Science Talk

On The Shoulders of Giants: John Wheeler and Salome Waelsch

Physicist John Wheeler and geneticist Salome Waelsch both had incredibly long and fruitful careers, providing numerous fundamental insights in their respective fields. We'll hear from Kenneth Ford, former director of the American Institute of Physics, about Wheeler, who died April 13th at 96. And Princeton's Lee Silver talks about Waelsch, who died last fall at 100 and who was memorialized on April 14th at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;

Physicist John Wheeler and geneticist Salome Waelsch both had incredibly long and fruitful careers, providing numerous fundamental insights in their respective fields. We'll hear from Kenneth Ford, former director of the American Institute of Physics, about Wheeler, who died April 13th at 96. And Princeton's Lee Silver talks about Waelsch, who died last fall at 100 and who was memorialized on April 14th at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include;

Podcast Transcript:
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting April 16th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we'll look at the lives of a couple of real giants of 20th-century research, both winners of the National Medal of Science. Physicist, John Wheeler died this week at the age of 96. Wheeler's student and friend, Kenneth Ford, will talk about him; and we'll also hear from Princeton's, Lee Silver about biologist Salome Waelsch who was 100 when she passed away. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Kenneth Ford. Dr. Ford had an auspicious start to his scientific career when he won the then Westinghouse Science Talent Search in 1944. He studied with John Wheeler in the early 1950s and went onto have numerous academic appointments. From 1987 to 1993, he was the executive director of the American Institute of Physics. I called Ford at his home in Philadelphia.

Steve: Dr. Ford, it's great to talk to you and thanks so much. I know that you lost a friend this week, so I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.

Ford: Oh! It's great for me, too. Hi Steve!

Steve: You knew John Wheeler for 60 years!

Ford: Just about. I met him in the fall of 1948, when I was a first-year graduate student at Princeton.

Steve: Tell us about what it was like to work with him because I'll tell you a quick story. I went to a talk he gave at Cornell in 1984 and nobody could have presented himself more differently from Einstein—he wore a suit, his hair was short, he looked very conservative in his presentation. But his thinking was as revolutionary as Einstein's in some ways.

Ford: Anything but conservative, right?

Steve: Right. So what was it like to work with him?

Ford: For a starter, I was so taken by him when I took a course from him in my first year as a graduate student. It was a course in classical physics, the physics of the 18th and 19th centuries, which I expected to be rather dull; it was anything but. Wheeler just brought it alive in a remarkable way and linked the classical mechanics to quantum mechanics, and just based on the inspiration derived from that course, a year and a half later, spring of 1950 when I was ready to begin thinking about dissertation work, I approached him and asked him if he will [would] be my thesis dissertation supervisor; and he consented, but then as it happened, I then followed him to Los Alamos. I and another graduate student, John Toll, saw that we were out there working on the hydrogen bomb project in the theoretical division of Los Alamos and he was squeezing nights and weekends for our, what he called his Princeton physics, and I got getting my feet wet in research. So we were closer, in other words, that [than] might be typical of a student and a mentor; because John Wheeler moved three desks into his home—one for himself, one for me and one for other grad student—and we just spent a lot of time there together. We also spent time together at the lab. We went on picnics together. I became almost like a member of his family.

Steve: And you were close enough where you were the coauthor, if you will, of his autobiography?

Ford: Yes, that was many years later, of course, when I was just about to retire from the directorship of the American Institute of Physics; and John Wheeler approached me and said, "My good friend, Eugene Wigner has just published an autobiography and I think I might like to do the same thing. Do you have any idea of who might work with me to do it?" I made a suggestion. I actually suggested Edwin Taylor, a physicist in M.I.T., very articulate guy and a friend of Wheeler's. It turned out that Taylor was not available or not able at that time to consider it, so I thought it over and went back to John Wheeler and said, "Well, if you're willing, I am willing to try it"; and that led to the wonderful collaboration that resulted in his autobiography being published a few years later. It's called Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam," the subtitle being "Life in Physics." We chose as a title three times [terms] that John Wheeler himself coined and studied. He coined the term "geon", he coined the term "black holes" and he coined the term "quantum foam," so we combined those in the title.

Steve: I find quantum foam is maybe the contribution that he made that I find the most fascinating, and that's this idea that at incredibly small scales, what seems like empty space is just this boiling cauldron of particles popping into and out of existence.

Ford: Exactly. If you take quantum mechanics seriously, the uncertainly principle seriously, it would push down to those extremely small scales and that in many, many, many words [orders] of magnitude smaller than, say, a single proton, then you're led to this concept that space and time themselves become an uncertain, well, as you call [I recall], I think he used the term "roiling", like a white water in a rushing stream, so to speak.

