Robert Woodrow Wilson is an American radio astronomer and physicist who was one of the co-recipients of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation. His discovery advanced the Big Bang model of creation. He was born in Houston, Texas and studied at the Lamar High School in the same city. According to his own admission, he was not a particularly gifted student but shone in mathematics and after graduating from high school, he was barely able to scrape through into Rice University. He was awarded a BA in physics and eventually went on to complete his post graduate studies and doctoral research from the California Institute of Technology. After completing his education, he joined Bell Laboratories and it was during his tenure there that he and his fellow researcher, Arno Allan Penzias, was able to identify Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation, when they were working on something else. He is currently engaged as the Senior Scientist at Harvard-Smithsonian Centre of Astrophysics.
Childhood & Early Life
Robert Woodrow Wilson was born on 10 January 1936, in Houston, Texas, to Ralph W. Wilson and his wife Fannie Willis Wilson. His father, who had a masters’ degree in chemistry, worked in the oil industry. He has two younger sisters.
He studied at Lamar High School in Houston and graduated high school in 1953. He shone in mathematics and science at school but his grades were unremarkable. During his days at the school, he was an enthusiastic musician and was a trombone player in the marching band of the school. He had also taken lessons in piano.
After graduating from high school, he enrolled at Rice University in Houston. He graduated with BA in Physics in 1957. Subsequently, he joined the California Institute of Technology for his post graduate education and obtained his doctorate in astrophysics in 1962.
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In 1963, after completing his education, Robert Woodrow Wilson joined Bell Laboratories, located in Holmdel, New Jersey. While working on a project for a new class of antenna, with Arno Allan Penzias, the pair detected unexplained radiation and upon greater scrutiny it turned out to be the remaining bit of the big bang. It was named Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation.
In 1969, on Arno Allan Penzia’s suggestion, the two of them started doing millimetre wave astronomy by Arno Allan Penzias. The following year, in further collaboration with K. B. Jeffers, they were successful in building a spectral line receiver. It was one of the most significant achievements of his scientific career.
In 1972, it was decided that the proposal to build a new millimetre-wave facility located at Crawford Hill, was to be revived by Bell Laboratories in light of AT&T’s decision to monitor the satellite Comstar. Wilson was appointed as the project director for the exercise and oversaw the building of the millimetre-radio telescope.
In 1976, he became the head of the Bell’s Radio Physics Research Department and continued with the organisation for 18 more years. In 1980, he was made a member of the US Academy of Science.
He also contributed to a variety of scientific journals on topics such as as background-temperature measurements and millimetre-wave measurements of interstellar molecules
His association with Bell Telephone Laboratories ended in 1994 when he decided to take up the appointment of Senior Scientist at Harvard-Smithsonian Centre of Astrophysics located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has been in that position since.
His most important work was the discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation that went on to prove the ‘Big Bang Theory’ in relation to the creation of the universe. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery in 1978.
Awards & Achievements
In 1977, he was awarded the Henry Draper Medal by the United States National Academy of Sciences.
In 1978, Robert Woodrow Wilson shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Arno Allan Penzias. The duo was given the award for their work on Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation.
Personal Life & Legacy
Robert Woodrow Wilson got married to Elizabeth Rhoads Sawin in 1958. The couple has three children: two sons, named Philip and Randal, and a daughter named Suzanne.