John Wheeler creates the name, blackhole

“Gravitationally completely collapsed object”

1967, John Archibald Wheeler, Conference on Pulsars, Wheeler remembers back. This account comes from his book, Geons, Black Holes, and Quantum Foam, with Kenneth William Ford 2000, pp 296-297.

“In my talk, I argued that we should consider the possibility that at the centre of a pulsar there is a gravitationally completely collapsed object. I remarked that one could not keep saying “gravitationally completely collapsed object” over and over. One needed a shorter descriptive phrase. “How about the Black hole?” asked someone in the audience. I had been searching for just the right term for months, mulling it over in bed, in a bath tub, in my car, wherever I had quiet moments. Suddenly this name seemed exactly right.

“When I gave a more formal Sigma Xi Beta Kappa lecture in the West Ballroom of the New York Hilton a few weeks later, on December 29, 1967, I used the term and then included it in the written version of the lecture published in the spring of 1968. (As it turned out, a pulsar is powered by “merely” a neutron star, not a black hole) “I decided to be casual about the term “black hole” dropping it into the lecture and the written version as if it were an old familiar friend. Would it catch on?

“Indeed it did. By now every school child has heard the term.

“Richard Feynman, when he saw the term, chided me. In his mind, it was suggestive. He accused me of being naughty. In fact, the name black hole has a lineage. That is why it caught my fancy.

“Since at least the 1890s, the term “black body” has been used in Physics to describe an idealized body that absorbs all radiation that falls upon it, and emits radiation at the maximum rate possible for a given temperature. The blackbody is a perfect absorber and as perfect an emitter as it is possible to be. A black hole has one of these characteristics, but not the other. It absorbs everything that falls upon it. It emits nothing. Thus black hole seems the ideal name for this entity. The geometry of space-time near a black hole, funneling into ever greater curvature, adds to the appropriate of the name”“I decided to be casual about the term “black hole” dropping it into the lecture and the written version as if it were an old familiar friend. Would it catch on? Indeed it did. By now every school child has heard the term. Richard Feynman, when he saw the term, chided me. In his mind, it was suggestive. He accused me of being naughty. In fact, the name black hole has a lineage. That is why it caught my fancy. Since at least the 1890s, the term “black body” has been used in Physics to describe an idealized body that absorbs all radiation that falls upon it, and emits radiation at the maximum rate possible for a given temperature. The blackbody is a perfect absorber and as perfect an emitter as it is possible to be. A black hole has one of these characteristics, but not the other. It absorbs everything that falls upon it. It emits nothing. Thus black hole  seems the ideal name for this entity.

“The geometry of space-time near a black hole, funneling into ever greater curvature, adds to the appropriateness of the name.”

Kenneth William Ford: ”Since black hole does not reveal its information to the outside world, Wheeler fancied to coin the phrase “ A black hole has no hair” Though the Nobel, which many thought he deserved, eluded Wheeler, he won numerous awards for his work, including the US Atomic Energy Commission’s Enrico Fermi Award in 1968. His passion for teaching was amazing. His best quote is  “There are students in the University to teach the Professors”  

“Looking back over his own career, Wheeler divided it into three parts. Until the 1950s, a phase he called ‘Everything Is Particles,’ he was looking for ways to build all basic entities, such as neutrons and protons, out of the lightest, most fundamental particles.

“The second part, which he termed ‘Everything Is Fields,’ was when he viewed the world as one made out of fields in which particles were mere manifestations of electrical, magnetic and gravitational fields and space-time itself.

“More recently, in a period he viewed as ‘Everything Is Information,’ he focused on the idea that logic and information is the bedrock of physical theory.”

John Archibald Wheeler: “Throughout ‘my long career of teaching and research and public service it has been interaction with young minds that has been my greatest stimulus and my greatest reward. That reward comes back again with compound interest as I hear now from so many former students who let me know what they are up to and how their early wrestling with deep questions in Physics helped to shape their lives. Not just graduate students. Even more numerous have been the scores of undergraduates who brought their enthusiasm and fresh perspective to the questions. I put to them and who helped me to see more clearly. But I am still too busy, too busy searching, to spend much time looking back.

As Niels Bohr’s friend Piet Hein puts it in another of his grooks (Danish: Gruk):
“I’d like to know what this whole show is all about before it’s out.”
It would look more like this:

I’d like to know
what this whole show
is all about
Before it’s out. 

One might say the ‘grook’ was invented, popularized and most utilized by Piet Hein. A grook is a little ditty that might be consider an informal haiku.

\Kenneth William Ford: “Indeed, the real show man Archibald Wheeler quietly gone from this world to unknown territory – a black hole, who knows! But the show is going on for we to search absolute truth.”