Kenneth G. Wilson

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Waltham, Massachusetts
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American theoretical physicist Kenneth Geddes Wilson was one of the first people to use computers to study particle physics. He won the Nobel Prize in 1982 for his work on phase transitions, such as when a substance changes from a solid to a gas, like when ice melts or when magnetism starts to form. It was shown through his important work on the renormalization group. Wilson made this discovery because he worked hard to solve problems in elementary particle physics and quantum field theory. Wilson used many different kinds of tools in his research, from abstract mathematics to supercomputing. Wilson was one of the first people to work in the field of supercomputing. He helped the National Science Foundation set up five national scientific supercomputing centers, one of which is at Cornell University.

Early years and childhood

Wilson was born in Massachusetts in the town of Waltham in 1936. His father, E. Bright Wilson Jr., taught at Harvard University in the Chemistry Department. Before she got married, his mother, Emily Buckingham Wilson, did one year of graduate work in physics.

His maternal grandfather taught mechanical engineering at the “Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” and his paternal grandfather was a lawyer and once the Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

He went to school in Wellesley, Massachusetts (second and third/fourth grades in two years), Shady Hill School in Cambridge (from fifth to eighth grade), Magdalen College School in Oxford, England (ninth grade), and the George School in eastern Pennsylvania (tenth and twelfth grades, but not the eleventh).

Before his year in England, he read the book “Mathematics and Imagination” by Kasner and Newman and learned the basics of calculus. He then worked through a calculus text.
He chose to become a physicist around this time. In 1952 he entered Harvard. He was a math major, but he also studied physics. He took part in the Putnam Mathematics Competition while he was at Harvard.

He went to the “California Institute of Technology” to get his master’s degree. At Caltech, he became friends with a junior professor named Jon Mathews, who taught him how to use a computer.
He worked at the Kellogg Laboratory of Nuclear Physics for two years, where he did experiments and took theory classes.

Then, he worked on a thesis for Murray Gell-Mann, a physicist who had won the Nobel Prize.
Wilson had worked with Marshall Rosenbluth on plasma physics at the “General Atomic Company” in San Diego during the summer.

After his third year, he became a Junior Fellow at Harvard. During the first year of the fellowship, he spent a few months back at Caltech to finish his thesis.

Kenneth Wilson’s Career

Wilson spent a year at CERN in 1962, first as a “Junior Fellow” and then as a “Ford Foundation Fellow.”
In September 1963, he started working as an assistant professor at “Cornell University.” Then, in 1965, he was given the title of Associate Professor, and in 1971, he was given the title of Full Professor. In 1974, the University named him “the James A. Weeks Professor.” Since then, he has stayed at Cornell.

He worked at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center from 1969 to 1970.
In 1972, he worked at Princeton’s “Institute for Advanced Study.” In 1976, he was a “Fairchild Scholar” at the California Institute of Technology. From 1979 to 1980, he worked at the “IBM Zürich Laboratory.”

Wilson started a project to help with computing with Douglas Von Houweling, who was then the “Director of Academic Computing,” and Geoffrey Chester of the Physics Department. The project was based on a “Floating Point Systems Array Processor.”

Wilson did a lot of research on the theory of elementary particles. In a paper from 1964, he talked about “a short distance expansion for operator products.” In a paper from 1969, he talked about “how the renormalization group could be used to explain strong interactions.”

He did research to find out how the renormalization group approach could be used in other areas of classical and modern physics. He kept working on statistical mechanics. In particular, he worked on the “Monte Carlo Renormalization Group,” which he applied to the “three-dimensional Ising model.”

Wilson left Cornell in 1987 and went to work at Ohio State University, where he helped start the “Physics Education Research Group.” In Ohio, he worked a lot on physics and teaching science.

Works of note

In his work in physics, he made a complete theory of scaling, which is how the basic properties and forces of a system change depending on how big or small you measure them.

Wilson’s work that won him the Nobel Prize was based on work that Michael Fisher and Benjamin Widom at Cornell and Leo Kadanoff at the “University of Illinois” did on phase transitions. Their results made Wilson wonder if he could use a similar method to study quantum fields since all of these things involve a huge number of variables that describe a wide range of length scales.

Wilson then went back to quantum field theory and quantum chromodynamics (QCD), which is a new theory that says protons, neutrons, and other subatomic particles are made up of smaller particles called quarks. He made a version of QCD that works on a space-time lattice. This made it possible to study the very strong forces that hold quarks together for the first time.

Awards & Achievements

In 1975, he was chosen to join the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 1980, he was given the “Wolf Prize” in physics by Israel. In 1981, Harvard University gave him a “honorary Doctorate of Science.”

He was chosen to join “the American Philosophical Society” in 1984.
Wilson became the Director of “the Center for Theory and Simulation in Science and Engineering” (Cornell Theory Center), one of five national supercomputer centers set up by the “National Science Foundation” in 1985.

In 1988, the Department of Physics at The Ohio State University named him the “Hazel C. Youngberg Trustees Distinguished Professor.”
As a “Co-Principal Investigator” on Ohio’s “Project Discovery,” one of the National Science Foundation’s Statewide Systemic Initiatives, he worked to change the way schools work.

He has also won the “A.C. Eringen Medal,” the “Franklin Medal,” the “Boltzmann Medal,” and the “Dannie Heinemann Prize,” among other honors.

Personal History and Legacies

In 1975, Alison Brown, who worked for Cornell Computer Services, was the first person he met. In 1982, they got married.
On June 15, he died in Saco, Maine, US, from complications from lymphoma. He was 77.

Estimated Net worth



He didn’t like high school at all.
He was good at sports and loved to play the oboe. He had run in marathons for Harvard.

Wilson liked to do a folk dance for fun. There was a well-known folk dancing group at Cornell University. This was one reason why he decided to take the job offer from Cornell University.