Kenneth Geddes Wilson

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Kenneth Geddes Wilson

Kenneth Geddes Wilson (born 1936) won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1982 for his work applying renormalization group analysis to previously unsolved problem in theoretical physics concerning critical points and phase transitions. Affiliated with Cornell University for a number of years, Wilson was also involved with getting government support for supercomputers on campuses. He later was a physics professor at Ohio State University, again doing research in physics and becoming involved in education reform.

Wilson was born on June 8, 1936, in Waltham, Massachusetts. He was the first of six children born to Edgar Bright Wilson, Jr., and his wife Emily Fisher (nee Buckingham). Wilson was born into an academic family. His father was a professor of chemistry at Harvard University and an expert on microwave spectroscopy. His maternal grandfather had taught mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wilson's mother had done some graduate work in physics. All five of his siblings also became either academics or scientists.

Wilson himself was an exceptional student from an early age. His grandfather taught him how to do math in his head, and while waiting for the bus a young Wilson would do cube roots. He was given an education at private schools in his home state, in cities such as Wellesley and Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While still a teenager, Wilson also attended Magdalen College School at Oxford University in Oxford, England, for a year.

Entered Harvard University

When Wilson graduated in 1952 from The George School (a Quaker school) in Pennsylvania, he was only 16 years old. He then entered Harvard University, where he studied mathematics and physics. Wilson was not, however, just an academic. He was also a member of the track team, where he won a varsity letter as a mile runner. He graduated from Harvard with his B.A. in physics in 1956.

After graduating from Harvard, Wilson entered graduate school at the California Institute of Technology. There he studied physics, primarily quantum field theory with Murray Gell-Mann as his advisor. Wilson's thesis was entitled An Investigation of the Low Equation and the Chew-Mandelshtam Equations. It concerned renormalization group analysis, an area of work that would eventually win Wilson the Nobel prize.

Renormalization group analysis was a mathematical process that was developed to address certain kinds of problems in the area of quantum electrodynamics, related to the mathematical representation of aspects of this theory when applied elsewhere. In his thesis, Wilson solved a problem dealing with K-mesons or kaons. Wilson used these mathematical methods to create a knowledge of the magnetic properties of atoms.

Earned Ph.D.

Wilson earned his Ph.D. from Cal Tech in 1961. In this time period, he was given two postdoctoral fellowships. The first was at Harvard, where he was a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows from 1959 to 1963. From 1962 to 1963, Wilson worked on a Ford Foundation Fellowship at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. After Wilson completed the fellowship at CERN, he was hired for a tenure track position in the physics department at Cornell University, where he would spend the next 25 years.

Wilson's Theory

In Wilson's early theoretical work at Cornell, he continued to study renormalization groups, but this time, he applied them to critical phenomena and phase changes and transitions such as when liquids change to gases and in alloys. With critical phenomena, materials behave differently under defined environmental conditions. They experience changes that are very different. The conditions under which these changes happen are known as the critical point. Near this point, the complexities of what happens with critical phenomena, in terms of short-range actions and bigger connection between the whole body of the material, including the various ranges and scales of interaction, were nearly unmanageable. Wilson was one of many scientists trying to address the problem by reducing the complexity while keeping the theory being addressed valid.

Wilson successfully solved this problem by applying renormalization group analysis to it. The way Wilson proposed using renormalization group analysis involved computers and using an averaging procedure on the broken-down parts of the system. Wilson applied the analysis to properties of the material near the critical point. He used a lattice-like network of first smaller blocks on a smaller scale, then with each step, larger-scale system fluctuations, before the entire system was addressed. These small blocks made the problems easier to solve and removed infinities from the equation.

During the course of his work, Wilson learned that near critical points, a number of systems could be universally defined by a limited number of parameters. His theory was later expanded and applied elsewhere. Thus Wilson's method became a general theory which allowed observations about individual atoms to predict the properties of a systems of many interacting atoms.

Much of this work was published in two articles in Physical Review in 1971. Many scientists believed that Wilson's work answered some of the biggest unsolved problem in theoretical physics. He later tried to apply his renormalization theory to quarks (that is, what makes up protons, neutrons, and other subatomic particles) in the mid-1970s.

