Tag Archives: John Wheeler

Teaching To Learn

In The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality, author Paul Halpern paints a mostly loving portrait of two leaders in the development and exploration of quantum physics. My scientist father loaned me the book, and it took several tries to get through it. I finally convinced myself that I could appreciate the story of two incredible thinkers without completely understanding the science.

Both men were passionate teachers and used teaching as a way to learn themselves. When John Wheeler, for example, realized that, in order to solve a particular problem, he would need to better understand general relativity:

The best way to learn a field was to teach it, Wheeler had found. he had acquired the habit of assembling meticulous lecture notes for each course, which could double as an excellent resource whenever he continued to research a subject. Often in his notebooks, he scattered speculation among his course notes. He might ask those questions of his students, consider them himself, or both. Learning begets teaching, which begets more learning, in a marvelous spiral of rising knowledge. (p. 173).

In fact, Halpern writes, because physics is “built from the ground up, based on fundamental principles that might be stated or interpreted in many ways…Even concepts typically addressed in the first weeks of an introductory physics course, such as force and inertia, are nuanced” (p. 22). According to Halpern, working together on Wheeler’s classical mechanics course at Princeton led to conversations about Mach’s principle of distant stars causing inertia and how it might still be relevant when we know the universe is expanding. These conversations spilled over into the classroom as they challenged their students to think hard about the concepts.

Feynman, of course, became known as the great explainer. Here he is at the Esalen Institute in 1983, just five years before he died. The video opens with bongo drums, Feynman’s instrument of choice: