Johnny and Oppie


JAW 1981.9.17 copyOppiePhysicists, like the ancient Greeks, like to gossip about the gods.  A few days ago, three physicists* were talking on Twitter** about a review by a fourth physicist, Freeman Dyson, of a biography of one of these gods, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and about his war with another one, John Archibald Wheeler.

Physicist #1: Oppenheimer did the breakthrough work on black holes.

Physicist #2:  Isn’t it ironic that Wheeler gets credit for inventing black holes?

Physicist #3: Dyson’s review doesn’t talk about Wheeler’s bitter rejection of Oppenheimer’s black holes and Oppenheimer’s antipathy toward Wheeler.

Physicist #2:  So interesting. Maybe Oppenheimer wasn’t accustomed to challenges?  And then Wheeler invents the phrase, “black hole”, and Oppenheimer never uses it.

Physicist #1: “. . .[the star] like the Cheshire cat, fades from view. One leaves behind only its grin, the other . . .”

Physicist #1:  “. . . only its gravitational attraction.” – John Wheeler 1967

Physicist #3:  I heard Oppenheimer sat outside the auditorium when Wheeler was giving the talk that conceded that black holes form.

Physicist #2:  I remember now, that story is in Kip Thorne’s book***.

Me: Oh my what a story!

Physicist #1:  I’d just like to 100% endorse @AnnFinkbeiner’s tracking it all down.

And off I go to find Kip Thorne’s book. And Wheeler’s autobiography.  And Dyson’s review.  And the Web of Stories online interviews.  And to fall thoroughly down the rabbit hole, where it’s dark and lonely but, you know, interesting.


Oppenheimer was called Oppie and Wheeler was called Johnny.  Oppenheimer was a show-off and good at it, also restless and impatient; Wheeler talked quietly with pauses so long you thought he’d gone to sleep.  Oppenheimer was personally remote; Wheeler was curious about everyone – “what is your great white hope?” he liked to ask.  Oppenheimer looked like he knew things you wouldn’t care to; Wheeler looked blue-eyed and innocent.  Oppenheimer was older: Wheeler had considered then decided against being Oppenheimer’s student.  They spent much of their careers together, in small-town Princeton, NJ.  Kip Thorne says their confrontation was inevitable.


In 1939, Oppenheimer explained how a giant star runs on thermonuclear fusion until it’s out of fuel, then implodes and cuts itself off from the rest of the universe.  He published this on September 1; the same day, Wheeler published with Niels Bohr the explanation of atomic fission.  Also that day, Hitler invaded Poland.

Before Oppenheimer could follow up on the gravitational cutoff idea, he became head of the Manhattan Project and directed the building of the fission bomb.  “In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish,” he said, “the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”  Wheeler also paused his pure research and became scientist in charge of producing the bomb’s plutonium fuel at the Manhattan Project’s Hanford plant. While Wheeler was there, he heard that his brother, who was fighting in Italy, was missing in action. “It was a year and a half before his body was found – well, I can’t call it his body – his skull and his skeleton,” he said. “I always think to myself that if I’d only gotten going sooner on making plutonium for a bomb, I could have saved his life.”

By 1949, the Manhattan Project had succeeded and the next bomb up — the hydrogen bomb that operated not on fission but fusion — had been designed.  Wheeler and Edward Teller were in favor of building it and Wheeler, probably with his brother in mind, directed some of the massive design calculations.  Oppenheimer was opposed to it: it was sin all over again, could be used only to slaughter civilians, and almost certainly wouldn’t work.  Wheeler heard that Oppenheimer said, “Let Teller and Wheeler go ahead.  Let them fall on their faces.”  But the calculations showed the design would in fact would work and that, Wheeler wrote, “turned Oppie around.” By 1952, Oppenheimer was saying the hydrogen bomb was “technically so sweet” that he couldn’t argue with it.


One night in January, 1953, Wheeler took some classified documents – violating common sense and every regulation — to Washington DC on the train.  He went to the bathroom and when he came back, the documents were gone.  He looked everywhere, asked the porter and fellow passengers, no luck.  Once the train got to DC, the car was disconnected from the rest of the train and searched, as was the train track from Trenton to DC, as were Wheeler’s home and office. The documents were never found.  The documents were on lithium 6, one of the fuels then being considered for the hydrogen bomb and may or may not have also included information about nuclear spying.  Wheeler was yelled at by the highest authorities.

