More to come

John Wheeler. Photo by the New York Times/Redux.

As a sophomore at Princeton I took a class called Honors Physics from a man named Johnny Wheeler. He wore a suit and tie to class, loved explosions, and created vivid art in real time with colored chalk. Implausibly old, he had worked on nuclear fission with Niels Bohr. He was 61.

The lectures were long on inspiration and short on information about how to do the homework. I was in awe of Wheeler. Some students thought he sucked.

One day I arrived late to find Wheeler conducting a poll. We were voting on the future of science: is there “more to come” or “less to come”? I don’t remember the count, but “more to come” won handily. Wheeler was pleased.

Later, at a student-faculty lunch, Wheeler seemed troubled. He had been asked to explain the essence of quantum mechanics in five words or less, and was stumped. Frank Calaprice, a nuclear physicist within earshot, interjected helpfully, “What we expect to measure?” I was silent.

The question was absurd. It was fascinating. I still think about it. I can’t answer it.

This year I taught a course on quantum statistical physics to Caltech sophomores. I wore khakis and always used the white chalk. Though I’m 59, few students seemed awed. Some thought I sucked. Maybe I did sometimes.

Johnny Wheeler never blogged. If he had, some readers would have been awed. Some would have thought he sucked.

But Johnny would not have reminisced about a class he took 40 years ago. He knew there was more to come.

Welcome to Quantum Frontiers! We hope that the posts to come will be long on inspiration, even if short on information about how to do your homework. Enjoy!

42 thoughts on “More to come

  1. Yes, the Steves of the world appear to be united in warmly welcoming you to the pleasures of blogging, John. We eagerly look forward to your future posts.

  2. Yes, the Steves of the world applaud the formation of your new blog.

    “But Johnny would not have reminisced about a class he took 40 years ago. He knew there was more to come.”

    Kind of melancholy, no? Come on – we live in exciting times!

  3. Sorry, I meant to convey self-deprecation, not melancholia. Or is it the same thing?

    Steves: please hold your applause. This is the IQIM’s blog, not my blog, and I am as curious as you to see how it will evolve.

  4. I have discovered a truly marvelous statement of this, using only five words, which this reply box is too small to contain.

  5. Here is a five-word haiku-form:


    Or perhaps (with minor rule-bending) … but the meter is OK …

      P. Shor?

    Best wishes for a happy healthy long-lived weblog!

  6. We are very excited to have all of you be part of this blog! Please spread the word to friends and family (yes, we plan to post stories like John’s, which have personal elements to them). There are some pretty exciting posts in the pipeline, so click below to follow this blog, or go to to subscribe to our feed.

  7. > Though I’m 59, few students seemed awed.

    You’ll be thrilled to know that the $25 parking ticket near your hotel in Boston 1 March was pardoned. In my appeal, I explained that I was taking an elderly acquaintance to his hotel room, and he seemed both confused about its location and generally disoriented. A freak snowstorm then caused him to become even more agitated, and unable to remain in the car, so we parked, and in the confusion missed the meter.

    So at least the Massport Parking people were awed.

    • Paul, I think it was the wine that night that was responsible for any disorientation. And, of course, Frank’s incisive questions about John’s simulation of QFTs paper during the cab ride back from Sofias.

  8. Because Graeme’s and Steve’s are so good, I’m going to change the rules and say that overly technical words are not allowed.
    Incompatible measurements, continuous reversible transformations (L. Hardy style)
    It would be awesome if you kept blogging, John!

  9. … or as a simultaneous mini-tribute to John Wheeler, and to Nielsen & Chuang’s Quantum Computation and Quantum Information, and to Choi, Kraus, Lindblad, Ito, Stratonovich, and Carmichael:

    “Bit pulls it to fit”

  10. Coming up with something non-technical is really hard. This is my best attempt so far:

    Quantum mechanics is nature’s casino.

    There are lots of suggestions flying around on Twitter as well after Sean Carroll posted it as a challenge. #5wordQM

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  13. Some years ago, I was a student in your Quantum class. You wore a gorilla suit that day (I believe it was halloween) and predicted that the only thing we would remember from that class was your costume. I believe I learned some quantum mechanics in that class, but I remember the gorilla suit vividly.

  14. As a newcomer, I’m enjoying the blog. A writer once wrote about humankind’s salvation: “Tell them stories.” Thank you for helping to demonstrate that physics has engaging stories. But I’d appreciate, alongside the text, a Venn diagram. How does the IQIM differ from and overlap with the IQI (

  15. I’m no physicist, but how about just “particles are waves in fields”? You can pretty much reach all the major stuff from that, right? The fact that they act like particles means waves are quantized, etc. If you don’t like that one, then maybe “waves come in probabilistic chunks”.

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  20. He was understatedly awesome. One of my really fond memories of following the coming thing in physics involves encountering John Wheeler at Jadwin …where I outlined a concern I had that somehow connected the evolution of Quasars to possible flaws in the framework of General Relativity. One of the really fascinating moments for was me not being able to discern whether he just thought I was crazy or he was actually listening to me : ). In any case he instructed his assistant to give me the address of his summer home and said he would answer a few short correspondence which he … as good as his word …. did. He didn’t have to do that … an awesome guy.

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