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Kenneth G. Wilson

June 21, 2013

Wilson is a common English surname. It's a patronymic form, meaning the "son of Will," and Will was historically a very common English name. In that sense, it's the same as the Russian "-ovich," and the Hebrew "bar-." Wilson is the seventh most common surname in the United Kingdom, and it's the eighth most common surname in the United States.

Although the name, Wilson, is common, physics has been graced by many uncommon physicists having the name Wilson. Here are a few of the most prominent, arranged chronologically by birth date.

• Charles Thomson Rees Wilson (1869-1959) received the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics for the invention of the cloud chamber at Cambridge University. One of his academic mentors was J. J. Thomson, winner of the 1906 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the electron.

• William Wilson (1887-1948) worked with Rutherford on radioactivity, and he joined Bell Labs in 1915 to work on radiotelephone systems. He was awarded the IEEE Medal of Honor in 1943 for his radiotelephone research.

• Alan Herries Wilson (1906-1995) was a mathematical physicist who studied quantum mechanics under R.H. Fowler and Werner Heisenberg. In physics, he is best known for formulating the energy band theory of electrical conductance. Elsewhere, he is known as chairman of the pharmaceutical company, Glaxo, from 1963 until retirement in 1973. Physicists are very capable managers, as many government and industrial organizations have found.

• Olin Chaddock Wilson (1909-1994) was an American astronomer who worked on stellar spectroscopy. He discovered stellar activity cycles, the stellar equivalent of our Sun's sunspot cycle.

• Robert Rathbun Wilson (1914-2000) was director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) from 1967–1978. During World War II, he was a group leader for the Manhattan Project.

• Richard Wilson (1926-). Richard Wilson is an emeritus professor of physics at Harvard University. He has authored nearly a thousand scientific papers and articles in particle physics and nuclear risk assessment.

• Robert Wilson (1927-2002) was an astronomer who was leader of the first all sky survey in the ultraviolet by the European Space Research Organization's TD-1A astronomy satellite in 1972. He was the principal proponent of the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) satellite, a collaboration between NASA, ESA and the UK.

• Herbert R. Wilson (1929-2008) worked under the direction of John Randall at King's College London, on the structure of DNA.

• Robert Woodrow Wilson (1936-) Shared the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery, with Arno Allan Penzias, of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

• Kenneth Geddes Wilson (June 8, 1936 - June 15, 2013) was the recipient of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physics. Read more about Kenneth Wilson, about whom this article is written, below.

Kenneth Wilson and Hans Bethe

Kenneth Wilson (left) with fellow Nobel Laureate, Hans Bethe, and Cornell University colleagues celebrating his award of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physics, October 1982.

(Photograph from the Cornell University Carl A. Kroch Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, used with permission.)

• Raymond N. Wilson developed the concept of active optics, which is the operating principle of today's large diameter telescopes and segmented-mirror telescopes.

American theoretical physicist, Kenneth Geddes Wilson, who died last Saturday, June 15, 2013, was the sole recipient of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physics.[1-4] Wilson, who was a resident of Gray, Maine, died from complications of lymphoma in Saco, Maine, at age 77.[3] His Nobel Prize was given "for his theory for critical phenomena in connection with phase transitions."[5] His particular achievement was to apply the concept of the renormalization group to phase transitions, which explained also the confinement of quarks inside hadrons.

Kenneth Geddes Wilson was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, on June 8, 1936, to Harvard University chemist, Edgar Bright Wilson, and Emily Buckingham Wilson, who had done graduate work in physics before her marriage.[1,3] His father bought him books on physics and mathematics, and he skipped several grades in school. Wilson said that high school was "dull," and he would pass the time waiting for his school bus by doing cube roots.[3]

Attending Harvard as an undergraduate, he excelled at both sports and mathematics. He scored twice among the top five in the annual Putnam mathematics competition, in 1954 and 1956.[1,3] As a Junior Fellow, he proved a mathematical conjecture proposed by Freeman Dyson.[1] Graduating from Harvard in 1956, Wilson decided to pursue physics, rather than mathematics, deciding that "It was connected to the real world."[3] He was awarded his Ph.D. from Caltech in 1961, having studied under Physics Nobelist, Murray Gell-Mann.[2-3]

After getting his Ph.D., Wilson went directly to CERN, but two years later he was recruited by the Cornell University physics department. [3] Interestingly, one of the inducements for going to Cornell, as he stated in his Nobel Foundation biography, was its folk dancing group. Wilson had taken up folk dancing as a hobby in graduate school.[3] Although it's typically a "publish or perish" world in academia, he received tenure shortly thereafter, although he had hardly published. His chosen specialty, quantum field theory, did not lead to quick publications.[1-2] Prominent among his doctoral students at Cornell were Roman Jackiw, and Paul Ginsparg, whom I wrote about in a previous article (ArXiv at Twenty, August 24, 2011).

