Elegant Pro(o)f

New scholarship honors Prof. Nicholas Wheeler.

By Randall S. Barton | December 1, 2014

Time has not diminished the bow-tied elegance or mellifluous voice of Prof. Nicholas Wheeler ’55 [physics 1963–2010], who inhabits the role of professor so authentically it seems like kismet. Several former students, including seismologist Dr. Michael Fehler ’74 and physicist Steven Auerbach ’66, have contributed to a new scholarship established in Wheeler’s name. “With his beard and brown three-piece corduroy suit, Professor Wheeler seemed the perfect image of an Edwardian physicist,” one former student remembers. He was inspired by the lectures—delivered with passion and clarity—and lecture notes written in a flowing calligraphic script that have become something of a cult classic. Rather than teaching from textbooks, Wheeler used pen and ink to scribe his own lecture notes. (His lecture notes are now available.) “Teaching forces me to learn some physics,” Wheeler says. “I can’t stand up in front of a class of bright kids without having thought my way through the subject and written it out in my own idiosyncratic way. I find the process of preparing for class exciting; I always did.” Wheeler was himself the beneficiary of a scholarship to Reed. When he was 12 years old, he had a paper route that took him from downtown The Dalles up the hill to the Eastern Oregon State Tuberculosis Hospital. It was his habit to stop for a chat with the keeper of the hospital’s test animals. One day he handed the keeper a newspaper, and the man read the headline and declared, “The world will never be the same.” The U.S. had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. “I was a child of the atomic bomb,” Wheeler says, “and I was not alone. Many, many people of my generation were turned on to physics, just as 20 years later Sputnik would turn another generation of people to science. My interests diverted from surgery, music, and art to figuring how the atomic bomb worked.” In high school, he was selected as a finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet scientists and President Truman. Back in The Dalles, people began suggesting that he apply to Reed. “I was terribly naïve,” he remembers. “I thought going to college was like going to Klamath Falls on a bus; you just bought a ticket. I wrote to the college and said, ‘I’ll be coming. Please send me a scholarship.’” Reed either appreciated his naïveté or recognized that he was ready to do the work. He received a letter saying, “Welcome to Reed College. You’ve been awarded the John S. Schenck Memorial Scholarship.” That was the summer of 1951. It took him 63 years to discover that Schenck had been the president of The Dalles First National Bank and an agent for the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company—owned by Simeon Reed. The scholarship, established by Schenck’s widow, is one of Reed’s oldest and is restricted to residents of The Dalles.

Wheeler never planned to have an academic career. As a student at Reed, he played the double bass and was so proficient that he was invited to join Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops Orchestra. Having reached an existential fulcrum, he had to decide whether to be a professional musician and an amateur scientist or a professional scientist and an amateur musician. Approaching Fiedler, who was drenched in perspiration from conducting, Wheeler announced that he would stay at Reed and pursue a career in physics.

“My ambition was to get to the bottom of things,” he says. “At the time I still supposed that was possible, but the bottom was far deeper than I imagined.” After Reed, he studied at Cornell, transferred to Brandeis, and earned a PhD in 1960. Attached as an NSF postdoctoral fellow to the Theoretical Division of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, he also studied cello at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève. But he was uncomfortable being part of a grant-driven machine, which is what he felt physics was becoming at the international laboratories then being developed. In 1963 he was invited to join the Reed faculty as a theoretical physicist. He thought it would be an interim thing, but discovered that he liked the freedom to teach what he wanted the way he wanted to very bright students. Wheeler’s retirement has been filled with pursuits both intellectual and tactile. He built and plays a harpsichord, plays the cello, and of course is still entwined with physics. He is now preparing a new English edition of the seminal book by the brilliant Hungarian-born mathematician John von Neumann, Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Physics, first published in English by Princeton in 1955. “Even the equations were typed,” Wheeler explains. “It had only a few fonts, so a given symbol might mean any number of things. The subscripts were the same size as the symbol, and the parentheses, whether they were large or small, were the same size. Many of the sentences were not translated so much as transliterated. The result was almost unreadable.” The book is nonetheless more frequently cited today than it has been at any time since it was published. Wheeler used modern technology to prepare a readable version of the book with page dimensions in the golden ratio, an abundance of fonts, and intelligible English. “I wanted to produce something that sat as beautifully on the page as the ideas,” he says of the book, scheduled for publication next year by Princeton University Press.

“Physicists like the material of physics,” he says. “If you’re going to be a violinist, sure, you admire Beethoven. But you have also to like the texture of your instrument, the velvet violin case, and the feel of the rosin on the bows. In the days we did it by hand, physicists liked to make integral signs and the way equations work. We like the activity in the machine shop, the way brass curls off the lathe. You’re not dealing with grand cosmic things all the time. If the day-to-day stuff of the field gives you pleasure, then you’re a contented, busy physicist.”

Contribute to the Nicholas Wheeler Scholarship

Tags: Professors, Giving Back to Reed