Home      Discussion      Topics      Dictionary      Almanac
Signup       Login
Robert R. Wilson

Robert R. Wilson

Ask a question about 'Robert R. Wilson'
Start a new discussion about 'Robert R. Wilson'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
Robert Rathbun Wilson was an American physicist
A physicist is a scientist who studies or practices physics. Physicists study a wide range of physical phenomena in many branches of physics spanning all length scales: from sub-atomic particles of which all ordinary matter is made to the behavior of the material Universe as a whole...

 who was a group leader of the Manhattan Project
Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

, a sculptor
Sculpture is three-dimensional artwork created by shaping or combining hard materials—typically stone such as marble—or metal, glass, or wood. Softer materials can also be used, such as clay, textiles, plastics, polymers and softer metals...

, and an architect of Fermi National Laboratory
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory , located just outside Batavia, Illinois, near Chicago, is a US Department of Energy national laboratory specializing in high-energy particle physics...

 (Fermilab), where he was also the director from 1967–1978.

Early life

Wilson was born in Frontier, Wyoming
Frontier, Wyoming
Frontier is an unincorporated community in southern Lincoln County, Wyoming, United States. It lies just north of the city of Kemmerer, the county seat of Lincoln County. Its elevation is 6,932 feet . Although Frontier is unincorporated, it has a post office, with the ZIP code of 83121....

 in 1914.

In 1932 he arrived at Ernest O. Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Berkeley
The University of California, Berkeley , is a teaching and research university established in 1868 and located in Berkeley, California, USA...

, which was at that time blossoming into the top American site for both experimental
Experimental physics
Within the field of physics, experimental physics is the category of disciplines and sub-disciplines concerned with the observation of physical phenomena in order to gather data about the universe...

 and theoretical
Theoretical physics
Theoretical physics is a branch of physics which employs mathematical models and abstractions of physics to rationalize, explain and predict natural phenomena...

Physics is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, along with related concepts such as energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.Physics is one of the oldest academic...

 due to the efforts of Lawrence
Ernest Lawrence
Ernest Orlando Lawrence was an American physicist and Nobel Laureate, known for his invention, utilization, and improvement of the cyclotron atom-smasher beginning in 1929, based on his studies of the works of Rolf Widerøe, and his later work in uranium-isotope separation for the Manhattan Project...

 and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

But Wilson ran into friction with Lawrence's harsh frugality while working on his cyclotron
In technology, a cyclotron is a type of particle accelerator. In physics, the cyclotron frequency or gyrofrequency is the frequency of a charged particle moving perpendicularly to the direction of a uniform magnetic field, i.e. a magnetic field of constant magnitude and direction...

 and was fired twice from the Rad Lab. The first time, for losing a rubber seal in the 37-inch cyclotron which prevented its use in a demonstration to a potential donor; he was later rehired at Luis Alvarez
Luis Alvarez
Luis W. Alvarez was an American experimental physicist and inventor, who spent nearly all of his long professional career on the faculty of the University of California, Berkeley...

's urging. However he soon melted a pair of pliers during a welding job, and was again fired. Though offered his job back, he decided instead to go to Princeton
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

 to work with Henry DeWolf Smyth
Henry DeWolf Smyth
Henry DeWolf "Harry" Smyth was an American physicist, diplomat, and bureaucrat who played a number of key roles in the early development of nuclear energy. Educated at Princeton University and the University of Cambridge, he was a faculty member in Princeton's Department of Physics from 1924 to...


At Princeton, Wilson eventually took over Smyth's project: an alternative approach to electromagnetic separation from Lawrence's Calutrons, for the purpose of separating the valuable light isotope of uranium
Uranium is a silvery-white metallic chemical element in the actinide series of the periodic table, with atomic number 92. It is assigned the chemical symbol U. A uranium atom has 92 protons and 92 electrons, of which 6 are valence electrons...

 from the immensely more common heavy one (a key step to producing an atomic bomb). By 1941 the project had produced a device called the "Isotron," which, unlike the Calutron, used an electrical field to separate the uranium instead of a magnetic one.

Manhattan Project

When Robert Oppenheimer's secret centralized laboratory for war research on the atomic bomb—Los Alamos
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos National Laboratory is a United States Department of Energy national laboratory, managed and operated by Los Alamos National Security , located in Los Alamos, New Mexico...

—opened in 1943, Wilson was appointed as head of the Cyclotron Group (R-1) by Oppenheimer. Only in his late twenties, he was the youngest group leader in the experimental division.

