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reed magazine logoSeptember 2010

Three Professors Granted Tenure Continued

Nick Wheeler ’55physics, 1963.

Nick Wheeler

Quantum Mechanic: Nick Wheeler ’55 explores matter with J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Nick Wheeler grew up in The Dalles, a windswept town in the high desert of Eastern Oregon, and came to Reed to study physics in 1951. While he was a senior at Reed, he visited with J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan Project. A photo of the encounter documents that two distinctive Wheeler traits were already well established: the giant forehead and the bow tie. After writing his thesis with Asim Barut, Nick earned a PhD from Brandeis and worked at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics before joining the Reed faculty in 1963.

In his time at Reed, Nick has earned a reputation not only as a brilliant theorist but as a singular teacher. The mere mention of his name provokes reverence from former students. “Nick Wheeler is a wellspring of inspiration to study and—more important—to do physics,” says Frank Morton-Park ’10. “I often left his lectures galvanized to further understand the advanced concepts he presented. For this I would turn to his lecture notes, which expounded the concepts with insightful clarity while motivating me to explore them in detail.”

Nick’s approach to the discipline is revealed in a statement he made in 1996. “Physics lives not only at its cutting edge,” he said. “The questions most lively at the research frontier all have roots—are variants usually of much older questions—and to be effective at the frontier it is important to understand those roots, which invariably are intricately tangled and deep. Traced to their origins, the enduring issues in physics become entwined with issues seemingly remote from physics. Physics emerges as a strand in the broad history of ideas. Questions and discoveries located within the history of physics serve today to shape the thought and activity not only of research physicists, but all of us.

“To be a physicist is to wonder, sooner or later, about the features of world and mind that make physics possible. And to be a teacher—of physics or of anything—is to wonder about the features of mind, personality, and institutional arrangement that make such accidents possible, probable, inevitable. It’s a mystery within a mystery. But it’s been a source of deep satisfaction to work daily in the shadow of such mysteries, with students and colleagues who share my mystification.”

There are innumerable stories about Nick; math professor Tom Wieting provided this one. “In my second year at Reed, I gave a lecture in the Physics Seminar Series on crystallography. At one point, I drew one diagram to represent the underlying mathematical theory—a pristine, elegant little rectangle—and another to represent the refractory, recalcitrant real world—a tangle of squiggles. A voice rose from the audience: ‘That’s all very well, Tom, but you have the pictures backwards.’”

Nick is also renowned for his lucid style of writing. For decades, physics majors have treasured their “Wheeler Notes,” many composed in beautiful longhand, which together comprise a veritable encyclopedia of physics.

Unlike some physicists, who are content to communicate in jargon, Nick has always sought clarity. “My work at Reed—distractions aside—consists of teaching and writing as clearly as I know how,” he once said.

Nick is an avid hiker and an accomplished cellist—he played for many years in string quartets and the Portland Opera. Sometime in the early ’70s, he began a project to build a period harpsichord, using wood salvaged from the old pipe organ in the chapel. We understand this project has been almost complete for decades. Perhaps retirement will afford him the time to apply the final coat of varnish.

—Chris Lydgate

reed magazine logoSeptember 2010