Steve: Yeah or the foam at the top of a freshly poured glass of beer.

Ford: Yes, right!

Steve: And now Wheeler worked on everything, everything that [there] was to work on, from the smallest particles in particle physics to what's inside of dead stars. I mean, he really went from, well A to Q; we won't go to Z because that's usually zoology, but you know, from astrophysics to quantum mechanics.

Ford: Absolutely.

Steve: Or actually why don't we go to R—relativity.

Ford: Yes, he started in the 1930s working on quantum physics and nuclear physics—electrons, positrons, protons, nuclear structure, and of course the most famous paper of that period being the paper he wrote with Neils Bohr explaining the nuclear fission process.

Steve: And that of course was a very large deal that had incredible impacts to rather [the] rest of the century, no pun intended there with the word "impact"; and he was Neils Bohr's student. I mean when you look at his life, I mean, he himself became a name to drop, but you know he is [was] Neils Bohr's student, he is [was] a co-author with Einstein and Oppenheimer, he was the last of that generation; and he lasted a long time.

Ford: Yes indeed, some people have recently cited Hans Bethe as a giant of 20th-century physics who lived on into the 21st century and Wheeler even outlived him by a few years; so, in a certain sense Wheeler, was the last great 20th-century theorist left standing.

Steve: And he resisted this idea of black holes for a long time.

Ford: That's true. The idea of a mathematical singularity of matter just condensing into a point bothered him; might be [that] philosophically it bothered him. He thought it was some anomalous feature of that theory that couldn't be reflected and realized in nature, and he literally fought. He likes to use those terms—like a gladiator he fought against that idea—trying to come up with every conceivable explanation of maybe how quantum mechanics would save the day and allow collapse to an extremely small size, but not literally to a point; and he finally concluded that indeed nothing could stop the collapse. And so in the mid '60s, I guess around '67, he then reached this firm conclusion that the black hole including the total collapse was a reality that could not be avoided and it was around that time that he then introduced the term "black hole".

Steve: And philosophically he wanted more out of physics than just a description of nature, it seems. It seems like he was looking for the big answers.

Ford: Yes, he liked, one of his favorite questions was how come the quantum—because he felt that quantum mechanics, despite all of its successes, must rest on some deeper as yet undiscovered principle; and he even enlarged that question or extended that question to ask how come existence, that sounds like a theological or philosophical question, but in Wheeler's mind it was a physics question. He imagined that one day we will have enough understanding of nature, the laws of nature, the cosmological evolution of the universe that we will able to answer that question, "How come existence?"; in fact he got little bit upset sometimes when questions like that or other musings of his were taken out of context and given interpretations that he didn't intend.

Steve: A lot of people think that perhaps his biggest contribution to physics was actually the physicists he created; people like Kip Thorne and Richard Feynman were his students.

Ford: You can certainly make that case. In fact I am acquainted with a graduate student in history of science from the University of Oregon named Terry Christensen who is doing a scholarly study of exactly that question, "John Wheeler and Mentorship". We know that Wheeler had supervised more than 50 doctoral dissertations and numerous senior theses, junior papers, guided many postdoctoral researchers. He had a very direct personal one-to-one impact on well over a hundred other people, not counting all those less directly influenced through his teaching in classes. And many of those students have gone, as you mentioned—Kip Thorne being one, Dick Feynman being another—to their own stellar careers and then themselves becoming mentors and inspiring their students in turn.

Steve: And Wheeler continued to teach first and second year undergraduate physics courses, so there are untold numbers of people who he influenced in teaching those big survey classes.

Ford: That's right, he taught freshman both at Princeton and in Texas.

Steve: There is a line from one of the obits that I read that's supposed to be a quote from John Wheeler: "If you haven't found something strange during the day, it hasn't been much of a day."

Ford: (laughs) That sounds like Wheeler all right.

Steve: I just want to spend a couple of minutes talking about you. You actually have written for Scientific American only 45 years ago. You wrote an article on magnetic monopoles.

Ford: Once and only once, yes. I had participated in an experimental search for magnetic monopoles and some enterprising staff member at Scientific American got in touch with me and asked if I would be willing to write a popular article on the subject, which I did.

Steve: Well, I just want you to know that that article still gets passed around today.

Ford: I see.

Steve: And you have a fairly new book out, you have a 2007 book out about, you're a veteran pilot, you've been flying for more than half a century and you've written a book about your experiences there.

