Obituary: Professor E. Bright Wilson

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The Independent Online
Edgar Bright Wilson, physical chemist, born Gallatin Tennessee 18 December 1908, Junior Fellow Harvard University 1934-36, Assistant Professor of Chemistry 1936-39, Associate Professor 1939-46, Professor 1946-47, Theodore William Richards Professor 1947-79, Emeritus 1979-92, Research Director Underwater Explosives Research Laboratory Woods Hole 1942-44, Chief Division Two National Defense Research Committee 1944-46, books include Introduction to Quantum Mechanics with Applications to Chemistry (with Linus Pauling) 1935, An Introduction to Scientific Research 1952, married 1935 Emily Buckingham (died 1954; two sons, one daughter), 1955 Therese Bremer (two sons, one daughter), died Cambridge Massachusetts 12 July 1992.

BRIGHT WILSON was one of the most distinguished physical scientists of the century, and a key pioneer in the theoretical and experimental study of the structure of molecules.

Wilson liked to be called an experimentalist, but his work was typified by a skilful combination of prediction, experiment and theoretical interpretation. The strength of his theoretical base can be seen in his early work with Linus Pauling, which led to the publication of their book Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (1935). This text became essential reading for physical chemists over the next 35 years.

In 1934 Wilson moved to Harvard University as a Junior Fellow, and he remained there for the rest of his career, becoming the Theodore William Richards Professor of Chemistry in 1947. In the Thirties he introduced the use of molecular symmetry for the interpretation of molecular spectra. Until he showed the power of group theory in such analyses, mistakes had been made in determining the shapes of molecules from their spectra. He and his students were also developing the theory for the quantitative study of internal motions of molecules. His experimental work then was the innovative use of infra-red spectroscopy. This phase of his work culminated in 1955 in the publication of Molecular Vibrations with JC Decius and PC Cross. This scholarly text contains the Wilson FG-matrix method which has been used by successive generations of spectroscopists, and is still the standard treatment of the normal vibrations in molecules.

During the Second World War, Wilson was seconded to the National Defense Research Committee and led much of the work on explosions and shock waves, eventually at Woods Hole. He was elected to the governing body of the Oceanographic Research Institute there. In fact Wilson did several bouts of public and government service, which took him to Washington but, although he gave freely of his time, the political mantle did not always sit easily upon him.

After the war, RADAR techniques were introduced into molecular spectroscopy, allowing molecular rotations to be probed in the microwave region of the electro-magnetic spectrum. With developments in instrumental methods and simultaneous theoretical advances, Bright and his group opened up a major research field for the determination of molecular properties and structure. Stark-effect modulation and the detailed study of hindered internal rotation of groups within molecules were central to this work. For the next 30 years much of the methodology used in microwave spectroscopy and the study of the rotation of molecules emerged from the Harvard group.

I first met Bright Wilson in the early Sixties when I worked with him as a Fulbright scholar for three years. Such was the spirit in the Wilson laboratory, it seemed every day could produce something new and exciting about the behaviour of molecules. The spectrometers were worked for three eight-hour shifts, often seven days a week. This makes 'EB' sound like a slave-driver: quite the contrary - here was one of the true gentlemen of science, revered by his students and colleagues for his humour and humanity.

I remember sunny Sundays at the Wilsons' home in Martha's Vineyard with the rest of the research group and their spouses, warmly entertained by Bright, Therese and their three young children. His humour and elegant grasp of scientific method are shown in his Introduction to Scientific Research (1952) written at Oxford University. I recall one laconic indictment of a research student, 'I knew he was not going to get results the moment I saw him painting his apparatus.'

Bright Wilson's work goes on through his 150 'Wilson Alumni', about 80 of whom have become academic leaders in institutions throughout the world. He was a fine family man, and took a delight in the achievements of his wife and children. His son Kenneth is a Nobel Laureate in Physics, and his widow Therese is a distinguished photochemist.