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About Kenneth Geddes Wilson
Kenneth Geddes Wilson (June 8, 1936 – June 15, 2013) was an American theoretical physicist and a pioneer in leveraging computers for studying particle physics. He was awarded the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on phase transitions—illuminating the subtle essence of phenomena like melting ice and emerging magnetism. It was embodied in his fundamental work on the renormalization group. He was lauded as a giant in theoretical physics by his colleagues.
His major impact on physics involved formulation of a comprehensive theory of scaling: how fundamental properties and forces of a system vary depending on the scale over which they are measured. He devised a universal "divide-and-conquer" strategy for calculating how phase transitions occur, by considering each scale separately and then abstracting the connection between contiguous ones, in a novel appreciation of renormalization group theory. This provided profound insights into the field of critical phenomena and phase transitions in statistical physics enabling exact calculations. Using his block-spin technique, he solved, by way of illustration, several concrete numerical paradigms. An important renormalization group problem in solid-state physics, which he solved, is the Kondo effect.
He then extended these insights on scaling to answer fundamental questions on the nature of quantum field theory and the operator product expansion and the physical meaning of the renormalization group.
He also pioneered our understanding of the confinement of quarks inside hadrons, utilizing lattice gauge theory, and initiating an approach permitting formerly forbidding strong-coupling calculations on computers. On such a lattice, he further shed light on chiral symmetry, a crucial feature of elementary particle interactions.
Wilson was born on January 8, 1936, in Waltham, Massachusetts, the oldest of six children of E. Bright Wilson, a prominent chemist at Harvard University, who did important work on microwave emissions. His mother had also trained as a physicist. He attended several schools, including Magdalen College School, Oxford, England, ending up at the George School in eastern Pennsylvania.
He went on to Harvard, majoring in Mathematics and, on two occasions, ranked among the top five in the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. He was also a star on the athletics track, representing Harvard in the Mile. During his summer holidays he worked at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He earned his PhD from Caltech in 1961, studying under Murray Gell-Mann.
He joined Cornell University in 1963 in the Department of Physics as a junior faculty member, becoming a full professor in 1970. He also did research at SLAC during this period. In 1974, he became the James A. Weeks Professor of Physics at Cornell.
He was a co-winner of the Wolf Prize in physics in 1980, together with Michael E. Fisher and Leo Kadanoff.
In 1982 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his seminal approach, combining quantum field theory and the statistical theory of critical phenomena of second-order phase transitions, i.e., for his constructive theory of the renormalization group.
In 1985, he was appointed as Cornell's Director of the Center for Theory and Simulation in Science and Engineering (now known as the Cornell Theory Center), one of five national supercomputer centers created by the National Science Foundation. In 1988, Dr. Wilson joined the faculty at The Ohio State University, and retired in 2008. Prior to his death, he was actively involved in research on physics education.
Some of his PhD students include H. R. Krishnamurthy, Roman Jackiw, Michael Peskin, Serge Rudaz, Paul Ginsparg, and Steven R. White.
Wilson's brother David is also a Professor at Cornell in the department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, and his wife since 1982, Alison Brown, is a prominent computer scientist.
He died at the age of 77 in Saco, Maine on June 15, 2013.
Awards and honors