Robert W. Wilson

Prof. Dr. Robert Woodrow Wilson

Nationality
United States 
Institution
Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics 
Award
1978 
Discipline
Physics 
Co-recipients
Profs. Arno Penzias and Pyotr Kapitsa 

Biography on the Official Web Site of the Nobel Prize

CURRICULUM VITAE

Robert Woodrow Wilson shared one of the two 1978 physics prizes with Arno Penzias, his colleague at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation. The other prize was awarded to Russian Pyotr Kapitsa (1894–1984) for his work in low-temperature physics.

All astronomical objects emit radiation in the form of radio waves, allowing radio astronomers to study objects not visible with optical telescopes. Penzias and Wilson discovered that the universe is fi lled uniformly with radiation of a type and range that seem to support the ‘Big Bang’ theory. Wilson was born in 1936, the eldest of three children, and grew up in Houston, Texas. He was a musical child, playing piano and trombone. He picked up a keen interest in electronics from his DIY (do-it-yourself ) fanatic father, and repaired radios and television sets for fun and spending money. From school he went to Rice University, where he graduated with honors in physics with a thesis on lowtemperature physics. Between leaving Rice and starting his PhD at Caltech in 1957, he took a summer job at Exxon, and in those short weeks obtained his fi rst patent for a high-voltage pulse generator.

After some indecision at Caltech he joined a research group working on radio astronomy, mapping the Milky Way, and after gaining his PhD in 1962 he remained at Caltech for a year as a postdoctoral fellow. As part of the astronomy work, Bell Labs in New Jersey had helped the team make a pair of very low temperature maser amplifiers. Although he hadn’t been directly involved in the maser project, Wilson took a job at Bell at Crawford Hill in 1963, joining Arno Penzias, who had been there about two years. With the launch of Telstar in 1962, Bell had built a sensitive horn antenna and it was using this that Penzias and Wilson made their fi rst discovery of background radiation in 1964. The antenna was tuned to a short wavelength of 7cm, which should cut out most interference and allow the duo to perform radio astronomy. However, they found a high level of background ‘noise’ and realised this was uniform in all directions. Furthermore, the radiation matched early Big Bang calculations.

Scientists have since found the radiation can also be used as a relative map, plotting absolute motion in space. With Keith Jefferts, Penzias and Wilson assembled a millimeter-wave receiver linked to a radio telescope in Arizona. Using this, in 1970 they discovered several interstellar molecules including DCN, allowing them to trace deuterium in the galaxy – further evidence for the Big Bang theory. The duo later built a millimeter-wave facility at Crawford Hill. Wilson married Elizabeth Sawin in 1958. They have two sons and a daughter.

This text and the picture of the Nobel Laureate were taken from the book: "NOBELS. Nobel Laureates photographed by Peter Badge" (WILEY-VCH, 2008).

Picture: © Peter Badge/ Foundation Lindau Nobelprizewinners Meetings at Lake Constance

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