Robert Woodrow Wilson

For the accelerator physicist and founding director of Fermilab, see Robert R. Wilson.
For the American president, see Woodrow Wilson.
Robert Woodrow Wilson
Robert Wilson (28215880301) (cropped)
Wilson in 2016
BornJanuary 10, 1936 (age 83)
ResidenceNew Jersey
NationalityUnited States
Alma materRice University
California Institute of Technology
Known forCosmic Microwave Background Radiation
AwardsHenry Draper Medal (1977)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1978)
Scientific career

Robert Woodrow Wilson (born January 10, 1936) is an American astronomer who, along with Arno Allan Penzias, discovered cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) in 1964. The pair won the 1978 Nobel laureate in physics for their discovery.

While working on a new type of antenna at Bell Labs in Holmdel Township, New Jersey, they found a source of noise in the atmosphere that they could not explain.[1] After removing all potential sources of noise, including pigeon droppings on the antenna, the noise was finally identified as CMB, which served as important corroboration of the Big Bang theory.

Life and work

Robert Woodrow Wilson was born on January 10, 1936, in Houston, Texas. He graduated from Lamar High School in River Oaks, in Houston,[2] and studied as an undergraduate at Rice University, also in Houston, where he was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa society. He then earned a PhD in physics at California Institute of Technology.

Wilson and Penzias also won the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1977.[3]

Wilson remained at Bell Laboratories until 1994, when he was named a senior scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[4]

Wilson has been a resident of Holmdel Township, New Jersey.[5]

Wilson married Elizabeth Rhoads Sawin[6] in 1958.[7]


  1. ^ Penzias, A.A.; Wilson, R.W. (1965). "A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Mc/s". Astrophysical Journal. 142: 419–421. Bibcode:1965ApJ...142..419P. doi:10.1086/148307.
  2. ^ "Distinguished HISD Alumni Archived 2012-02-25 at WebCite," Houston Independent School District
  3. ^ "Henry Draper Medal". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 24 February 2011.
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-04-07. Retrieved 2014-04-02.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  5. ^ Nobel Lectures, Physics 1971-1980, Editor Stig Lundqvist, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992. Autobiography. Accessed March 15, 2011. "We still live in the house in Holmdel which we bought when I first came to Bell Laboratories."
  6. ^ "Robert Woodrow Wilson - Biographical". Retrieved 2016-06-07.
  7. ^ "Robert Woodrow Wilson". Retrieved 2016-06-07.


External links

1978 in science

The year 1978 in science and technology involved some significant events, listed below.

Andrew McKellar

Andrew McKellar, MBE, FRSC (February 2, 1910 – May 6, 1960) was a Canadian astronomer who first detected the presence of molecular matter in interstellar space, and found the first evidence of the cosmic radiation left over from the Big Bang.

He was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to Scottish parents, one of six children of John H. and Mary Littleson McKellar. He studied mathematics and physics at the University of British Columbia, graduating in 1930. He began graduate studies at the University of California, being awarded his M.S. in 1932 and a Ph.D. the following year. Applying to the United States National Research Council, he was awarded a post-doctoral study program for two years at MIT.

In 1935 he joined the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, where he performed research into astrophysics. He was married to Mary Crouch (b. June 3, 1911, d. Nov. 30, 2000) in 1938, and the couple bore two children, Andrew Robert William (Bob) (b. March 28, 1945), and Mary Barbara (b. Nov. 1, 1946) (McKellar) Bulman-Fleming. During World War II he served with the Royal Canadian Navy, in the Directorate of Operational Research.

In 1940, McKellar made the first detection of molecular matter in the interstellar medium, identifying the spectrum of the organic compounds cyanogen ("CN") and methyne. ("CH"). The following year, his analysis of the spectra of the cyanogen molecules showed that the surrounding space was very cold with a temperature of approximately -271 °C. At the time, the significance of this was not appreciated; the distinguished Canadian chemist and future Nobel Laureate Gerhard Herzberg said that the temperature measurement "...has of course a very restricted meaning". Almost 25 years later Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson detected microwave radiation coming from all regions of the sky corresponding to the same temperature of -271 °C found by McKellar, thus revealing its ubiquity and relation to the radiation left over from the Big Bang. McKellar's early death, after a prolonged illness, in 1960 precluded him from consideration for the Nobel Prize awarded to Penzias and Wilson in 1978.

Following the war, from 1952 until 1953, he was visiting professor at the University of Toronto department of physics. Between 1956 and 1958 he served as president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, then in 1959 he became president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada for a year. He continued working at the DAO up until four days before he died in Victoria, British Columbia from complications due to lymphoma contracted during his service in the Navy during the War.

