The recent death of the distinguished American physicist John Wheeler raised an intriguing language question. Most of his obituaries claimed he invented the term black hole for the astronomical phenomenon; in most cases this was the headline or lead-in to the text.
For example, the New Scientist wrote about him, “With his flair for poetry, Wheeler coined the terms ‘black hole’ and ‘wormhole’, words that captured the imaginations of physicists and the public alike.” The Daily Princetonian, at his old university of Princeton, said he was “a legendary physicist who coined the phrase ‘black hole’ and who left an indelible mark on the physics department in his four decades as a University professor”. The Guardian’s piece noted, “in a talk at the Goddard Institute, New York, in 1967, [he] spontaneously came up with the name ‘black hole’ to describe it.” The Oxford English Dictionary would seem to concur, as its first citation is from a 1968 article by John Wheeler in American Scientist.
But did he really invent it? Other obituaries said not.
The Scientific American noted: “Wheeler recalls discussing such ‘completely collapsed gravitational objects’ at a conference in 1967, when someone in the audience casually dropped the phrase ‘black hole.’ Wheeler immediately adopted the phrase for its brevity and ‘advertising value,’ and it caught on.” The Daily Telegraph obituary differed only in one detail: “A student at the conference called out ‘black hole’ as a suggestion, and Dr Wheeler made the name stick.” This, not incidentally, is under a subhead that says that he coined the term.
John Wheeler himself never claimed that he invented black hole. Stephen Hall wrote in the New York Times in October 1992 that “The term, Dr. Wheeler said in an interview, was actually suggested by someone else — he can’t remember who — during a 1967 meeting at the [Goddard] Institute for Space Studies in New York and was intended as a substitute for ‘gravitationally completely collapsed star.’ ‘After you get around to saying that about 10 times,’ Dr. Wheeler recalled, ‘you look desperately for something better.’”
So he didn’t coin it — he popularised it. But the chances are high that he will go down in history as its creator. It raises an intriguing question about the way in which a tale that’s denied by its central figure can still be widely believed.
There’s some doubt even that the unnamed person at the meeting invented it on the spot. Fred Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, this week found an earlier example, in a report by Ann Ewing in the issue of the Science News Letter of 18 January 1964 about a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS): “According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, as mass is added to a degenerate star a sudden collapse will take place and the intense gravitational field of the star will close in on itself. Such a star then forms a ‘black hole’ in the universe.”
Whoever it was Ann Ewing heard use the term at the 1964 meeting might have been the one who suggested it to John Wheeler at the 1967 one. Or it may have been someone else who heard it or who had read the report. Or the term might have been generally known during those three years in the tiny groups that studied the matter (one of Wheeler’s graduate students says it was). Or it could be a case of separate and unconnected inventions. The last two of these are certainly possible because black hole was already in the language — it was at one time the official name for the lock-up or detention cell in a barracks. The infamous appearance of the term in British history, the only reason the term in that sense is still remembered, is the incident in 1756 known as the Black Hole of Calcutta.
Does it matter who invented black hole as a snappy alternative to the phrase gravitationally completely collapsed star? If we’re happy to ascribe legends to our great men, probably not. If we prefer truth to fiction, then it’s worth putting the record straight.