Space: Europe, Italy, San Miniato
Time: July 24, 1944, Our Strand
The Observer: Joe Wheeler, Rank: PFC, 349th Infantry Regiment, 88th Infantry Division “Blue Devils”
Aburst of red mist exploded from over his right shoulder. Joe Wheeler’s head spun around in time to see one of his soldiers reeling on the ground with his hands clasping over his head.
While screaming for a medic, Joe kneeled down and pressed a bandage onto the young boy’s head. The boy remained silent, in shock.
When Joe’s eyes would catch the boy’s he would mouth the words “it’s okay, it’s okay.” Within a minute, the boy’s eyes were lifeless. A few seconds later, the medic arrived. Too late. There wasn’t enough time.
Joe looked at the young, motionless boy that he was supposed to be protecting. At eighteen, he had bled to death in a foreign country trying to stop a madman from taking over the world.
With his hands covered in blood, Joe sank into the dirt, and worry filled his racing mind. Would he end up the same way? Thoughts flashed in his mind about those working back at home to stop the war… He still had faith that his brother and their team would complete the project to end the war… but they needed to hurry up.
In the evening, the fighting died down, and Joe’s unit fell back into one of the burned out buildings in the town. As the other men in his platoon bedded down for the night, the usual conversations started.
Why did the youngest guy in the platoon get killed first?
Wishing for more of everything.
What if’s about a hundred different scenarios.
All of it was useless banter, thought Joe.
“You know my brother’s working to put an end to the war, don’t you?” remarked Joe to the rest of the Platoon.
“Your brother’s a genius. We know!” said one of the squad leaders.
Another squad leader sighed and chimed in. “Funny how he’s doing that back in the states while we’re out here getting torn apart.”
Joe caught himself before he said something he regretted, and remained silent.
As night fell, the glow of cigarettes from the other men in his platoon became visible. He looked out at them. At the beginning of all this, they had all been friends. Now, things were drifting apart.
Joe pulled out his pen and last post card he had and lit a small lamp. He stared at the lamp flame and then back down to the postcard in front of him. He was unaware he had been crying until he looked down at the postcard. It was soaked in tears and he couldn’t write on it without ripping the page.
He’d been saving the postcard for his wife, who was expecting their first child. But if his brother’s efforts didn’t pan out, his wife and child would never be safe.
Darkness crept into the camp, and his kerosene lamp would have to be extinguished soon.
Tired, hungry, and in a literal hell, Joe stared for a long time at the postcard. Carefully, with his pen, he wrote only two words. Then he dropped the letter into their mail bag, lay down, and blew out his lamp.
Space: Los Alamos, New Mexico, [Classified Location]
Time: August 24, 1944, Same Strand
The Observer: John Wheeler, Senior Physicist, Manhattan Project
John Wheeler got to his office, and shuffled through the mail on his desk. A stained and battered postcard immediately caught his eye.
It was from Joe! He smiled looking at the picture of Italy on the front of it, and as he turned it over, expecting a letter, his heart sank. Only two words were written on it:
He swore under his breath, and pushed the other mail aside.
For the next two months, John Wheeler became a force of nature. He had been an original collaborator with people like Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi in determining that the Atom bomb was possible, and he still believed that creating it could end the war.
Soon, his enthusiasm and obsession spread around the rest of the team at Los Alamos. The team came alive and the project to end the war surged forward.
As summer faded into fall, Wheeler arrived in his office one morning to find a letter from the Army Chaplain Corps.
His brother Joe had been shot and bled to death in a fox hole in Italy. The swirling genius inside Wheeler’s mind turned into a maelstrom. He thought of Joe’s wife, Mary, and their young daughter. Tears came, and when they subsided, he did the only thing he could do and went back to work.
His drive wasn’t about revenge. It was about cosmic justice over fate, time, distance, dimensionality, and stopping genocidal tyrants.
Wheeler aimed at nothing short of conquering them all… permanently.
The next ten months, Wheeler and the entire team at the Manhattan project became even more aggressive. Each of the men and women at Los Alamos were well aware that every day they sat in the comfort of the office, more people died. There weren’t any spaces at Los Alamos to hide from the horrors of the world and war. The team was driven to succeed by those harsh realities.
The next year, in the heat of August, the team watched a mushroom cloud rise from the desert. Wheeler’s boss and the project director, J. Robert Oppenheimer, recited a quote from the Bhagavad Gita to everyone watching.
Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
Beginning to harness the atom for first warfare or defense was certainly horrific and problematic. Could it be justified? I think so, and even if it couldn’t, the most logical and empathetic path now is to begin using those energies for good.
Most people might look at Wheeler’s motivations and say he was driven by regret, revenge, or hatred.
It’s a difficult question to answer. But what if Wheeler was driven simply by love?
What is the definition of love that most people use? Most modern types say, “love” but their actions suggest that love is simply a pact of progressive hedonism. The goal is to steadily increase consumption quality and quantity until diseases of overconsumption prevent people they “love” from continuing to play the consumption game.
