nLab John Wheeler

Selected writings

On geometrodynamics:

On the classical field theory of Einstein gravity (“general relativity”):


On commanding equations to fly

Christopher Fuchs recounts (in an email from Dec. 1997, reproduced on p. 292 of “My Struggles with the Block Universe, 2014):

a little anecdote about John Wheeler that I heard from John Preskill a few days ago. In 1972 he had Wheeler for his freshman classical mechanics course at Princeton.

One day Wheeler had each student write all the equations of physics s/he knew on a single sheet of paper. He gathered the papers up and placed them all side-by-side on the stage at the front of the classroom. Finally, he looked out at the students and said,

“These pages likely contain all the fundamental equations we know of physics. They encapsulate all that’s known of the world.”

Then he looked at the papers and said,

“Now fly!”

Nothing happened. He looked out at the audience, then at the papers, raised his hands high, and commanded,


Everyone was silent, thinking this guy had gone off his rocker. Wheeler said,

“You see, these equations can’t fly. But our universe flies. We’re still missing the single, simple ingredient that makes it all fly.”

On this point, in the video documentary

Wheeler appears (cf. Blake Stacey, Jan 2016) saying:

There’s nothing deader than an equation. You write that down in a square on a tile floor. And on another tile on the floor you write down another equation, which you think might be a better description of the Universe. And you keep on writing down equations hoping to get a better and better equation for what the Universe is and does.

And then, when you’ve worked your way out to the end of the room and have to step out, you wave your wand and tell the equations to fly.

And not one of them will put on wings and fly.

Yet the Universe flies!

It has a life to it that no equation has, and that life to it is a life with which we are also tied up.

John Preskill re-enacting the episode at the conference banquet of It from QBit 2023:

category: people

Last revised on November 7, 2023 at 07:04:28. See the history of this page for a list of all contributions to it.