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Scientist who named the black hole dies aged 96

Famous boffin was 'last of the physics superheroes'

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Legendary American physicist John Wheeler, who coined the term "black hole", helped build the first generations of US atomic bombs, and worked with some of the most fabled names in 20th century physics, has died. The famous professor passed away from pneumonia at his home in New Jersey, aged 96.

Wheeler was described by Max Tegmark of MIT, speaking to the New York Times, as having been "the last Titan, the only physics superhero still standing". As a young man, having gained his PhD in Physics at the age of 21, Wheeler argued with Einstein and collaborated with Niels Bohr on quantum theory.

He was a keen volunteer for the "Manhattan Project", the World War II race by America to develop the first atomic bombs, and all his life regretted that the first weapons were not ready in time to change the course of war in Europe. Wheeler's younger brother Joe was killed fighting in Italy in 1944. Apparently aware of at least the outlines of the Manhattan Project, Joe had exhorted his elder sibling to "hurry up" before his death.

"In my mind, I was answering a call to national service," Wheeler later said of his work in the US weapons programmes. After helping to develop the "Fat Man" bomb which struck Nagasaki in 1945, he worked on more powerful hydrogen-fusion warheads during the Cold War.

Initially resistant to the theory of collapsed matter singularities put forward by his old Manhattan Project colleague Robert Oppenheimer, Wheeler was later won over and was credited with being the first physicist to use the term "black hole" to described the phenomenon. Until then, various other unwieldly names had been in use.

Wheeler's own contributions to black-hole theory included the famous dictum that "black holes have no hair", the elimination of the concept of "naked" singularities, and of course the "Hoop Conjecture" (formulated with Kip Thorne) regarding the size of a black hole to be expected from the implosion of a given star. He also teased Einstein with suggestions of a "smoky dragon" of subatomic possibility, a notion akin to the half-dead half-alive cat in a box conundrum.

As a teacher, Wheeler was equally prominent. His many eminent students included Thorne and noted physics wildman Richard Feynman, who famously said of his mentor: "Some people think Wheeler's gotten crazy in his later years, but he's always been crazy."

Wheeler also supervised the PhD thesis of Hugh Everett, outlining the "many worlds" theory of parallel alternate universes.

The legendary boffin's wife Janette, whom he married in 1935, died last year at the age of 99. They left three children and a total of 41 further descendants, according to the NYT.

Renowned brainbox Freeman Dyson considered Wheeler to have hugely advanced interest in physics and the search for new knowledge. He said in 2003: "Wheeler is a prophet, standing like Moses... looking out over the promised land that his people will one day inherit.” ®

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