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Kenneth G. Wilson (PhD '61)

 

The Washington Post

Kenneth G. Wilson dies at 77; physicist won Nobel for work on phase transitions

By Martin Weil // Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Kenneth G. Wilson, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who pointed the way to a detailed understanding of some of the most familiar phenomena in nature, such as the transformation of water into ice, died June 15 at a nursing home in Saco, Maine. He was 77.

The cause was complications from lymphoma, according to Cornell University, where Dr. Wilson taught for most of his career. He was a resident of Gray, Maine.

The 1982 physics Nobel recognized Dr. Wilson’s sophisticated explanations for the sudden, significant and widely observed shifts from one state of matter to another. Such changeovers include those between liquid and solid and between vapor and liquid.

In effect, he created a powerful general theory that could be applied to such specific and age-old questions as why ice melts and why water boils. The work also explained lesser-known occurrences such as abrupt changes in matter’s magnetic properties and its ability to conduct electricity.

His areas of research required new mathematical tools that could cope with the moment-by-moment goings-on in an unruly and unseen world of darting, swirling atoms and molecules, all simultaneously pulling and pushing at each other.

Phase transitions occur at the intersection of precise levels of temperature, pressure and volume, known as the critical point. The critical point is a place where different states might coexist in precarious equilibrium, each on the verge of becoming the other.

Dr. Wilson’s theories explained in the most minute detail what happened at that point.

Even beyond that success, Dr. Wilson was admired for the qualities of mind he showed in achieving it. He was praised for his work in elementary particle physics and for his ability to adapt to phase-transitions research a concept known as the renormalization group. This was a way of eliminating troublesome discontinuities that showed up in quantum field theory, a major scientific effort to account for the most basic phenomena in the universe.

From 1988 until retiring in 2006, he was a professor at Ohio State University and helped start its Physics Education Research Group. The way he thought about physics — and about how to think about physics — made him influential among colleagues, but he also relished being a bit of a provocateur.