It is rare when someone comes along whose ideas change science. Nobel Laureate Kenneth Geddes Wilson (1936 –2013) forever changed how we think about physics. Wilson left a legacy of his prize-winning problem solving in theoretical physics, the use of computer simulations and the modeling of physical phenomena, the establishment of supercomputer centers for scientific research, and physics education and science education reform.
Wilson was gifted mathematically at an early age. His grandfather taught him how to do mathematical computations in his mind. When he was 8 years old, he would calculate cube roots in his head while waiting for the school bus. This brilliant and shy young boy went through grade school and high school at an accelerated pace to enroll in Harvard when he was only 16 years old. He obtained his Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology, did postdoc studies at Harvard as a junior fellow that included a year at CERN, joined the faculty of Cornell University and later Ohio State University’s Departments of Physics. At the age of 46, he became one of the youngest winners of a Noble Prize when he received the 1982 Noble Prize in Physics based on his pioneering work developing a theoretical framework on the nature of phase transitions, such as the moment when metal melts at a certain temperature or when liquid transforms to a gaseous state.
Wilson solved some of the most fundamental problems in theoretical physics. We owe much of our understanding of renormalization, effective field theory, phase transitions, lattice quantum field theory, and, significantly, the renormalization group to Wilson’s diverse tools and concepts. Read how scientists are utilizing the effective field theory concept in their latest DOE research endeavors in Dr. William Watson’s latest white paper ‘In the OSTI Collections: Effective field theory’.
In the 1980s Wilson pioneered using computers in physics research. He wrote code for parallel processor arrays to get around the problem of slow single-processor speeds. He led the incorporation of the TCP/IP internet protocol that is in use today. And he was among the first in his field to use computer simulations and modeling as research tools. Wilson went on to use his status to promote federal funding for supercomputers on campuses and championed the National Science Foundation’s establishment of five academic supercomputing centers throughout America.
With the support of Ohio State University, he became heavily engaged in physics educational reform and, at the time of his death, he was co-principal investigator in an educational reform project “Project Discovery” aimed at improving science and mathematics teaching in public schools. Wilson’s dedication and contributions to the redesign of science and mathematics education in America are realized in the STEM education endeavors we employ today.
In November, 2013, a Ken Wilson Symposium was held by the Cornell University Physics Department to celebrate the science of Kenneth Wilson. I recommend you visit the Symposium page to read more about this revolutionary physics giant and the celebration of his incredible legacy.