Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Paul Davies: Many great scientists throughout their life have a vision. Do you have a vision?

John Wheeler: Well, to me it’s the picture that the whole of this existence of ours will some day have its single, central principle spring to life, that will be so natural we’ll say to ourselves: How could it have been otherwise and how could we have been so stupid all these years not to have seen it.

This is Wheeler's vision of the Grand. Like a mischevious elf, who sneaks in to leave unexpected gifts, Wheeler has been sowing the world of Physics with most of the bizzare but beautiful ideas that lie at its borders. He is a metaphysician in disguise.

I used to think that Feynman was divinely inspired when he first sketched the foundation for a timeless universe when he introduced this: Anti-matter is Matter which is traveling backwards in Time.

So, for example, when a proton and an antiproton collide and annihilate, what has really happened is that one particle has reversed its direction in Time. Anyways, Feynman admits (in his Nobel lecture) he got this idea from Wheeler who was his mentor:

...I received a telephone call one day at the graduate college at Princeton from Professor Wheeler, in which he said, "Feynman, I know why all electrons have the same charge and the same mass" "Why?" "Because, they are all the same electron!" And, then he explained on the telephone, "suppose that the world lines which we were ordinarily considering before in time and space - instead of only going up in time were a tremendous knot, and then, when we cut through the knot, by the plane corresponding to a fixed time, we would see many, many world lines and that would represent many electrons, except for one thing. If in one section this is an ordinary electron world line, in the section in which it reversed itself and is coming back from the future ... I did not take the idea that all the electrons were the same one from him as seriously as I took the observation that positrons could simply be represented as electrons going from the future to the past in a back section of their world lines. That, I stole!

Wheeler was a colleague of Einstein. Wheeler himself was a student of Neils Bohr. But Wheeler is famous for his students. It was Wheeler who guided his student Everett in forming the Many Worlds Hypothesis - the strange theory of multiple worlds which brings to life Borges' vision of a cosmic garden of forking paths. He also taught Tipler who went on to devise his own universe where humans are all re-incarnated near the end of time.

Wheeler just turned 90 and parties were had. These days he is still thinking about the consequences of his work on delayed-choice, an unsettling consequence of quantum mechanics, the essential idea being that the Past isnt fixed in any way until we decide to observe it and how we will observe it. At this moment, as experiments seem to prove, we are creating the Past, somehow summoning it into existence.

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