Won Nobel Prize

In 1982, Wilson was award the Nobel Prize in Physics for this work, applying renormalization group analysis to previously unsolved problem in theoretical physics concerning critical points and phase transitions. The prize was not unexpected. Wilson's father told Bayard Webster of New York Times, "Of course I'm very happy for him. People in physics have been telling me for a long time that it was going to happen. It is nice when it really does happen."

In his acceptance speech, published at the Nobel emuseum, Wilson emphasized the importance of supporting science research. He said, "The scientist's inquiry into the causes of things is providing an ever more extensive understanding of nature. In consequence, science is more important than ever for industrial technology. Industry now should become a full partner of government in supporting long-range basic research."

While Wilson was working on his Nobel Prize-winning theory, he continued to have a strong academic career. In 1970, Wilson was given a full professorship at Cornell. Four years later, he was named to an endowed chair, the James A. Weeks Chair. It was the combination of academics and research that influenced his next area of research.

Promoted Building of Supercomputers

After 1976, much of Wilson's theoretical work was concerned with computer simulations and modeling. He promoted the idea of building supercomputer centers for scientists so they would have access to the greatest amount of technology because of the limits of computer technology of the time. His goal was to continue to improve the scientific community as well as the computer industry.

Beginning in 1981, he was part of a group of leading scientists that worked to get federal funding to get supercomputers on college campuses. Wilson did less research and honed his public speaking skills as he lobbied Congress, federal officials, and executives of corporations. Wilson gave about a speech a week to promote this cause. People would listen to him more than other scientists, it seemed, because he had won the Nobel Prize. In his speeches, Wilson claimed that without national supercomputers, the United States would not continue to be the leader in this technology.

In 1985, Wilson got his wish when the National Science Foundation gave $200 million over five years to four universities to create four supercomputer centers on their campuses, including Wilson's home university of Cornell. (The other supercomputer centers were located at Princeton, University of Illinois, and University of California.) Later, the federal government via the National Science Foundation did not provide the funding at the rate promised. In 1985, before the funding failed to be delivered, he served as the director of the Center for Theory and Simulation in Science and Engineering.

Moved to Ohio State University

In 1988, Wilson left Cornell to become a professor at Ohio State University. He did this in part because of his wife, Alison Brown, whom he married in 1982. She was a computer specialist and had been the associate director for advanced computing and networking at Cornell's Theory Center. She was hired to be the associate director of a new entity at Ohio State, the Ohio Supercomputer Center, as well as the associate director of research computing.

As for Wilson, he had reached his goal of getting the Theory Center off the ground and wanted to return to doing his own research. At Ohio State, he was named the Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor of Physics. His research continued to be related to computers, focusing on computer simulations and the modeling of physical phenomena.

Wilson also had interests outside of physics. He became especially concerned with education and education curriculum. After 1990, Wilson was involved in national policy for science. He was involved in the National Academy of Science's Committee on Physical Science, Mathematics and Applications as well as Committee on the Federal Role in Educational Research. In 1992, he was named the co-leader in Project Discovery, a five-year project funded by the National Science Foundation. It was to develop new techniques of teaching science and math. By 1993, Wilson was the chair of Ohio Model Science Curriculum Advisory Committee for the Ohio Department of Education.

With co-author Bennett Daviss, Wilson published a book on the subject, Redesigning Education (1994). It outlines Wilson's ideas for reforming America's educational process. After the end of Project Discovery, in 1996, Wilson was named co-director of Learning by Redesign. He continued to be involved in education reform into the 2000s.


McGrath, Kimberly, ed., World of Scientific Discovery, Gale, 1999.

Muir, Hazel, ed., Larousse Dictionary of Scientists, Larousse, 1994.

Narins, Brigham, ed., Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, Volume 5, Gale, 2001.

Wasson, Tyler, ed., Nobel Prize Winners: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary, H.W. Wilson Company, 1987.

Weber, Robert L., Pioneers of Science: Nobel Prize Winners in Physics, Adam Hilger, 1988.


Houston Chronicle, October 28, 1992.

New York Times, October 19, 1982; March 16, 1985.

Plain Dealer, February 21, 1993.

Science, April 1, 1988.


"Kenneth G. Wilson-Banquet Speech," (March 24, 2003).

"Kenneth Wilson Curriculum Vitae," (March 24, 2003).

"Profile of Kenneth Wilson," (March 24, 2003).

"Redesign Education Home page," (March 24, 2003).

"Redesigning Education-Kirkus Reviews," (March 24, 2003). □

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