The world recently lost one of its most celebrated thinkers. Theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler was with us until April 13, when at age 96 he took his last breath and no doubt embraced whatever is next in a style only a theoretical physicist, a mystic, or someone who thinks outside the box could. I wish he could send a report on his final observations, as we have only our imaginations and sparse evidence to formulate even an educated guess. John Wheeler is gone, but likely will not be forgotten anytime soon.
I don't mean to be flippant about reality or transformative passage, either one. Those who read E-Bits know these two are favorite topics for discussion. But I mention John Wheeler for a reason, and that reason is his inspiring legacy. Anyone unfamiliar with John Wheeler's name will surely know the terms he coined. The most recognizable one is black hole. Science fiction aficionados, astronomers, and aspiring future astronauts spend endless hours contemplating the possibility of traveling to the furthest outposts in space via, worm holes. Here's a short video clip on black holes from the Chandra X-Ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.
John Wheeler had many phases to his career. He was a professor of physics at Princeton, collaborated with Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr, worked on general relativity, particle physics, nuclear fission, and unified field theory, and was a member of the team of physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project and Project Matterhorn. He won the coveted Enrico Fermi Award and was doctoral advisor to 1965 Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. Wheeler constantly and enthusiastically embraced transitional phases in his work, evidenced by new beginnings in the last third of his life when he accepted a post as professor emeritus at the University of Texas in Austin, where he established the Center for Theoretical Physics. After a decade in Texas, he returned to Princeton for his last 20 years. He was no fool, but I heard him say with my own ears, "I am willing to go anywhere, do anything, talk to anybody, and make a fool of myself to answer this question: how is the world put together?" There was a man with a fire in his belly.
So what does all this have to do with The Digital Journalist's raison d'être, visual journalism? Everything, I think. But I'll get to that shortly. Take a look at this video collection of quotes from one of Professor Wheeler's more thoughtful and thought-provoking colleagues. We don't know who put this together, but the quotes are set to Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 5 in G Major. Click to take a journey through the thoughts of Albert Einstein.
Generally speaking, serious scientists, artists and journalists have one fundamental thing in common—they search passionately and relentlessly for the truth, whatever it may be and whatever the consequences. Scientists are searching for truth outside of themselves while artists attempt to make manifest their inner search for truth. Journalists, on the other hand, are recording and dissecting the search itself, trying to determine what is real, what is true, and what the sides of the issues are. The more dedicated searchers and researchers, like John Wheeler, are willing to go through a lot to get at the truth of whatever is the matter. This is why we have scientists willing to go to extremes to discover the natural laws of the universe, artists who are willing to give up security and sometimes more to express themselves, and journalists who risk their lives to report news from war zones or to uncover the awful truth wherever it is found. Truth may be hard to determine and conclusions may be arguable, but all evidence supports the fact that the search for it lights a fire in the belly, and may define the very essence of what it is to be human. Here is a startling depiction of a few contemporary realities, put together by a visual artist in a quantitative and aesthetically fascinating way. Click on the image and scroll through artist Chris Jordan's site to find out what he reveals in this and other amazing creations.
Now, a little more on how the search for scientific truth relates to the search for truth in art and journalism. I hope you've read about Tim Robbins' keynote address at the National Association of Broadcasters' 2008 convention in Las Vegas. If you haven't, you'll find it in our "NAB 2008 Report." It seems the mainstream media has drifted near some sort of supermassive media black hole, a place from which it is becoming increasingly difficult for truth to escape, much less circulate. Actor/activist Robbins' keynote address to an estimated 15,000 broadcasters was humorous, but it packed an excoriating punch to the heart of the elephant sitting in the same room.
Robbins admonished the press for closing its eyes to corruption, for over-reporting schlock and celebrity gossip, and for under-reporting, even ignoring essential news. He said we are at an abyss, reeling from betrayal, and turning toward a cynicism that broadcasters have helped create but still have the power to reverse. He encouraged them to imagine a world of broadcasting that informs rather than confuses, inspires rather than divides, and promotes strength and unity rather than hatred and distrust. With what sounded to me like a wink, he said there could be money to be made in appealing to our better selves, adding a bit dryly and with a hint of sarcasm, "wouldn't that be great?" By the end of the speech those following this story were recalling Howard Beale's Mad as Hell speech in the 1976 film "Network," a fantasy that has somehow inched dangerously close to reality. Watch it again here.
The fictional journalist Howard Beale, the real but departed scientist John Wheeler, and the contemporary actor Tim Robbins all have something in common—a willingness to go anywhere, do anything, talk to anybody, and make fools of themselves in order to find an answer to pressing problems. I'm glad Howard Beale doesn't really exist but that the film and its message are imminently viewable. It is sad to say goodbye to John Wheeler, his beautiful mind, and his search for scientific truth, but 96 is a longer life than most, so we were lucky to have him as long as we did.
Finally, I know I'm not alone in appreciating Tim Robbins' inspirational speech to broadcasters and by proxy the rest of the media, who in fact and literally may hold the fate of the world in the palm of their collective hand. There is a lot to be done, so I'm hoping for fire in a lot of bellies. I haven't mentioned cyberspace but I sense a mass migration going on. More on that later.