Ford: Yes, that was a passion, [an] avocation of mine. I started flying around '27 and stopped around '77. For 50 years I accumulated about 4,500 hours of pilot in command flying both single-engine planes and gliders. And when I did stop flying several years ago, I just decided to take a break from physics and write a book about flying, which I did, and it is now in print called, In Love with Flying, partly a memoir and partly a kind of, I hope, an inspirational book for young people who might want to consider becoming pilots.

Steve: Well, Dr. Ford, I just want to thank you very much again for talking to us, and we really appreciate your time.

Ford: My pleasure. I always enjoy discussing John Wheeler and his achievements.

Steve: Ken Ford's Web site is Next up Lee Silver from Princeton University talks about biomedical researcher Salome Waelsch. Silver was one of the speakers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine on April 14th at a tribute to Waelsch who died in November, a month after her 100th birthday. Here's part of his remarks.

(excerpts from Lee Silver's remarks)

Silver: She always challenged authority, which meant that some people appreciated that and others didn't. She challenged both authority and other people. She also challenged scientific authority. That was really the main theme of her life. Let others talk about her student years in Germany where she worked with Spemann who would win the Nobel Prize and her flight from Nazi Germany, then her 20 years or so at Columbia University where she was unable to convince the administration to give her a tenured position and she was rescued; it was all very brief. She was rescued by Albert Einstein College of Medicine here, where we are speaking today, which finally gave her the professorship that she always deserved. So I would talk a little bit about her science here, because Salome and I actually both are interested in one of the same genes, same group of genes in the mouse and I am quite sure—but I never asked her this—that she was probably interested in this particular gene which we called the T-locus, we call that T-complex; and I'm sure that one of the reasons she was attracted to this gene is because this gene broke all the rules. So this was a gene that broke Mendel's first law, which says equal segregation and this was a gene that did not segregate equally, like genes were supposed to; it broke Mendel's second law of independent assortment because this particular chromosome Salome and I were both interested in, there was no recombination between the different genes on this chromosome and that broke the rule of the way all the other genes were in mammalian genome. And of course the other rule Salome broke was the rule that she had been taught as a graduate student in Spemann's lab, which was that development took place independently of gene activity. Now anyone in this room who studies developmental biology or genetics would think that this is absolutely ridiculous—how could anybody believe that development occurred in the absence of any influence from genes. And yet back in the 1920s—this is pre-DNA time—there were embryologists and there were geneticists and the two didn't meet and they didn't want to learn from each other. Salome was the one who imagined that genes did have an impact on development, but she couldn't follow that up in Spemann's lab and it was really only after she got to New York City that she was able to go further with that. So, and I should mention, as I wrote in the mourning for her in Nature Genetics where I said how when she finally disproved her thesis advisor it gave her great pleasure. So a little bit about the background on Salome's work in New York. She came to New York in 1933, she was fleeing Nazi Germany and it wasn't until 1936 that she was actually hired by L. C. Dunn to work in his laboratory. L. C. Dunn was one of the original geneticists during the beginning of the 20th century; back then [the] science was very small and there weren't that many; Dunn was one of the really great ones. He was working at Columbia University which is where all the most important genetics was being done, where people like Morgan and others [were] and he had come into the possession of some mice with a short tail. Doesn't sound very interesting, but turned out to be very interesting. And he was a geneticist, he didn't know any embryology. He met Salome and asked Salome to come work in his laboratory. This was in 1936 when she got to work and two years later, she published her first paper describing the effects of a gene on mammalian development, the first paper; this was in 1938, the paper was published. Sixty years later, there was actually an article in the journal Genetics, which was written by Virginia Papaioannou, who was a mouse developmental geneticist. And she was just explaining to all the geneticists how incredible this paper was, the first paper that was published on the T-locus; [she] called it a remarkable scientific paper from a remarkable woman, Salome Gluecksohn-Waelsch, then Gluecksohn-Schoenheimer, first described the embryonic development of the tailless phenotypes from the T-locus. She was always one to view scientific progress in its historical context, always had pertinent examples at the ready. Anyone who ever gave a research talk with Salome sitting in the front row waited, possibly dreaded, the inevitable movement when she got to her feet with the first question. It said something like, "That is very interesting and reminds me of an experiment done by X ex many years ago" and everybody dreaded [that]. So, she had this incredible memory for everything. So Salome worked on the T-locus and she proposed that this gene played a critical role in mammalian development and that this gene, that the expression of this gene was actually responsible for inducing one of the major components of the embryo; I don't want to go into the gory details too much. It was an inducer of mesoderm and axial development. And in fact and this is back when nobody knew what a gene was or really what genes did. Salome described the function of this gene, just based on her embryological studies. Remarkably, 50 years later, the gene was cloned by Hans Lehrach and Bernhard Herrmann and they discovered that it did exactly what she said it did. It coded for a protein, which was a regulator of gene activity. It is a protein that binds DNA and turns on other genes down the stream; it's actually one of a family of very important genes in the mammalian development and we all have this gene, not just mice, as well. So, it really showed Salome thinking ahead. What Salome did basically was to create the field of developmental genetics and she did this by merging her embryological knowledge that she brought with her from Germany, which is where the best embryology was being done and the genetics that existed at Columbia University. And back in Germany experimental embryologists, what they would do is—to understand how the embryo works—they would manipulate the embryo. They poked the embryo, perturbed the embryo and see what happens. The developmental geneticists are different. Salome said a developmental geneticist basically uses naturally occurring perturbations in the genes to follow the embryonic development, and this is a quote from Salome. "A mutation that causes a certain malformation as the result of a developmental disturbance carries out an experiment in the embryo by interfering with normal development at a certain point. By studying the details of the disturbed development, it may be possible to learn something about the results of the 'experiment' carried out by the gene." This is what Salome was talking about, before we knew that DNA was actually the genetic material, and in fact it stood the test of time. That's how developmental biology is done by geneticists today, that's how they study the impact of genes. Now we can make creations at will in mouse genes, but you do that, you mutate the gene and then you see how development goes wry [awry] in the animal with the mutated genes. So Salome began all of that. She was a very impressive woman, and it is very difficult for people to understand a couple of things. One is back in her days, there were very few women that were taken seriously in science; I think that was the problem that she suffered both in Germany and at Columbia; initially [there were] very few of them, [and] she was one of the first. The second thing is that she began to feel that we all take for granted, we all take for granted the idea that—we being scientists take for granted—the idea that genes play an essential role in development. The entire biomedical enterprise is built on that as one of its foundations. Salome began all of that back in the early 1930s and she continued all of those years, she never wanted to stop. But all those years she continued and she also continued always to try to encourage young people, especially young women, to follow their hearts and go into science and so she needs that legacy.

