The Nobel Prize recognized Wilson’s ground-breaking work on phase transitions, such as the transformation of a substance from the liquid to the gaseous state. Wilson was led to this breakthrough from his struggles with mysteries in elementary particle physics and quantum field theory, topics that would appear to have no relationship to phenomena in liquids or gases. The tools Wilson brought to bear in his research were diverse, ranging from abstract mathematics to innovative supercomputing.
Wilson was born on June 8, 1936, in Waltham, Massachusetts, into an atmosphere of scientific curiosity: his father was the noted Harvard chemist E. Bright Wilson. The son’s exceptional talents became apparent as a Harvard undergraduate by his placing in the top five in the 1954 and 1956 nation-wide Putnam Mathematical Competitions. He earned his PhD from the California Institute of Technology in 1961, studying under Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann. Subsequently, as a Junior Fellow at Harvard, while waiting for output from an MIT computer, he proved a mathematical conjecture proposed by Freeman Dyson.
In 1963 Wilson joined the Cornell physics department, and was soon given tenure even though he had hardly published. As he later said in his Nobel autobiography, “my very strong desire to work in quantum field theory did not seem likely to lead to quick publications; but I had already found out that I seemed to be able to get jobs even if I didn’t publish anything so I did not worry about publish or perish.”