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Physics Professor Penned Inspiring Lecture Notes

Prof. Nicholas Wheeler [physics 1963–2010] ’55

“With his beard and brown three-piece corduroy suit, Professor Wheeler seemed the perfect image of an Edwardian physicist,” recalled a former student in a Reed Magazine article about Nicholas Wheeler, A.A. Knowlton Professor of Physics. Wheeler’s reputation as a brilliant professor who inspired students with elegant lectures was even more intriguing because of his origin story: He came to Reed first as a student.

Working as a paper delivery boy in The Dalles at the age of 12, Wheeler learned of the atomic bomb when he delivered the front-page story. The enormity of the event captured his curiosity. “My interests diverted from surgery, music, and art to figuring out how the atomic bomb worked,” he said. At 14, he decided he wanted to be a physics professor. During high school, he taught himself calculus and was selected as a finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for a Wilson cloud chamber that he constructed. He traveled by train to Washington, D.C., where he met President Truman and many distinguished scientists. In 1951, he graduated from The Dalles High School as valedictorian.

Wheeler landed at Reed College thanks to both drive and naivety. When the time came to consider college, Wheeler did not apply to Reed but instead wrote a letter to inform them of his impending arrival. “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.’” The approach worked; Wheeler received the John S. Schenck Memorial Scholarship, one of the college’s oldest scholarships, reserved for residents of The Dalles.

In 1955, a 19-year-old Wheeler was asked to give J. Robert Oppenheimer a tour of the Reed College campus. The famous physicist was, according to Wheeler, unimpressed by what the star student wished to discuss. “I asked Oppenheimer, as we were walking along, when did he suppose physics would be mature enough to deduce the numbers that appear in the equations of physics?” Oppenheimer seemed to reject the notion of his question, and Wheeler would later come to understand why. But this youthful curiosity would live on in his approach to teaching. Wheeler aimed to teach with thoughtful clarity, to rid explanations of convoluted jargon, and to help all students understand the concepts at hand.

As a student at Reed, Wheeler also played the double bass in Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops Orchestra. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics, Wheeler attended Brandeis University, where he earned his PhD in 1960.

His passion for music stuck with him. A National Science Foundation fellowship with the theoretical division of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, allowed Wheeler to also study cello at the Conservatoire de Musique de Genève. He met his first wife, Karin, in Geneva. Wheeler went on to play cello in the Portland Opera for 10 years.

In 1963, Wheeler was invited to join the Reed faculty as a theoretical physicist. What he thought would be a short-term engagement suited him well. Wheeler discovered he loved teaching, and for 47 years students were captivated by his teaching style. When students first caught sight of his lecture notes—his handwriting was like an authoritative yet friendly font—they asked if he’d be willing to distribute copies. From then on, he copied and distributed these meticulous notes with each class, replacing textbooks with his own approach to physics. “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,” said Wheeler. “I find the process of preparing for class exciting; I always did.”

Wheeler didn’t just inspire students in the classroom. He motivated them to use physics to better understand the world.

“I often left his lectures galvanized to further understand the advanced concepts he presented,” said Frank Morton-Park ’10. “For this I would turn to his lecture notes, which expounded the concepts with insightful clarity while motivating me to explore them in detail.” These notes were so popular among students that all 26 volumes have been digitized and made available through the Reed Library website.

Physics and music remained cornerstones of Wheeler’s life after retirement, as he continued contributing to research and playing his handmade harpsichord, which took him 25 years to complete. He also enjoyed hiking, fine woodworking, classical music, and playing the stand-up bass, cello, and piano.

In 2014, several alumni who studied under Wheeler, including Geoffrey Baldwin ’62, Ellen Mickanin ’74 and Wesley Mickanin ’74, Michael Fehler ’74, and Steven Auerbach ’66, honored his impact by contributing to a scholarship in his name.

He is survived by his wife, Oya; his children, Tanja and Colin; his stepchildren, Idil and Ty; his first wife, Karin; and his grandchildren, Wren, Talya, and Mila.

Appeared in Reed magazine: Spring 2024

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