The documents had been put together by a colleague of a Congressional staffer named Bill Borden.  Borden was convinced that a traitor was blocking the plans for using lithium 6 and slowing the development of the hydrogen bomb, and that furthermore, Oppenheimer was probably an agent of the Soviet Union.  The story that Wheeler’s lost documents helped trigger the cascade of investigations into Oppenheimer’s loyalty is almost certainly purest blue-sky nonsense, but it still floats around and confuses the innocent.

Regardless, in 1954, Oppenheimer was subject to a security hearing.  The night before Edward Teller’s killer testimony against Oppenheimer, Teller and Wheeler sat in a DC hotel room, Teller unhappily trying to figure out how to testify.  “Edward,” Wheeler said, “tell the story as you see it.”  Oppenheimer lost his clearances.


By the time all this was over, Oppie no longer cared about the deaths of massive stars.  But Johnny went back to what came to be called relativistic astrophysics.

In 1958, they went to the same conference on cosmology in Brussels.  Wheeler gave a talk arguing with Oppenheimer’s research from 20 years before.  Wheeler said couldn’t believe that a star of great mass would implode into anything denser than a neutron star.  Oppenheimer politely asked from the audience whether the simplest scenario wouldn’t have the mass condensing to the point of disappearing from the universe.  Wheeler politely disagreed; he couldn’t believe it was physically plausible.

A year or so later, computer simulations based on the codes used to simulate fusion bombs showed that a massive star living on thermonuclear fusion would die by imploding into invisibility.  Wheeler was convinced and — as Oppenheimer had a few years before about the fusion bomb — turned around.  But Oppenheimer didn’t seem to care, certainly wasn’t pleased.  In 1963, Wheeler and Oppenheimer were at another conference together.  Wheeler gave a talk full of enthusiasm about stellar implosion and Oppenheimer’s early work.  Oppenheimer sat outside the hall on a bench, Thorne wrote, “chatting with friends about other things.”

In 1967, Wheeler was giving yet another talk and said offhand that after you say “gravitationally completely collapsed objects” enough times, you start looking for another name.  Somebody from the audience yelled, “How about black hole?”  Wheeler said he’d been looking for the right name for months – in his car, in his bed, in the bathtub – and suddenly this name seemed exactly right.  He decided to use “black hole” casually “as if it were an old familiar friend,” and wondered, “Would it catch on?  Indeed it did.”  Every schoolchild uses it, he wrote. ****

Dyson thought that Oppenheimer’s early work was among “really the most substantial contributions to physics that he had ever made.”  Oppenheimer “lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it,” Dyson said. “Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject.”  


Oppie’s and Johnny’s war doesn’t sound titanic.  Their arguments were the usual scientific disagreements and ended in not-unusual ways, with evidence forcing agreement.  Their antipathy seemed personal.  Dyson wrote that Oppenheimer never took Wheeler’s work seriously.  Wheeler wrote that Oppenheimer was complex:  “I never felt that I really understood him.  I always felt that I had to have my guard up.”  Thorne quotes a physicist and close friend of Oppenheimer’s saying that Oppenheimer was widely interested in religions and felt uncomfortable at physics’ borders.  Anyone meeting Wheeler knew that the borders of physics, or just outside them, was where he lived.

So what to make of their long war?  Maybe just what humans have always made of the wars of the gods:  awe, some confusion, and good for a gossip.


*I count astrophysicists.

**I paraphrase without necessarily assigning the tweets to the right physicists.

***Kip Thorne was Wheeler’s student; later they co-wrote, with Charles Misner, what is still the standard text on gravitation, called Gravitation.

**** I deleted a sentence about Oppenheimer never using the phrase, “black hole,” because it turned out to not be true.  See the comments, below.


Photo credits:  John Archibald Wheeler – used with the kind permission of Dr. Roy Bishop, via the AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives; J. Robert Oppenheimer – by Alfred Eistenstaedt, via Flickr user, James Vaughan

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18 thoughts on “Johnny and Oppie

  1. Could you paraphrase, please, their explanation of Gravitation? Not asking much, is it, Ann? Naming of particles will do. Thank you in advance.

