Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks at the Enrico Fermi Award Ceremony

December 02, 1968

Chairman Seaborg, Dr. Hornig, distinguished ladies and gentlemen:

Twenty-nine years ago, a scientific paper was published which bore a very simple title: "The Mechanism of Nuclear Fission." That paper became the cornerstone for all the later understanding in this field, and its publication was a step toward unlocking the fantastic secrets of the nuclear age.

Today, we have come here to the historic East Room of the White House to honor the man who, with Niels Bohr, wrote that historic paper--Dr. John A. Wheeler of Princeton University: scientist, teacher, innovator, pioneer of modern physics, man of thought and man of action.

To the average layman, merely to read the list of Dr. Wheeler's achievements is to realize how incredibly complicated this world in which we live has become. Most of us are not so surefooted as you are, Dr. Wheeler, in the complex world and in the difficult vocabulary of the nuclear scientist.

But there is one thing that all of us--laymen and scientists alike--can understand: It is the idea that the human mind must be free to range as far and as freely as it can-unfettered and unconstrained. You are one who has chosen, like Ulysses:

"To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought."

Our hope is to sustain and to support you in that voyage.

Today, we honor a great scientist with the Enrico Fermi Award of the Atomic Energy Commission. In receiving this award, he joins such explorers of the scientific frontier as Dr. John von Neumann, Dr. Eugene Wigner, and that great and that good and that talented public servant, than whom there is no better, Dr. Glenn Seaborg, and Dr. Robert Oppenheimer.

But in honoring him, we honor in addition and also the idea of excellence, and we honor all who make the pursuit of knowledge their vocation.

Dr. Wheeler, it is a very great pleasure to me to welcome you and Mrs. Wheeler-and three other generations of Wheelers-here at the White House today. You do us honor by your visit. And you give your country great satisfaction and assurance.

Dr. Seaborg--this may be the last ceremony that he and I will be in together. It may even be a last appearance unless he comes in as he usually does at the budget. I will let you in on a little secret. I think he is the most difficult man in the government to say "No" to, because he is so pure, so conscientious, and such a great public servant.

Dr. Seaborg, this is an award for Dr. Wheeler, but I want to also give you one before I leave.

DR. SEABORG. Thank you. I can't resist the opportunity to say that perhaps I will take advantage of what seems like almost an invitation.

THE PRESIDENT. We should know that as modest as he is, he doesn't require an invitation.

DR. SEABORG. Mr. President, I would like to read the wording of the Enrico Fermi Award to John A. Wheeler and it says:

This award is for his pioneering contributions to understanding nuclear fission and to developing the technology of plutonium production reactors and his continuing broad contributions to nuclear science. And I might say, ladies and gentlemen, this award is signed Lyndon B. Johnson, the President of the United States and, also, incidentally by the five Atomic Energy Commissioners.

Note: The President spoke at 5:45 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his opening words he referred to Dr. Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Dr. Donald F. Hornig, Special Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Science and Technology.

During his remarks the President referred to Niels Bohr, Danish physicist, who developed the hypothesis of nuclear fission, Dr. John von Neumann, adviser to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, N. Mex., which developed the atomic bomb, and former member of the Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Eugene Paul Wigner, physicist and developer of preliminary nuclear research in the United States, director of research at Clinton Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn., and former member of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project and former Chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Following the presentation of the award, Dr. Wheeler spoke briefly. His remarks are printed in the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents (vol. 4, p. 1657).

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks at the Enrico Fermi Award Ceremony Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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