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I was lucky enough to have met John Wheeler when I was in grad school. He was a wonderful man who radiated joy and curiosity.

My favorite anecdote about him, which was not widely known, involved what used to be called "nut letters." Before the internet, if you were a famous scientist, particularly a famous physicist, you would receive actual letters from people all over the world asking for help with their perpetual motion machines, time travel devices, and similar nutty theories. Having worked on black holes, gravity, general relativity, and the bomb, Wheeler was quite a nut magnet. He was also blessed with a bit of OCD in the way he organized and categorized all his notes (his annotated bibliography for Misner Thorne and Wheeler Gravitation filled many shelves in the library). John didn't just receive nut letters. He received, read, organized, filed, classified, and acted on nut letters. His preferred response to them was "I'm afraid I'm not very knowledgeable in the area of your work but I believe you should contact _____ who is working on similar conjectures and may be a good source of additional insights" at which point both parties in that conversation would be so ecstatic to be talking with someone recommended to them by the great John Wheeler that they'd never bother him again. While in grad school, I happened to read an article in the New York Times on a perpetual motion machine (their weekly Science Times section was fantastic but did occasionally step into pseudo science topics). At the end of the article the main researcher thanked John Wheeler for having introduced him to the theorist who had helped him refine his understanding of the mechanisms at play in his invention, and I couldn't help but smile at the wonderful successes of John Wheeler's nut dating service.

My colleagues and I used to get these "nut letters" occasionally even as unknown grad students. They were quite a treat to read: the human imagination is a marvel, and curiosity knows no bounds. If they'd taken slightly different paths than they had, some probably would have even been with my colleagues reading those letters instead of writing them.

This reminds me of a run-in we had with a 'nut'. She had looked up the lab on campus and walked in asking for the PI. After some back-and-forth, she mentions that she had been emailing with our PI for a while concerning the government implanted mind-reading device in her brother's brain (I was in a neuro-lab at the time). Without missing a beat, one of the other grad students starts questioning her about the device: when is it active, what is the range, power requirements, etc. She, as a layperson, really has no idea. After some probing about her brother's condition (likely her own condition, but who knows) we get her to accept that the power output of the device would be very tiny and that the government's receivers can't be more than a few meters away at any time. She seemed very satisfied with this conclusion. I think there were some mentions of Faraday cages too that she liked. At the end she mentions that her brother is a schizophrenic but that the medications don't work. Another grad student then took over and started to talk with her about how schizophrenia was thought to behave and the importance of proper medical supervision, but this occurred in another room. After some more time, the 'nut' came back to thank us for talking with her and taking her concerns seriously. She seemed very relieved at the conclusions and was smiling. We never saw her again and I don't think anyone mentioned it to the PI either.

I wonder if any of these nut letters have ever yielded useful scientific discoveries or advances. I figure one or two must have, even if only by accident, or indirectly.

Maybe not the "nut" letters, which are frequently very nutty, but random letters can.

In this episode of Tested Joe DeRisi describes how a random letter from a snake owner led to some interesting published results in molecular biology.


Wow, that's one of the best guests I've heard on that podcast (and in general!). I'm a few months behind, so I hadn't heard this one yet, so thanks.

The title isn't wrong, either, this one is terrifying (so far).

At the fantastic Museum of Jurassic Technology, in Los Angeles, there is a wonderful display of actual letters like this sent to the Mount Wilson Observatory. They are beautiful for their earnest curiosity. Some of these letters are online here: http://www.mjt.org/exhibits/letters/letters.html

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