In 1945, when Nazi Germany surrendered, and the initial motivation for the crash atomic bomb project (the Manhattan Project
Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

) dissipated as it was discovered that the Nazi atomic research program was years behind, Wilson attempted to raise the question at the lab of whether they should continue with their work. News of this was met with an icy reception from General Leslie Groves
Leslie Groves
Lieutenant General Leslie Richard Groves, Jr. was a United States Army Corps of Engineers officer who oversaw the construction of the Pentagon and directed the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II. As the son of a United States Army chaplain, Groves lived at a...

, military head of the project. In later life, Wilson would say that he should have strongly considered ceasing work on the bomb after the surrender of Germany, and regretted not doing so to some extent.

After the bombings of Hiroshima
is the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture, and the largest city in the Chūgoku region of western Honshu, the largest island of Japan. It became best known as the first city in history to be destroyed by a nuclear weapon when the United States Army Air Forces dropped an atomic bomb on it at 8:15 A.M...

 and Nagasaki, Wilson helped organize the Association of Los Alamos Scientists (ALAS), which called, with a scientists' petition, for the international control of atomic energy. The petition was carried by Oppenheimer to Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., formally the District of Columbia and commonly referred to as Washington, "the District", or simply D.C., is the capital of the United States. On July 16, 1790, the United States Congress approved the creation of a permanent national capital as permitted by the U.S. Constitution....

, eventually making its way via Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson
Henry L. Stimson
Henry Lewis Stimson was an American statesman, lawyer and Republican Party politician and spokesman on foreign policy. He twice served as Secretary of War 1911–1913 under Republican William Howard Taft and 1940–1945, under Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the latter role he was a leading hawk...

 to President Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman
Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States . As President Franklin D. Roosevelt's third vice president and the 34th Vice President of the United States , he succeeded to the presidency on April 12, 1945, when President Roosevelt died less than three months after beginning his...

. Ironically the Russians may have seen it first—atomic spy
Atomic Spies
Atomic Spies and Atom Spies are terms that refer to various people in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada who are thought to have illicitly given information about nuclear weapons production or design to the Soviet Union during World War II and the early Cold War...

 Klaus Fuchs
Klaus Fuchs
Klaus Emil Julius Fuchs was a German theoretical physicist and atomic spy who in 1950 was convicted of supplying information from the American, British and Canadian atomic bomb research to the USSR during and shortly after World War II...

 gave Harry Gold
Harry Gold
Harry Gold was a laboratory chemist who was convicted of being the “courier” for a number of Soviet spy rings during the Manhattan Project.-Early life:Gold was born in Switzerland to poor Russian Jewish immigrants...

 a copy which arrived in Moscow on October 29, 1945, and was noted upon that the physicists' "feelings of distrust toward the government are very strong."

Post-World War II

After the war Wilson also helped form the Federation of American Scientists
Federation of American Scientists
The Federation of American Scientists is a nonpartisan, 501 organization intent on using science and scientific analysis to attempt make the world more secure. FAS was founded in 1945 by scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bombs...

 and served as its chairman in 1946. During the same period he accepted a short appointment at Harvard (most of which was spent at Berkeley). During this short stay at Harvard Wilson published a seminal paper, "Radiological Use of Fast Protons", which essentially founded the field of Proton therapy
Proton therapy
Proton therapy is a type of particle therapy which uses a beam of protons to irradiate diseased tissue, most often in the treatment of cancer. The chief advantage of proton therapy is the ability to more precisely localize the radiation dosage when compared with other types of external beam...

. Then in 1947 he went to Cornell University
Cornell University
Cornell University is an Ivy League university located in Ithaca, New York, United States. It is a private land-grant university, receiving annual funding from the State of New York for certain educational missions...

 where he worked at the Cornell Laboratory of Nuclear Studies. There his achievements led to the construction of a particle accelerator, the Cornell Electron-positron Storage Ring (CESR), now located at the Wilson Synchrotron Laboratory.

In 1967 he took a leave of absence from Cornell to assume directorship of the not-yet-created National Accelerator Laboratory which was to create the largest particle accelerator of its day at Batavia, Illinois
Batavia, Illinois
Batavia was founded in 1833, and is the oldest city in Kane County, Illinois, with a small portion in DuPage County. During the Industrial Revolution, Batavia became known as ‘The Windmill City’ for being the largest windmill producer of the time...

. In 1969, Wilson was called to justify the multimillion-dollar machine to the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Bucking the trend of the day, Wilson emphasized it had nothing at all to do with national security, rather:
Thanks to Wilson's leadership—in a full-steam ahead style very much adopted from Lawrence, despite his firings—the facility was completed on time and under budget. Originally named the National Accelerator Laboratory, it was renamed the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory
Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory , located just outside Batavia, Illinois, near Chicago, is a US Department of Energy national laboratory specializing in high-energy particle physics...