John Wheeler’s actions reintroduce a more classical definition of love. Something like:
When you sacrifice your own present comfort in the service of your future self, those you care about, and future generations.
When your actions are in service of the highest possible good you can conceive of.
Wheeler was driven by love for his brother, family, and for the ideals behind the founding of western civilization. Those motivations would inspire his work and provide a source of inspiration for the rest of his life. He knew full well how problematic and dangerous the technologies were that they had created and unleashed on the world.
Wheeler accepted full responsibility for the death of his brother and knew he could have done more to stop it. He wasn’t afraid of taking radical agency. From his journal:
One cannot escape the conclusion that an atomic bomb program started a year earlier and concluded a year sooner would have spared 15 million lives, my brother Joe’s among them… I could — probably — have influenced the decision makers if I had tried.
Wheeler returned to physics and engineering after the war. He devoted himself to ensure that all the lives lost would not be mere statistics. He wanted to make sure that the lives lost would be vindicated.
He sought to learn the secrets of space and time to bring meaning to the massive sacrificial altar that was World War II. He sought them out to prevent something worse from happening. From his journal:
Of all obstacles to a thoroughly penetrating account of existence, none looms up more dismayingly than ‘time… Explain time? Not without explaining existence. Explain existence? Not without explaining time.
In moments of exhaustion and despair, Wheeler’s journal entries were quotes from other minds he admired. One entry was a scribbled quote from the Danish Poet Piet Hein:
I’d like to know
what this whole show
is all about
before it’s out.
Back home, John Wheeler would go on to teach the first course at Princeton on General Relativity. He would discover and coin the names for:
- Black Holes
- Quantum Foam
- The Einstein-Schrödinger equation (for a wave function)
He would modify the “double-slit experiment” (which exhibits the true behavior of light waves), Wheeler was able to demonstrate that through measurement, one can create reality. By removing a photographic plate at the last possible second, the viewer can adjust the pattern of light from slits to blobs or vice versa. What makes this so remarkable? The viewer can change what is seen after the light had already passed through the screen. This lead to Wheeler’s larger scale theory that the past only comes into existence when an observer measures it.
He would teach and mentor more than a dozen other physicists. They included people like Kip Thorne and Richard Feynman. Later at Feynman’s Nobel Acceptance speech, he would acknowledge that incorporating one of Wheeler’s ideas into his theory was the thing that helped him win the prize.
Wheeler’s work even inspired Stephen Hawking. Working with Thomas Hertog, Hawking developed a theory called the Top-down approach. In summary, this theory states that the history of the universe only comes into existence once it has been measured. This top-down cosmology is directly modeled after Wheeler’s research.
Up into his eighties and nineties, Wheeler still worked to unlock the secrets of space and time. His experiments and theories would continue inspiring others, including the trio of: Carroll Alley, Oleg Jakubowicz, and William Wickes. The three of them would perform an experiment originally proposed by Wheeler that confirmed that quantum measurements made in the present can create the past.
When he was particularly hard on himself, there would be weeks in his journal where the entries only contained the words:
Over, and over. Day after day. He didn’t pat himself on the back when he wasn’t performing at the level he knew he could. In other entries he wrote:
Have to come through to a resolution of these issues, whatever the cost. Nowhere more than here can I try to live up to my responsibilities to mankind living and dead, to [his wife] Janette and my children and grandchildren; to the child that might have been but was not; to Joe…
On April 13, 2008 Jonathan Wheeler departed his body for the next adventure.
His life was a testament to taking radical responsibility for everything around him. His life’s work are a reminder that we’ll all face tragedy and sacrifices in life, and each of us will have to ensure that they are not in vain.
The rage that comes from our greatest losses and challenges can tear us apart with angst. It can cause us to unconsciously sabotage our projects for our entire life.
Or, we can harness that rage with an agency so radical that we transform the present. And — who knows — maybe in doing so we’re re-writing the past? All setbacks and losses can become energy to be channeled into our projects to prevent future suffering and loss.
Sometimes it may feel like we’re trapped by the tyranny of space, time, or our own bipedal meat vehicles…
But sometimes we may get glimpses at our (limitless?) true potential in the drama of our world… Again, from Wheeler’s journals:
Today I think we are beginning to suspect that man is not a tiny cog that doesn’t really make much difference to the running of the huge machine, but rather that there is a much more intimate tie between man and the universe than we heretofore suspected… The physical world is in some deep sense tied to the human being.
Life is hard and filled with suffering, those are guarantees. But if we refuse to accept them, and insist on forcing those experiences to serve us — like harnessing the power of the atom — they will provide us energies for great feats of achievement.
Suffering brings horrible opportunites and potentialities to our doorstep. We can ignore them, or we can use them to build creations that catalyze meaning and prevent future suffering.
There is always the next battle, plague, injustice, asteroid, cyber attack, or war that threatens countless lives. We can kick back and assume that someone else will solve all of these challenges.
Or, we can challenge ourselves with two simple words:
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece, please reccomend and share it to help others find it. The source for this piece is Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn by Amanda Gefter. The begining of this story is historic fiction.