  2. Dear Tim, I feel as though I know you well enough to ask you if you would just please shut up please.

  3. Just one comment, Oppenheimer couldn’t really have meaningfully refused to use the “black hole” term, as it was apparently invented sometime in 1967 (not sure of the month), but Oppenheimer died in February 1967 and had been ill for a while (cancer).

    The early phrase for a collapsed object was “frozen star,” probably referring to the time-dilated asymptotic collapse of the star as it appears to an outside observer, but this term does not appear in the Oppenheimer and Snyder 1939 paper that derives the collapse behavior and I don’t know where it came from (I am no historian of the subject).

  4. A good gossip indeed, especially for someone who works on gravitational collapse. I remember reading what kind of a show off Oppenheimer was in Peter Freund’s A Passion for Discovery. But not this conflict between Oppenheimer and Wheeler.

  5. Benjamin, I think you’ve got me dead to rights. Wheeler made up the phrase in the fall of 1967, months after Oppenheimer died. So. Right. I thought I had two sources saying Oppenheimer wouldn’t use the phrase, but I can find only Dyson’s NYRB review. I’d tell you that Dyson once told me about an entirely different situation, “Memory is no good,” but I don’t remember and can’t find where he said that. Memory is no good.

    Kip Thorne’s book says the Soviet physicists (Zel’dovich et al.) called it a frozen star; Western physicists called it a collapsed star. It’s a lovely book.

  6. In his autobiography, “Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam: a life in science” written with Kenneth Ford, Wheeler writes (p. 229 of the paperback edition) “In the notes I entered in one of my bound notebooks on the Oppenheimer-Volkoff-Snyder papers, I was looking for a way out. Something new should happen at the tiniest dimensions, I felt, that would prevent the total collapse. Aristotle said that nature abhors a vacuum. I was convinced that nature abhorred a singularity. I carried that conviction with me for many years, and even now hold out the hope that some new physics will reveal the center of a black hole to have some structure.”

    This was published in 1998 and there are many physicists today who hold out Wheeler’s “hope”. When we identify black holes today in Astrophysics research, it doesn’t mean that we know they have singularities at their centers. It just means that their observable effects appears closer to that of a theoretical black hole than to anything else in contemporary theory.

  7. Great post! What I find even more interesting is the fact that Oppenheimer’s antipathy toward black holes was consistent with his antipathy during the last two decades of his life toward anything that he did not regard as the most exalted form of research. He suffered from an elitism that relegated almost anything other than fundamental theoretical research in particle physics to the dustbin of uninteresting and second-rate ideas that were unworthy of the attention of the best physicists. This has also been well-documented by Dyson, who says that Oppenheimer was disappointed with his work in solid-state physics and astronomy because he didn’t consider it special enough.

    By the way, the best account that I have read of Oppenheimer’s work on black holes is a chapter by Karl Hufbauer in “Reappraising Oppenheimer”, the volume from the Berkeley Series that Dyson recommends in his review of Monk’s biography as the most insightful collection of article on Oppenheimer he has read.

  8. Gordon: the hope that the singularity will make sense reminds me of the hope that quantum theory will make sense. So far, we seem to have to just redefine “making sense.”

    Curious: For someone who was so charismatic, Oppenheimer seems to have few fans. I started disliking him a little when I started reading his gorgeous prose.

  9. Yes, true, the more you read about him the more his flaws come to light. It’s like a diamond; you may be dazzled at first by how much light it reflects, but closer inspection reveals fundamental structural imperfections. No doubt though that he was a remarkable intellect.

    I agree that he probably didn’t have many fans in the true sense of the term, but I would say there were a lot of people like Bethe, Serber and Rabi who remained very loyal to him until the very end.

  10. I don’t know if Oppenheimer and Wheeler’s grudge can be called a war. It seems more like a aesthetic disagreement over the importance of the subject, than a disagreement on any of the physics. Oppenheimer’s work on gravitational collapse was foundational to that field and if there had been no war, or atomic bomb, he might have gotten a Nobel prize for it someday (not that that is the only way to measure physicists). But there was a war, and an atomic bomb.

    If I may psychoanalyze people I know only from books, Oppenheimer’s disregard of his own work reflects the self-subverting nature of his brilliance and insecurity. He was present near the foundation of modern physics and did many shining things in it, but not a crowning single fundamental like one might assign to a Dirac, Fermi, or Pauli (his contemporaries). It’s not necessarily right but that is often how physicists evaluate themselves and each other.