 (Fermilab for short) in 1974, after famed Italian
Italy , officially the Italian Republic languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Italy's official name is as follows:;;;;;;;;), is a unitary parliamentary republic in South-Central Europe. To the north it borders France, Switzerland, Austria and...

 physicist Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi
Enrico Fermi was an Italian-born, naturalized American physicist particularly known for his work on the development of the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, and for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics...

; the facility centered around a four-mile circumference, 400 GeV accelerator. Unlike most government facilities, Fermilab was designed to be aesthetically pleasing. Wilson wanted Fermilab to be an appealing place to work, believing that external harmony would encourage internal harmony as well, and labored personally to keep it from looking like a stereotypical "government lab", playing a key role in its design and architecture. It had a restored prairie which served as a home to a herd of American Bison
American Bison
The American bison , also commonly known as the American buffalo, is a North American species of bison that once roamed the grasslands of North America in massive herds...

s, ponds, and a main building purposely reminiscent of a cathedral
A cathedral is a Christian church that contains the seat of a bishop...

 in Beauvais, France. Fermilab's Central Laboratory building was later named Robert Rathbun Wilson Hall in his honor.

Wilson served as the director of Fermilab until 1978, and then joined the faculty of the University of Chicago
University of Chicago
The University of Chicago is a private research university in Chicago, Illinois, USA. It was founded by the American Baptist Education Society with a donation from oil magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller and incorporated in 1890...

. In 1982 he became Michael I. Pupin Professor of Physics at Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

. He retired in 1984 and moved back to Ithaca.

Awards and honors

Wilson received many awards and honors, including the Elliott Cresson Medal
Elliott Cresson Medal
The Elliott Cresson Medal, also known as the Elliott Cresson Gold Medal, was the highest award given by the Franklin Institute. The award was established by Elliott Cresson, life member of the Franklin Institute, with $1,000 granted in 1848...

 in 1964, the National Medal of Science
National Medal of Science
The National Medal of Science is an honor bestowed by the President of the United States to individuals in science and engineering who have made important contributions to the advancement of knowledge in the fields of behavioral and social sciences, biology, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and...

 in 1973, the Enrico Fermi Award
Enrico Fermi Award
The Enrico Fermi Award is an award honoring scientists of international stature for their lifetime achievement in the development, use, or production of energy. It is administered by the U.S. government's Department of Energy...

 in 1984, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences
United States National Academy of Sciences
The National Academy of Sciences is a corporation in the United States whose members serve pro bono as "advisers to the nation on science, engineering, and medicine." As a national academy, new members of the organization are elected annually by current members, based on their distinguished and...

, the American Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society
American Philosophical Society
The American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743, and located in Philadelphia, Pa., is an eminent scholarly organization of international reputation, that promotes useful knowledge in the sciences and humanities through excellence in scholarly research, professional meetings, publications,...

. He was president of the American Physical Society
American Physical Society
The American Physical Society is the world's second largest organization of physicists, behind the Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft. The Society publishes more than a dozen scientific journals, including the world renowned Physical Review and Physical Review Letters, and organizes more than 20...

 in 1985. A metal sculpture created by Wilson sits in the lobby of the Harvard Cabot Science Center building.


He died at the age of 85 at his home in Ithaca, New York
Ithaca, New York
The city of Ithaca, is a city in upstate New York and the county seat of Tompkins County, as well as the largest community in the Ithaca-Tompkins County metropolitan area...

 after a prolonged illness in January 2000. He is buried at the 19th century Pioneer Cemetery on the Fermilab site.

In film

  • Robert Wilson is interviewed in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Day After Trinity
    The Day After Trinity
    The Day After Trinity is a 1980 documentary film directed and produced by Jon H. Else in association with KTEH public television in San Jose, California. The film tells the story of J...

  • In 1989 Wilson was portrayed by Todd Field
    Todd Field
    William Todd Field, known professionally as Todd Field is an American actor and writer/director. He has received three Academy Award nominations.-Background and personal life:...

     in Roland Joffe
    Roland Joffé
    Roland Joffé is an English-French film director who is known for his Oscar nominated movies, The Killing Fields and The Mission. He began his career in television. His early television credits included episodes of Coronation Street and an adaptation of The Stars Look Down for Granada...

    's Fat Man and Little Boy
    Fat Man and Little Boy
    Fat Man and Little Boy is a 1989 film that reenacts the Manhattan Project, the secret Allied endeavor to develop the first nuclear weapons during World War II. The film is named after the nuclear weapons known by the code names "Fat Man" and "Little Boy". The code names can be taken for joking...

    . Coincidentally, Field's wife, Serena Rathbun, is a distant relation of Wilson's.

External links