He was noted for his work in molecular spectroscopy. Among his contributions was the first estimation of the temperature of interstellar gas (and therefore deep space) as 2.4° K based on the excitation of CN doublet lines, and finding evidence for the carbon-nitrogen nuclear cycle as the energy source for carbon stars. (The temperature estimate was subsequently confirmed with the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation, which has a measured temperature of 2.725 °K.) During his career he was the author (or co-author) of 73 scientific publications.

Arno Allan Penzias

Arno Allan Penzias (; born April 26, 1933) is an American physicist, radio astronomer and Nobel laureate in physics who is co-discoverer of the cosmic microwave background radiation along with Robert Woodrow Wilson, which helped establish the Big Bang theory of cosmology.

Cosmic background radiation

Cosmic background radiation is electromagnetic radiation from the Big Bang. The origin of this radiation depends on the region of the spectrum that is observed. One component is the cosmic microwave background. This component is redshifted photons that have freely streamed from an epoch when the Universe became transparent for the first time to radiation. Its discovery and detailed observations of its properties are considered one of the major confirmations of the Big Bang. The discovery (by chance in 1965) of the cosmic background radiation suggests that the early universe was dominated by a radiation field, a field of extremely high temperature and pressure.The Sunyaev–Zel'dovich effect shows the phenomena of radiant cosmic background radiation interacting with "electron" clouds distorting the spectrum of the radiation.

There is also background radiation in the infrared, x-rays, etc., with different causes, and they can sometimes be resolved into an individual source. See cosmic infrared background and X-ray background. See also cosmic neutrino background and extragalactic background light.

Discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation

The discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation constitutes a major development in modern physical cosmology. The cosmic background radiation (CMB) was measured by Andrew McKellar in 1941 at an effective temperature of 2.3 K using CN stellar absorption lines observed by W. S. Adams. Theoretical work around 1950 showed that the need for a CMB for consistency with the simplest relativistic universe models. In 1964, US physicist Arno Penzias and radio-astronomer Robert Woodrow Wilson rediscovered the CMB, estimating its temperature as 3.5 K, as they experimented with the Holmdel Horn Antenna. The new measurements were accepted as important evidence for a hot early Universe (big bang theory) and as evidence against the rival steady state theory. In 1978, Penzias and Wilson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for their joint measurement.

Hawking (2004 film)

Hawking is a BBC television film about Stephen Hawking's early years as a PhD student at Cambridge University, following his search for the beginning of time, and his struggle against motor neuron disease. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Hawking and premiered in the UK in April 2004.

The film received acclaim, with critics particularly lauding Cumberbatch's performance as Hawking. It was nominated for Best Single Drama in the BAFTA TV Awards in 2005. Cumberbatch won the Golden Nymph for Best Performance by an Actor in a TV Film or Miniseries, and received his first nomination for a BAFTA TV Award for Best Actor.

Cumberbatch's portrayal of Hawking was the first portrayal of the physicist on screen not by himself.

Henry Draper Medal

The Henry Draper Medal is awarded every 4 years by the United States National Academy of Sciences "for investigations in astronomical physics". Named after Henry Draper, the medal is awarded with a gift of USD $15,000. The medal was established under the Draper Fund by his widow, Anna Draper, in honor of her husband, and was first awarded in 1886 to Samuel Pierpont Langley "for numerous investigations of a high order of merit in solar physics, and especially in the domain of radiant energy". It has since been awarded 45 times.

The medal has been awarded to multiple individuals in the same year: in 1977 it was awarded to Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson "for their discovery of the cosmic microwave radiation (a remnant of the very early universe), and their leading role in the discovery of interstellar molecules"; in 1989 to Riccardo Giovanelli and Martha P. Haynes "for the first three-dimensional view of some of the remarkable large-scale filamentary structures of our visible universe"; in 1993 to Ralph Asher Alpher and Robert Herman "for their insight and skill in developing a physical model of the evolution of the universe and in predicting the existence of a microwave background radiation years before this radiation was serendipitously discovered" and in 2001 to R. Paul Butler and Geoffrey Marcy "for their pioneering investigations of planets orbiting other stars via high-precision radial velocities".

Henry Evelyn Derek Scovil

Dr. Henry Evelyn Derrick Scovil, better known as H. E. D. Scovil or Derrick Scovil, is a physicist noted for his contributions to masers and bubble memory.

Scovil received his D. Phil. in 1951 from University of Oxford for his thesis "Investigation of Paramagnetic Substances at Centimetre Wave-Lengths", studied paramagnetic resonance at Clarendon Laboratory, then moved to Bell Labs where he, George Feher, and H. Seidel built the first tunable, solid state maser. In the late 1950s he and colleagues constructed ruby travelling wave masers, cooled to 4.2K by liquid helium, which were then the world's lowest-noise microwave amplifiers. They were used by Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson in their investigations of the cosmic microwave background.

