Kenneth Wilson: Physicist and Nobel laureate

 

Kenneth Wilson was a visionary physicist who won the 1982 Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on phase transitions, the transformation of thermodynamic systems from one phase or state of matter to another, an area physicists had been wrestling with for decades. This mathematical tool changed theoretical physicists' way of thinking, particularly in particle physics. He also pioneered the use of super-computers in particle physics.

His research explained how factors such as temperature and pressure lead to sudden transformations of matter, such as boiling water changing from liquid to vapour or ice turning to water; a mathematical n explanation had eluded scientists. The Swedish Nobel Committee called Wilson's approach "ingenious" because "he developed a method to divide the problem into a sequence of simpler problems in which each part could be solved." He did this by using a mathematical tool called the renormalisation group theory. His methodology led him to a powerful overall theory for understanding the critical points at which matter changes from one state to another.

A fellow Nobel laureate, Steven Weinberg of Texas University, said, "Ken 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."

With data from his Cornell colleague, Michael Fisher, and Leo Kadanoff of Chicago University, Wilson solved the problem in two papers in 1971 and 1972. He realised that fluctuations over different length scales must be dealt with. Such transitions are largely determined by the collective effects of every other object in the system. Modelling this behaviour near the critical point would require huge computer power, but Wilson's method avoided the need for this.

Wilson gave a complete theoretical description of behaviour close to the critical point, proving that many seemingly unrelated systems, such as liquids or mixtures of liquids and ferro-magnets, show identical behaviour. Wilson hoped his work would have practical use in the development of atomic fusion as a future clean energy source, to replace atomic fission, though this has so far proved elusive.

Born in Massachusetts in 1936 into an academic family, Kenneth Geddes Wilson was the eldest of six children. His father, Edgar was a Harvard chemist while his mother was a physics graduate. One grandfather was an engineering professor at MIT, and Wilson showed early mathematical aptitude, calculating cube roots in his head.

He went to Harvard to read mathematics at 16, and was a keen athlete, becoming the Ivy League mile champion. Graduating in 1956, Wilson earned his doctorate from Caltech in 1961, under future Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann, a pioneer of elementary particle theory, beginning the research into quantum field theory that would lead to his interest in phase transitions. He did post-doctoral studies at Harvard, including a year at Cern, near Geneva. While there, he climbed Mont Blanc.

He joined the physics faculty at Cornell in 1963, because, he said, "it was reputed to have a good folk dancing group", a hobby he had taken up as an undergraduate. He also was an avid hiker and kayaker. He became professor in 1971.

During the 1970s, Wilson pioneered the development and understanding of quantum chromo-dynamics, the branch of quantum theory that describes the behaviour of quarks and the gluons that stick them together to form protons and neutrons. In order to solve the equations of this theory and gain a more precise understanding of the process, he devised a digitised version of the theory called lattice gauge theory, which used supercomputers, an area he felt was not sufficiently explored.

In the 1980s Wilson was one of a number of high-profile scientists who campaigned for the creation of supercomputer centres in the US. In 1985 the National Science Foundation agreed a $200m five-year programme to build five national supercomputer centres; Wilson became the Director of the Centre for Theory and Simulation in Science and Engineering at Cornell. From 1988 he was a professor of Physics at Ohio State University, where he founded the Physics Education Research Group.

A quiet, modest and informal man, Wilson was, his wife Alison said, "the most lacking in small talk of anyone anyone I ever met."

Kenneth Geddes Wilson, physicist: born Waltham, Massachusetts 8 January 1936; Nobel Prize for Physics 1982; married 1982 Alison Brown; died Saco, Maine 15 June 2013.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices