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John Wheeler's Legacy

  1. Jun 30, 2015 #1
    I'm currently reading a book in which John Wheeler, and his work/thoughts regarding quantum physics are discussed. I'm curious about how he and his views are considered within the contemporary physics community.

    Any opinions?
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  3. Jun 30, 2015 #2


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  4. Jun 30, 2015 #3


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    He was one of the authors of Gravitation, commonly referred to as the MTW (Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler) Bible. He was the senior author of the three, although I suspect Misner did the bulk of the work and Thorne seems the most charismatic ie gets the most press. Initially John Wheeler provided the name recognition for this text, as he had established himself as a top tier Astrophysicist (as one of the top experts in Black Hole research/study and preceded Stephen Hawking) a decade earlier. However, the text is considered a classic all by itself.
    Last edited: Jun 30, 2015
  5. Jun 30, 2015 #4
    I have reviewed his academic/professional bio, which is obviously quite distinguished. And the list of graduate students that he mentored is incredibly impressive.
    But, I guess what I'm curious about is that, given his interests later in his career, including the whole "It from Bit" theory, and his belief in the Participatory Anthropic Principle, is he still taken seriously?

    Or, more euphemistically... Within the ranks of contemporary physicists is still regarded as the respected grandfather of theoretical physics. Or rather, is he thought of more as the beloved eccentric uncle, touched by genius, but overwhelmed by flights of speculative philosophical speculation?
  6. Jun 30, 2015 #5


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    My own reading of Wheeler's work is not that he was eccentric or overwhelmed by flights of speculative philosophical speculation. Rather, he used poetry and whimsy to point to serious open problems in physics. For example, the participatory anthropic principle is a pointer towards the ancient measurement problem discussed by Bohr and Einstein, thought about deeply even if with some flaws by von Neumann, and that many serious thinkers including Landau & Lifshitz, Dirac, Bell, Weinberg, Tsirelson have indicated to be a problem. It from bit is Wheeler's name for the programme pioneered by von Neumann, Ludwig, Piron, of deriving operational quantum mechanics from operational axioms that make common sense, and still researched today by Hardy or Chiribella and colleages, among others.

    For example, how did he phrase the question leading to the discoveries of Bekenstein and Hawking? He said to imagine pouring a cup of tea into a black hole!
  7. Jun 30, 2015 #6
    I've read that Wheeler lived until 2008. Do you know whether he ever formally accepted environmental decoherence as the producer of the "von Neumann cut", or did he hold to his PAP beliefs until his death?
  8. Jun 30, 2015 #7
    The question itself is maybe flawed, because I realize it's argued that decoherence alone does not solve the measurement problem. I suppose it's sufficient to simply ask if you know whether Wheeler ever abandoned his PAP beliefs.
  9. Jun 30, 2015 #8
    Please understand that I do not, at all, intend for these questions to be the least bit disrespectful to Dr Wheeler. I'd be pleased to find out that a physicist of his stature continued his belief in PAP throughout his lifetime. It would give me motivation to research more aggressively into why he held that opinion so strongly.

    For philosophical reasons I will not discuss in this forum, I would "like" to believe in PAP... if that doesn't sound too ridiculous. I'm just struggling with finding a scientifically defensible reason to do so.
  10. Jun 30, 2015 #9


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  11. Jun 30, 2015 #10
    Perhaps an appropriate addendum question would be whether anyone is familiar with reputable physicists that continue a public affiliation with the participatory Anthropic principle, and if so, could you please supply names and any literature supporting their position from sources of acceptable legitimacy.
  12. Jun 30, 2015 #11


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    PAP is just a whimisical name for the Copenhagen interpretation. In that sense most people "believe" in it (or ought to). Then the only question of whether one "really believes" in it depends on whether one believes there is a measurement problem or not.
  13. Jun 30, 2015 #12
  14. Jun 30, 2015 #13
    Please correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that PAP explicitly posits that the wave function is only collapsed as a direct result of CONSCIOUS perception of observables, while more contemporary interpretations of Copenhagen are less absolute about that. Am I mistaken?
  15. Jun 30, 2015 #14
    Thanks for the Zurek article. It will be helpful.
  16. Jun 30, 2015 #15
    John Wheeler in a famous phone call to Richard Feynman proposed the idea of a single particle weaving its way backward and forward in time, thus creating the illusion of many particles on a time-like hyper surface.
  17. Jun 30, 2015 #16

    Dr Transport

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    Physics Today published a compendium of articles about John Wheeler in April 2009. I think it covers this discussion very well.
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