorne and Wheeler, page 5, right-hand margin. See below (in Geons, Black Holes, ...) for a 2000 quote attributable individually to Wheeler, where he appears to attribute pre-2000 use of a similar phrase to himself.
  • Of all heroes, Spinoza was Einstein's greatest. No one expressed more strongly than he a belief in the harmony, the beauty, and most of all the ultimate comprehensibility of nature.
    • "Albert Einstein" in Biographical Memoirs (1980) Vol. 51, National Academy of Sciences.
  • Is the very mechanism for the universe to come into being meaningless or unworkable or both unless the universe is guaranteed to produce life, consciousness and observership somewhere and for some little time in its history-to-be? The quantum principle shows that there is a sense in which what the observer will do in the future defines what happens in the past—even in a past so remote that life did not then exist, and shows even more, that 'observership' is a prerequisite for any useful version of 'reality'.
  • It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe.
    • "Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links" in Complexity, Entropy and the Physics of Information (1990) ed., Wojciech H. Zurek, p. 5.
  • Of all obstacles to a thoroughly penetrating account of existence, none looms up more dismayingly than “time.” Explain time? Not without explaining existence. Explain existence? Not without explaining time. To uncover the deep and hidden connection between time and existence, to close on itself our quartet of questions, is a task for the future.
  • There are many modes of thinking about the world around us and our place in it. I like to consider all the angles from which we might gain perspective on our amazing universe and the nature of existence.
    • John Archibald Wheeler, Kenneth William Ford (2000). Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics‎. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 153. ISBN 0393319911. 
  • The best way to learn something is to have to teach it.
    • John Wheeler - Understanding relativity, Web of Stories - Life Stories of Remarkable People, 1996 
  • What we think of as smooth simple space is really a wiggly business.
  • For all our everyday experience, the geometry of space is smooth and flat. But as we examine it more closely, it must show oscillations. And still more closely, it must show foam, a foam-like structure. And that means that down at the very smallest distances, this idea of before and after really lose their meaning.
    • John Wheeler - Quantum ideas. Quantum foam. Max Planck and Karl Popper, Web of Stories - Life Stories of Remarkable People, 1996 
  • Spacetime tells matter how to move; matter tells spacetime how to curve.
    • Wheeler's succinct summary of Einstein's theory of general relativity, in Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam (2000), p. 235.
  • Today I think we are beginning to suspect that man is not a tiny cog that doesn’t really make much difference to the running of the huge machine, but rather that there is a much more intimate tie between man and the universe than we heretofore suspected…The physical world is in some deep sense tied to the human being.
    • As quoted by Ken Wilber in Quantum Questions: Mystical Writings of the World's Great Physicists (2001) Shambhala, ISBN 1570627681.
  • We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago. We are in this sense, participators in bringing about something of the universe in the distant past and if we have one explanation for what's happening in the distant past why should we need more?
  • The question is—what is the question?
  • I like to think that someone will trace how the deepest thinking of India made its way to Greece and from there to the philosophy of our times.
    • As quoted in foreword to (Jitatmananda 1986). Jitatmananda, Swami. Modern Physics and Vedanta. Mumbai: Paras Prints,1986.
  • If I had to confess, under torture, right now, what I think the simple idea is, I would say it's that we ourselves generate the world; the world is self-generated. But it may well be absolutely wrong.
    • from a transcript of the video interview "Understanding Relativity," published at


  • Time is nature's way to keep everything from happening all at once.
    • Wheeler quoted this saying in Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information (1990), p. 10, with a footnote attributing it to "graffiti in the men's room of the Pecan Street Cafe, Austin, Texas". Later publications, such as Paul Davies' 1995 book About Time (p. 236), credited Wheeler with variations of this saying, but the quip is actually much older. The earliest known source is Ray Cummings' 1922 science fiction novel The Girl in the Golden Atom, Ch. V: " 'Time,' he said, 'is what keeps everything from happening at once.' " It also appears in his 1929 novel The Man Who Mastered Time. The earliest known occurrence other than Cummings is from 1962 in Film Facts: Volume 5, p. 48.

Quotes about Wheeler

  • The first time I met Wheeler was in 1961, I was an undergraduate... with a somewhat unorthodox academic record. ...The hope was that ...I would be admitted as a graduate student... At the time I was working as a plumber... I was completely enthralled. John was enthusiastically describing his vision of how space and time would become a wild, jittery, foamy world of quantum fluctuations when viewed through a tremendously powerful microscope. He told me that the most profound and exciting problem of physics was to unify Einstein's two great theories—General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. He explained that only at the Planck distance would elementary particles reveal their true nature, and it would be all about geometry—quantum geometry. To a young aspiring physicist, the stuffy businessman exterior had morphed into an idealistic visionary. I wanted more than anything to follow this man into battle.
    • Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics (2008)
  • Some people think Wheeler's gotten crazy in his later years, but he's always been crazy.
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