Field of Science

Dear New York Times

You disappoint me

Dear Sir,
I was rather shocked to notice that in your "Notable Deaths of 2008" slide show that included 44 famous people from the arts, medicine, literature, television, politics, cinema, music and journalism, the name of the legendary physicist John Archibald Wheeler was missing. Dr. Wheeler who worked on the Manhattan Project died on April 13, 2008 and was one of the century's greatest scientists and a national treasure. During his long and remarkably productive life in which he worked with Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, Dr. Wheeler played a key role in shaping American science, education and government policy. While it was heartening to see an obituary of him in the New York Times, I was quite disconcerted to see no mention of him in the Notable Deaths of 2008 Multimedia slide show list. While I understand that such an enumeration cannot be all-inclusive, Dr. Wheeler's stature as an American scientific icon should ensure the inclusion of his name in any short list of famous American people who died in 2008. I sincerely and strongly hope that this omission would be corrected.
Thanking you,
Ashutosh S. Jogalekar
Atlanta, GA

Wheeler worked on the atomic and hydrogen bombs, served as an advisor to high-profile Presidential scientific committees, mentored brilliant scientists and leaders like Richard Feynman and Kip Thorne, resurrected and pioneered rather neglected relativity research in the 60s, coined the word "black hole", rendered invaluable teaching service at Princeton and Austin and propelled American physics into the first rank. If a list of notable American deaths of 2008 does not include his name, I don't know whose name it should.

When it comes to public exposition of achievement, it seems that popular media sources always give science short shrift in preference to other areas like art and cinema. The rift between the two cultures keeps growing. Science was undoubtedly one of the core foundations of The American Twentieth Century. Now it threatens to slip away from beneath the twenty-first. The country neglects it to its own perilous detriment. John Wheeler would have been unhappy.


  1. Relax Ashutosh, it's just the arrogance of humanist intellectuals, which is not likely to change as long as they're doing the writing.

    When David Foster Wallace (whom we both admired) committed suicide, the Times had an article describing him as the greatest mind of his generation. Really? Not the greatest literary mind (which he probably was), but the greatest mind. This leaves out such people as Wiles, Witten, and on and on.

    Fortunately, plebians such as ourselves now have a forum on which we can write.

    I don't think the Times is long for this world. It gets thinner and thinner each week. Look at any Sunday book review, or magazine. Probably their arrogance doesn't have anything to do with it.

    Sad to see them depart, even so. It was the first thing my father and mother found they had in common when they met years and years ago.


  2. Retread, the NYT is indeed getting thinner, as are most popular news sources. I was not aware of the rather grandiose words about David Foster Wallace; I am an admirer myself, but to pit him as the greatest mind of his generation is simply absurd.I am on the verge of almost giving up reading about politics and other such matters; the purity and relative permanence of science and bare intellectual ideas appeals much more.

    The problem that I see is that this country was built on science and inquisitive exploration. Unfortunately the effects of casual neglect of science and scientists won't be apparent right away. But when it comes, the tide will leave ignorance and diminished capability in its wake, and by then it will be too late to resurrect this enterprise which took decades of cultivation to foster.

    No offense, but does a former lawyer working for McDonald's really know enough about the science of drug discovery to become CEO of the world's largest pharmaceutical company?

  3. Well, I'm watching the story of Percy Julian on television. So maybe we haven't entirely abandoned respect for scientific progress. Granted it's couched in the context of African American History Month and is on PBS.

    I sense that we scientists need to stop being reliant on others for PR.

  4. I have seen that; it's a great story and well-presented. PBS and NPR are about the only two sources that still seem to respect science-related topics. About the PR, I agree; we best make our own case


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