Pioneering physicist and Nobel Laureate Kenneth Wilson dies
Physics visionary Kenneth G. Wilson, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physics, died at the age of 77 on Saturday, June 15, 2013, in Maine of complications following a lymphoma.
“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,” said Steven Weinberg, a fellow physics Nobel Laureate.
The Nobel Prize recognized Wilson’s groundbreaking work on phase transitions, such as the transformation of a substance from the liquid to the gaseous state. Wilson was led to this breakthrough from his struggles with mysteries in elementary particle physics and quantum field theory, topics that would appear to have no relationship to phenomena in liquids or gases. The tools Wilson brought to bear in his research were diverse, ranging from abstract mathematics to innovative supercomputing.
Wilson was born on June 8, 1936, in Waltham, Mass., into an atmosphere of scientific curiosity: his father was the noted Harvard chemist E. Bright Wilson. The son’s exceptional talents became apparent as a Harvard undergraduate by his placing in the top five in the 1954 and 1956 nationwide Putnam Mathematical Competitions. He earned his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology in 1961, studying under Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann. Subsequently, as a Junior Fellow at Harvard, while waiting for output from an MIT computer, he proved a mathematical conjecture proposed by Freeman Dyson.
In 1963 Wilson joined the Cornell University physics department, and was soon given tenure even though he had hardly published. As he later said in his Nobel autobiography, “my very strong desire to work in quantum field theory did not seem likely to lead to quick publications; but I had already found out that I seemed to be able to get jobs even if I didn’t publish anything so I did not worry about publish or perish.”
Wilson’s Nobel Prize-winning research stemmed from seminal 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. In the 1970s, this inspired Wilson to formulate a mathematical scheme called the renormalization group, for which he received the Nobel Prize.
Following this work on phase transitions, Wilson turned again to quantum field theory and quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the newly proposed theory of quarks and gluons from which protons, neutrons and other hadrons are built. 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 into hadrons. This lattice theory has in the last decade shown that QCD does give a detailed, quantitative account of experimental data on the structure and interactions of hadrons.
Lattice QCD was one of the major problems scientists were grappling with in the development of supercomputers in the 1980s, making Wilson an important pioneer in the field of supercomputing. Wilson was instrumental in the National Science Foundation’s establishment of five national supercomputer centers, one of them at Cornell.
Even before receiving the Nobel Prize, Wilson was widely recognized for his scientific accomplishments. He received honors that included Israel’s Wolf Prize in Physics in 1980 and an honorary doctorate of science from Harvard in 1981.
In 1987 Wilson left Cornell for Ohio State University, where he helped found the Physics Education Research Group. He also served as co-director of Learning by Redesign, an organization exploring innovative ideas in education. Much of his research at Ohio State until his retirement in 2008 focused on physics education and improving the teaching of science.
In 1994 Wilson published “Redesigning Education” with Bennett Davis as a call to arms, saying that “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.”
Throughout his life Wilson loved the outdoors and enjoyed strenuous physical exertion. At Harvard he was the Ivy League one-mile champion; in his Nobel autobiography he recalled a traverse of the high peaks in the Mont Blanc massif. He skied and hiked avidly and was an enthusiastic folk dancer. He was averse to formality, preferring to sleep on the beach in the company of students to an elegant dinner with fellow lecturers.
Wilson is survived by his wife Alison A. Brown; his brother David Wilson, a professor of molecular biology at Cornell; his sister Nina Cornell; half-sister Anne Goldizen; half-brothers Steven and Paul Wilson; and his step-mother Thérèse Wilson.