Steve: Silver's latest book is Challenging Nature. His Web site is I just want to play one more item, a brief comment from Salome Waelsch's grandson, Nicholas Kerest.

Kerest: I was a junior in high school and I was taking AP biology and, you know, I did well in the class, and we were getting close to the AP exam. And I was feeling pretty confident, I had all my multiple choice questions that I was reviewing and I thought, you know, here we are. It was 1989, so she was, what, 82 or so at the time, I think, and I was 15 or 16 and I thought, you know, I was feeling confident, and I thought, "Why don't I run a few of these by my grandmother and see what she can do with these multiple choice questions from AP biology?" So I did the first one. You know, there's A, B, C, D, E answers; I read them out; she gets it right. I read the next one, same thing. This went on for half an hour: She got them all right. So I always knew that I had an impressive grandmother, but that really brought it home for me (lcrowd laughter) in a way like nothing else.


Steve: Now it is time to play TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: President Eisenhower reprimanded John Wheeler for losing classified documents on a train.

Story number 2: President Eisenhower got genetics lessons from Salome Waelsch.

Story number 3: People with high blood pressure have a better chance of developing migraine headaches, meaning blood pressure drugs could be used against migraine.

And story number 4: The ceremonial first pitch for the April 16th game at Yankee Stadium will be thrown by an astronaut currently aboard the international space station.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. John Wheeler once lost classified documents on a train and got personally yelled at by Eisenhower. The train car was removed and searched, but the documents were never found. Some anonymous porter probably ensured national security by throwing the papers away when he cleaned the car.

Story number 2 is true. Eisenhower requested some basic training in genetics after reading a newspaper article about Waelsch's work, so Salome personally instructed Eisenhower, who at the time was president of Columbia University.

And story number 4 is true. Lifelong Yankee fan, Garrett Reisman, brought a Yankee hat, banner and dirt from the stadium mound up to the space station with him. His pitch will be shown on the center field screen. The ceremony is yet to take place as I am speaking, so I cannot yet report who or what will catch the ball. In space no one can hear you scream "strike one".

All of which means that story number 3, about people with high blood pressure having a greater risk of migraine headaches is TOTALL....... Y BOGUS. Because a new study finds that high blood pressure actually seems to protect against migraines. In fact, the stiff blood vessels associated with high blood pressure can lead to a decrease in many kinds of chronic pain. But the researchers were quick to say that these findings don't mean that you want high blood pressure, which is associated with risks of stroke and heart attack. Instead they hope that the finding can point them in the right direction to find new possible treatments for migraine, based on their better understanding of the underlying pain mechanisms.


Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at and check out for the latest science news, blogs and videos. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.


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