    I find Chuck Klosterman’s essay on the nemesis and the archenemy a useful way to look at scientific rivalries: . For example, Teller’s archenemy was Oppenheimer, or at least so Teller thought. (Teller’s nemesis was someone else, probably Ulam.) But certainly Teller was not Oppenheimer’s archenemy. Teller was just an instrument. Teller isn’t Judas to Oppenheimer’s Jesus; he is more Laertes to Oppenheimer’s Hamlet. (Let us conjecture that from a psychology or novelistic point of view, Judas is more interesting than Jesus, but naturally Laertes is less interesting than Hamlet.)

    Oppenheimer’s archenemy wasn’t even Lewis Strauss. It was, I imagine from a distance, his own self doubt and failure to live up to his standards of his own brilliant self-conception. And the bad decisions therefrom. That likely made him a little intolerable in addition to the arrogance and brilliance. But also those flaws are why people will continue to write, read, and argue about Oppenheimer.

  11. Benjamin, if psychologizing about people you’ve met only in books is disallowed, I’m in deep trouble.

    I think that distinction between archenemies and nemeses is extremely interesting and I hadn’t heard it before. Thank you. And thank you too for your thoughts about Oppenheimer. We’re not done with him around here yet, I think.

  12. This article reminded me of a story from Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking…” book wherein he describes Wheeler as someone who didn’t have to work things out in his mind but just seemed to know the difficult stuff instead. However, in the same chapter he tells a story about how Wolfgang Pauli hints that Wheeler isn’t really as bright as he thinks when Feynman says that Wheeler will be giving a followup seminar on the more difficult issues around their joint topic of study and Pauli says “Wheeler will never give that seminar.” And he didn’t.

  13. This is the first time I’ve come across one of your pieces, and now, having read a few that you link to, I want to thank you for writing so well about physics and astronomy! Please do more.

    One comment about your response #11 to Gordon. He is quite correct, and issue is an important part of the Wheeler-Oppenheimer disagreement. Almost all of us theorists believe that the singularity at the centers of the classical BH solutions are not a property of a more complete theory. They are outside the domain of validity of general relativity, and are almost certainly fakes. (Rather like the power-divergence of the electric field energy of a point-like electron is outside the range of validity of Maxwell’s classical electromagnetism, and is resolved in quantum field theory by the existence of anti-particles, specifically the positron.) But we don’t yet know in detail how this problem is resolved.

    Anyhow, Wheeler initially rejected Oppenheimer and Snyder’s conclusions precisely because they had this singular behaviour. What wasn’t appreciated at the time was that the existence
    of the *non-singular BH event horizon well away from the singularity is a reliable feature of GR*. This wasn’t really understood until the 1960′s with the work of Martin Kruskal, and Penrose and Hawking and others. Moreover, the big worry that many very good physicists had in the 1940′s and 50′s about Oppenheimer and Snyder’s idealised calculation is that once corrections to perfect spherical symmetry were taken into account the BH would fail to form. (This was the source of major problems in trying to get both fission and fusion bombs to explode.)

    In the mid 1960′s, Hawking, especially, managed to prove theorems in the context of classical GR that showed that BH’s would form. But up until these results it wasn’t at all clear that BH’s were really a feature of gravity. (Einstein rejected BH’s for a long time — this was *his* true biggest error I think, not the cosmological constant.)

    This bears on the Oppie-Wheeler story in two ways: First it explains Wheeler’s quite reasonable initial rejection of the Oppenheimer-Snyder work. And possibly more interesting, I believe that Oppenheimer *himself* didn’t think his results with Snyder
    were reliable (I *think* Freeman once told me this at a lunch at the IAS). Oppie was very well aware of all the similar issues worries in fission/fusion and other parts of non-linear dynamics, and this coupled with the apparent central singularity, might explain why Oppie never worked on gravitational collapse again and always changed the subject when the topic was brought up. My understanding from talking to people who knew Oppenheimer was that he hated being wrong — a sign of weakness — even more so than the average top theorist.

  14. John, this is so interesting. The idea that Oppenheimer didn’t follow up on his black hole work because he didn’t quite buy it either and didn’t want to help prove himself wrong sounds exactly right. I’ll bet Dyson would like it too. Thank you for explaining it so carefully and thoroughly.

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