Kenneth G. Wilson Biography

Kenneth Geddes Wilson was an American theoretical physicist and a pioneer in leveraging computers for studying particle physics. This biography profiles his childhood, life, research work, achievements, career and timeline.

Kenneth G. Wilson
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Kenneth G. Wilson
Quick Facts

Birthday: June 8, 1936

Nationality: American

Famous: Physicists American Men

Died At Age: 77

Sun Sign: Gemini

Also Known As: Kenneth Wilson

Born in: Waltham, Massachusetts

Famous as: Physicist


father: Edgar Bright Wilson

Died on: June 15, 2013

place of death: Saco, Maine, U.S.

U.S. State: Massachusetts

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education: 1961 - California Institute of Technology, Harvard University

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Kenneth Geddes Wilson was an American theoretical physicist and a pioneer in leveraging computers for studying particle physics. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1982 for his work on phase transitions, such as the transformation of a substance from the liquid to the gaseous state, like melting ice and emerging magnetism. It was embodied in his fundamental work on the renormalization group. Wilson was led to this breakthrough from his struggles with mysteries in elementary particle physics and quantum field theory. The tools Wilson brought to bear in his research were diverse, ranging from abstract mathematics to supercomputing. Wilson became a pioneer in the field of supercomputing, and was instrumental in the National Science Foundation’s establishment of five national scientific supercomputing centers, one of them at Cornell University.
Childhood & Early Life
Wilson was born in 1936 in Waltham, Massachusetts. His father, E. Bright Wilson Jr. was on the faculty in the Chemistry Department at Harvard University. His mother Emily Buckingham Wilson had done one year of graduate work in physics before her marriage.
His maternal grandfather was a professor of mechanical engineering at the ‘Massachusetts Institute of Technology’ while his paternal grandfather was a lawyer, and one time Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.
He completed his schooling in Wellesley, Woods Hole, Massachusetts (second, third/fourth grades in two years), Shady Hill School in Cambridge (from fifth to eighth grade), ninth grade at the Magdalen College School in Oxford, England, and tenth and twelfth grades (skipping the eleventh) at the George School in eastern Pennsylvania.
Before the year in England, he learned the basic principle of calculus from the book ‘Mathematics and Imagination’ by Kasner and Newman, and went on to work through a calculus text.
Around this time he decided to become a physicist. In 1952 he entered Harvard. He majored in mathematics, but studied physics. During his Harvard stint he participated in the ‘Putnam Mathematics competition’.
His pursued his graduate studies at the ‘California Institute of Technology’. At Caltech he befriended Jon Mathews, a junior faculty member who taught Wilson how to use the computer.
He spent two years in the Kellogg Laboratory of nuclear physics, gaining experimental experience while taking theory courses.
He then worked on a thesis for Murray Gell-Mann who himself was a Nobel Prize Winner Physicist.
Wilson had spent a summer at the ‘General Atomic Company’ in San Diego working with Marshall Rosenbluth in plasma physics.
After his third year he went off to Harvard to be a Junior Fellow. During the first year of the fellowship he went back to California Institute of Tech. for a few months to finish his thesis.
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In 1962, Wilson joined CERN for a year, first for his Junior Fellowship and then as a ‘Ford Foundation Fellow’.
In September of 1963, he came to ‘Cornell University’ as an Assistant Professor. He was then promoted as an Associate Professor in 1965 and in 1971 he became a Full Professor. In 1974, he became ‘the James A. Weeks’ Professor at the University. He remained at Cornell ever since.
During 1969 - 70 he worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center,
In 1972 he worked at the ‘Institute for Advanced Study’ in Princeton, then in 1976 at the ‘California Institute of Technology’ as a ‘Fairchild Scholar’, and in 1979 - 80 at the ‘IBM Zürich Laboratory’.
Together with Douglas Von Houweling, then ‘Director of Academic Computing’ and Geoffrey Chester of the Physics Department, Wilson initiated a computing support project based on a ‘Floating Point Systems Array Processor’.
Wilson researched extensively on elementary particle theory. In 1964 he presented ‘a short distance expansion for operator products’ in a paper. He discussed ‘how the renormalization group might apply to strong interactions’ in a paper in 1969.
He researched to unlock the potential of the renormalization group approach in other areas of classical and modern physics. He continued to work on statistical mechanics, specifically, the ‘Monte Carlo Renormalization Group’, applied to the ‘three dimensional Ising model’.
In 1987 Wilson left Cornell for Ohio State University, where he helped found the ‘Physics Education Research Group’. In Ohio, he focused on physics and science education.
Major Works
His work in physics involved formulation of a comprehensive theory of scaling: how fundamental properties and forces of a system vary depending on the scale over which they are measured.
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Wilson’s Nobel Prize-winning research stemmed from work on phase transitions by Michael Fisher and Benjamin Widom at Cornell and Leo Kadanoff at the ‘University of Illinois’. Their findings motivated Wilson to ask whether his own work on quantum fields would be amenable to a similar approach, for all of these phenomena involve huge numbers of variables describing a wide range of length scales.
Following this work on phase transitions, Wilson turned again to quantum field theory and quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the newly proposed theory that protons, neutrons and other subatomic particles are composed of smaller particles called quarks. He created a version of QCD on a space-time lattice that made it possible for the first time to analyze the very strong forces that bind quarks together.
Awards & Achievements
In 1975, he was elected to the ‘National Academy of Sciences’ and ‘the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’.
In 1980 he was awarded Israel’s ‘Wolf Prize’ in Physics and an ‘honorary Doctorate of Science’ from Harvard University in 1981.
In 1984, he was elected to ‘the American Philosophical Society’.
Wilson became the Director of ‘the Center for Theory and Simulation in Science and Engineering’ (Cornell Theory Center) - one of five national supercomputer centers created by the ‘National Science Foundation’ in 1985.
In 1988, he became the ‘Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor’ at The Ohio State University's Department of Physics.
He was engaged in educational reform as a ‘Co-Principal Investigator’ on Ohio's ‘Project Discovery’, one of the National Science Foundation's Statewide Systemic Initiatives.
His other awards include the ‘A.C. Eringen Medal’, the ‘Franklin Medal’, the ‘Boltzmann Medal’, and the ‘Dannie Heinemann Prize’.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1975 he met Alison Brown who was working for Cornell Computer Services. They got married in 1982.
He died at Saco, Maine, U.S. on June 15 from lymphoma complications. He was 77.
He found high school boring and dull.
He loved to play oboe and he was a good athlete. He had represented Harvard for marathons.
Folk dance was Wilson’s hobby. Cornell University had a reputed folk dancing group. This was one of the reasons behind him accepting Cornell University’s offer of professorship.

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