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Jun 24 2013

Kenneth G. Wilson (1936-2013)

Ken Wilson died on June 15. He won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1982 when he was at Cornell University, and then moved to Ohio State University in 1988 which is where I got to know him.

Many people outside of physics may not have heard of Wilson because he was not a flamboyant personality nor did he seek media attention. His biographical statement, written for the purposes of the Nobel prize, reveals his modesty, matter-of-factly recounting his life and work without embellishing them. But his influence on physics was deep and profound and lasting. John Preskill’s appreciation titled We are all Wilsonians now explains how his ideas form the basis of many important areas of physics today.

What I want to write about is my own association with Wilson that began in 1992 that shows a different side of him. Wilson was a passionate believer in public education and devoted his considerable intellect to find a deep and lasting solution to what he considered a very important problem, the same way he sought deep and lasting solutions to physics problems. Along with biologist Jane Butler Kahle at Miami University of Ohio, they started Project Discovery that sought to improve science and mathematics education in Ohio in a way that they hoped would be a model nationwide. I was in the very first group of people recruited by them in 1992 and that started a relationship that lasted about ten years, beginning with a year I spent at OSU working with him as the program started out. It was my involvement in that program that led to my thinking far more deeply about what learning actually involved and how basic ideas in physics and other subjects should be taught. It changed my career trajectory, very much for the better.

It was impossible not to like Ken. He was a very unassuming man, soft spoken and respectful of those around him, many of whom were awed to be in the presence of a Nobel prize winner in physics. He had the stereotypical absent-minded professor look, peering at you through his glasses while you spoke but listening sharply and not missing a thing, and he had an impish sense of humor that took you by surprise because you were not expecting it. He would always dress neatly with a jacket and tie but not smartly, the way someone would dress if he thought it necessary to wear such things but did not really care.

He cared deeply about improving the quality of education and eliminating the disparities that he saw in the education received by different groups, and was especially concerned about the problems in the inner city schools. He would be perfectly willing to drive around the state in his old station wagon to speak to small groups of parents and teachers and others without expecting any honorarium. He brought to the problems of education the same qualities he brought to problems in physics, going deep, looking for ultimate causes, and devoting considerable energy to solving them. This was not a hobby for him and he was not a dilettante.

Wilson’s goals of radically transforming science and mathematics education in the US did not quite pan out. His ideas were perhaps too deep, too sweeping, too large scale, too radical, and perhaps most significantly, too expensive in an age in which policymakers are looking for quick and easy and cheap solutions. But he did have an impact on the many teachers who went through the program that he and Kahle started and I believe led to changes in the ways that teachers and schools of education in the state viewed teacher training, though they have not fully adopted his recommendations.

Ken Wilson was an intellectual giant coupled with a gentle manner. I consider it a real privilege to have known him and worked with him.

5 comments

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  1. 1
    Rob Grigjanis

    One of the greats of quantum field theory. I didn’t know about his social activism. Thanks for sharing that, Mano.

    Another name familiar to theoreticians passed earlier this year; Yasushi Takahashi (as in the Ward-Takahashi identity). Like Wilson, he was an unassuming man with a keen sense of humour, and a teacher who made one look forward to his classes.

  2. 2
    MNb

    “how basic ideas in physics …. should be taught”
    This is not only my job but also my very task, as I’m the only qualified teacher physics within a reach of 50 km. So is there anything to find on internet about Wilson’s proposals? I’m not very innovative myself, but rather good at stealing and applying other people’s ideas. Living and working at the edge of the Surinames jungle as I do (my son would say: in the middle of) I always can use them.

  3. 3
    Jeffrey Johnson

    Some readers may also be interested in this post by Sean Carrol discussing contributions made by Ken Wilson to quantum field theory…

    http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2013/06/20/how-quantum-field-theory-becomes-effective/

  4. 4
    Rob Grigjanis

    Great stuff.

  5. 5
    Mano Singham

    Wilson’s main interest was structural, which was how to increase usage by teachers of the inquiry-based methods developed by various researchers. He dod not develop curriculum himslef.

    Good books on how people learn and how best to teach them are How People Learn by Bransford, Brown, and Cocking and published by the National Research Council (which talks about teaching in various disciplines (including physics) at different grade levels) and Physics for Scientists and Engineers by R. D. Knight, which is a physics textbook based on physics education research.

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