Kenneth Wilson and Renormalization

Resources with Additional Information

Kenneth Wilson

'Kenneth G. Wilson … was part of the generation of scientists who revolutionized physics in the 1970s and confirmed the quantum theories of physicists from the early 20th century … .  Wilson won the 1982 Nobel Prize in physics for his development of the Renormalization Group (RG) into a central tool in physics. …

He received a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology  in 1961, and joined the physics faculty at Cornell University in 1963. …

Before Wilson’s discoveries, many physicists thought quantum field theory had to be discarded, because so many of its calculations generated infinite values—which are physically impossible. Wilson’s RG theory not only explained these infinite values, it showed that they contained information which allowed for a fuller understanding of the relevant physics. …

Wilson was among the physicists of the 1970s who developed Standard Theory, the current model of particle physics that refined quantum field theory.

Michael E. Peskin ’73, who was Wilson’s doctoral advisee at Cornell and is now a professor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, recalls how Wilson synthesized all of elementary particle physics into the Standard Theory at a seminar in 1974.

Wilson drew boxes on a long blackboard, and each box contained some known concept about elementary particles. Then he drew arrows between all the boxes, explaining the connections between concepts that seemed unrelated or even contradictory.

“It was just one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” says Peskin. “He was saying, ‘I see the big picture. You can see it too. Here’s how it goes.' ”

The basic idea of RG theory is to study the variation in the importance of certain properties at a smaller or larger scale. … This method is applied to particle physics through the concept of lattice gauge theory. According to Peskin, the basic idea of lattice gauge theory is that the infinities that appeared to be flaws in quantum field theory are actually the data you need to move from one scale to another. …

RG theory implies that, with enough computer power, it would be possible to describe such large-scale phenomena as the boiling of water in terms of the interactions between fundamental subatomic particles. …

In recent years, Wilson has devoted himself to education reform. He co-directs Learning by Redesign, an organization that explores of novel ideas in elementary and secondary education.'1

1 Edited excerpt from Physicist Shapes Modern Thought


Resources with Additional Information

Additional information Kenneth G. Wilson, renormalization and the Renormalization Group (RG) is available in electronic documents and on the Web.


Broken Scale Invariance and Anomalous Dimensions, DOE Technical Report, May 1970

Renormalization Group and Strong Interactions; Physical Review D, Vol. 3, Issue 8; April 15, 1971

Improved Monte Carlo Renormalization Group Method, DOE Technical Report, 1985

Mass Renormalization in Light-front Tamm-Dancoff QED; Physical Review D, Vol. 48, Issue 10; November 15, 1993


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