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In Passing: John Wheeler, A-bomb physicist

Sun., April 20, 2008, midnight

Physicist John A. Wheeler, who had a key role in the development of the atom bomb and later gave the space phenomenon black holes their name, has died at 96.

Wheeler, for many years a professor at Princeton University, died of pneumonia last Sunday at his home in Hightstown, said his daughter, Alison Wheeler Lahnston.

Wheeler rubbed elbows with colossal figures in science such as Albert Einstein and Danish scientist Niels Bohr, with whom Wheeler worked in the 1930s and ‘40s.

“For me, he was the last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientist Max Tegmark told the New York Times. During World War II, Wheeler was part of the Manhattan Project, the scientists charged with using nuclear fission to create an atomic bomb for the United States.

Unlike some colleagues who regretted their roles after bombs were dropped on Japan, Wheeler regretted that the bomb had not been made ready in time to hasten the end of the war in Europe. His brother, Joe, had been killed in combat in Italy in 1944.

Wheeler later helped Edward Teller develop the even more powerful hydrogen bomb.

The name “black hole” – for a collapsed star so dense that even light could not escape – came out of a conference in 1967. Wheeler made the name stick after someone else had suggested it as a replacement for the cumbersome “gravitationally completely collapsed star.”

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Robert Hartmann, presidential aide

Robert T. Hartmann, a close aide to Gerald R. Ford who drafted many of the president’s speeches, including his first address to the nation after President Nixon left office that proclaimed “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” has died.

Hartmann, who spent more than two decades as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, died Friday of cardiac arrest at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C.He was 91.

Although Hartmann also wrote the “I’m a Ford not a Lincoln” speech for Ford’s acceptance of the Republican Party’s 1976 presidential nomination, the “national nightmare” speech would be his lasting legacy.

“Junk all the rest of the speech if you want to, but not that. That is going to be the headline in every paper, the lead in every story. … This has been a national nightmare, and it’s got to be stopped. You’re the only one who can” stop it, Hartmann once wrote he told Ford.


Edward Lorenz, chaos theoretician

Edward Lorenz, the father of chaos theory, died at his home in Cambridge, Mass., on Wednesday. He was 90.

He was a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he came up with the scientific concept that small causes lead to big effects, something that was explained in a simple example known as the “butterfly effect.”

He explained how something as minuscule as a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil changes the constantly moving atmosphere in ways that could later trigger tornadoes in Texas.


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