Wilson's Nobel Prize research involved phase transitions. Simple such transitions as boiling are known to everyone, but the physics at the transition point, called the critical point, are complicated.[4] Wilson cracked the critical point problem by looking at fluctuations over a wide range of length scales, proving that these transitions are a phenomenon that involves the substance as a whole, not just the local molecular environment. This was shown to be a universal feature of phase transitions.[4] Wilson showed that this complex problem could be broken into smaller calculations using renormalization group theory.[4]

In another leap of physics, Wilson decided that this approach would work beyond molecules and would apply, also, to the elementary particles he had studied as a graduate student. He developed a theory of quantum chromodynamics on a space-time lattice, and this allowed calculation of the strong forces that bind quarks into hadrons.[1-2] Such calculations require significant computing, so Wilson championed the formation of the NSF supercomputer centers, one of which was placed at Cornell.[1-2] Wilson was named the first director of the Cornell supercomputer center in 1985.

Figure caption

Life among the bits.

Note the juxtaposition of the rotary dial telephone and the advanced computing equipment.

(Photograph from the Cornell University Carl A. Kroch Library, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, used with permission.)

Paul Ginsparg, a professor of physics and information science at Cornell and one of Wilson's doctoral students, says that Wilson "...was decades ahead of his time with respect to computing and networks..."[2] Ginsparg said that Wilson would write code for calculating on parallel arrays of processors to overcome the limitations of slow, individal processors. He also saw the importance of computer networking. Ginsparg, as quoted in Physics World, says, "As a graduate student in the late 1970s, I had a unique three-decade window into the future."[4]

In 1988, Wilson became a faculty member at Ohio State University, where he was actively involved in improving education. While at Ohio State, he helped found the Physics Education Research Group.[1,2] He was co-principal investigator of an NSF educational reform project called "Project Discovery." This was an attempt at development of inquiry-based learning of physics in schools.[4]

In 1994, Wilson co-authored a book with Bennett Daviss, entitled, "Redesigning Education."[6] Said Wilson,
"The current crisis in education is costing us the American Dream... We must make a quantum change in our concept of education itself if our society and culture are to survive intact in the new century."[1]
Along with the Nobel Prize in Physics, Wilson was awarded the 1980 Wolf Prize in Physics, and he received an honorary doctorate of science from his undergraduate alma mater, Harvard, in 1981.[1,2] He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in 1975; and the American Philosophical Society, in 1984.[4] Physics Nobelist, Steven Weinberg, had this praise for Wilson,
"Ken Wilson was one of a very small number of physicists who changed the way we all think, not just about specific phenomena, but about a vast range of different phenomena."[1-2]
Aside from his love of folk dancing, Wilson skied, and he was an avid hiker. He had an informal demeanor, and he was comfortable in the company of students.[1] Wilson's survivors include his wife, Alison Brown, and his brother, David Wilson, who is a professor in Cornell's Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics.[1-3]

Figure caption

Wilson was once asked in an interview how he got interested in computing.

He replied that it was his "utter astonishment at the capabilities of the Hewlett-Packard pocket calculator... I buy this thing and I can't take my eyes off it, and I have to figure out something that I can actually do that would somehow enable me to have fun with this calculator."[3]

(Photo of author's HP-33C Programmable Calculator)


  1. Syl Kacapyr, "Pioneering physicist and Nobel Laureate Kenneth Wilson dies," Cornell University Press Release, June 17, 2013.
  2. Physics Nobel laureate Kenneth Wilson dies, Cornell University News, June, 18, 2013.
  3. Martin Weil, "Kenneth Wilson, Nobel winner who explained nature's sudden shifts, dies in Maine at 77," Bangor Daily News, June 19, 2013.
  4. Michael Banks, "Physicist Kenneth Wilson dies at 77," Physics World, June 18, 2013.
  5. The Nobel Prize in Physics 1982 - Kenneth G. Wilson, Nobel Prize Web Site.
  6. Kenneth G. Wilson and Bennett Daviss, "Redesigning Education," Teachers College Press (August 1, 1996), 254 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0807735855 (via Amazon).

Permanent Link to this article

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