Scovil was awarded the Franklin Institute's 1972 Stuart Ballantine Medal and the 1975 IEEE Morris N. Liebmann Memorial Award "for the concept and development of single-walled magnetic domains (magnetic bubbles), and for recognition of their importance to memory technology". He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

Dr. Scovil was born in 1923 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada and received his Master's degree in physics from the University of British Columbia, where he later briefly taught. He died May 11, 2010 in Port Townsend, Washington, United States. He was predeceased by his wife, Gwendolyn, and survived by his son, Alistair (married to the writer Adrianne Harun) and two grandsons, Peter Angus Scovil and Duncan Christopher Henry Scovil.

Herschel Medal

The Herschel Medal is awarded by the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) for "investigations of outstanding merit in observational astrophysics". It is awarded for a single piece of work so that younger scientists can be candidates for the award. It is named after the RAS's first president, William Herschel. The medal was first awarded in 1974. The medal has been shared twice, in 1977 and 1986. It has been awarded 18 times to a total of 20 people (19 men, one woman), mostly from the UK.

Igor and Grichka Bogdanoff

Igor Yourievitch Bogdanoff and Grichka Yourievitch Bogdanoff (or Bogdanov; born 29 August 1949) are French twin brothers who are television presenters, producers and scientific essayists who, since the 1970s, have presented various subjects in science fiction, popular science and cosmology. They were involved in a number of controversies, most notably the Bogdanov affair, in which it was alleged the brothers wrote nonsensical advanced physics papers that were nonetheless published in reputable scientific journals. They have also been notable because of their personalities, family origins and physical appearances.

January 10

January 10 is the 10th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. 355 days remain until the end of the year (356 in leap years).

List of Rice University people

The list of Rice University people includes notable alumni, former students, faculty, and presidents of Rice University.

May 20

May 20 is the 140th day of the year (141st in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. 225 days remain until the end of the year.

Pyotr Kapitsa

Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa or Peter Kapitza (Russian: Пётр Леони́дович Капи́ца, Romanian: Petre Capiţa (8 July [O.S. 26 June] 1894 – 8 April 1984) was a leading Soviet physicist and Nobel laureate, best known for his work in low-temperature physics.

Robert H. Dicke

Robert Henry Dicke (; May 6, 1916 – March 4, 1997) was an American physicist who made important contributions to the fields of astrophysics, atomic physics, cosmology and gravity.

Robert Herman

Robert Herman (August 29, 1914 – February 13, 1997) was a United States scientist, best known for his work with Ralph Alpher in 1948-50, on estimating the temperature of cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang explosion.

Robert Wilson (astronomer)

For the American astronomer, see Robert Woodrow Wilson

Sir Robert Wilson (16 April 1927 – 2 September 2002) was the son of a Durham miner. He studied physics at King's College, Durham and obtained his PhD in Edinburgh, where he worked at the Royal Observatory on stellar spectra. He was an astronomer, who fully embraced the opportunities provided by the space age and he was one of the pioneers who laid the groundwork for the development of the Great Space Observatories, such as the Hubble Space Telescope.In 1959 Wilson joined the Plasma Spectroscopy Group at Harwell where he was responsible for measuring the temperature in the Zeta experiment, confirming that it had not been hot enough to have produced thermonuclear fusion. As head of the Plasma Spectroscopy Group at Culham, he led a programme of rocket observations of ultraviolet spectra of the sun and stars. By placing telescopes on rockets and satellites it was possible to avoid the absorption of the ultraviolet light by the Earth's atmosphere and gain a great deal of information about the hot plasmas especially in the Sun's chromosphere and corona.

Wilson then became involved in the European Space Research Organization's first astronomy satellite, the TD-1A mission, and led the British collaboration with Belgium in the S2/68 experiment which in 1972 conducted the first all sky survey in the ultraviolet.

Wilson was best known for his role as "father" of the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) satellite. This had started life in 1964 as a proposal to ESRO for a Large Astronomical Satellite, which proved too expensive and studies were abandoned in 1967. Wilson, however, convinced the UK authorities to continue the study, and achieved a radical redesign which at the same time had greater capability and was simpler and therefore cheaper. This concept was called the Ultraviolet Astronomical Satellite (UVAS). It was again submitted to ESRO in November 1968 but despite a favourable assessment report was not accepted. Convinced of the soundness of the concept, Wilson offered the design work to NASA and this ultimately led to IUE, an international project between NASA, ESA and the UK.

In 1972 he relinquished his post as Director, Science Research Council's Astrophysics Research Unit, Culham to become Perren Professor of Astronomy at University College London. He was the George Darwin Lecturer of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1985. He was knighted in 1989.

Woodrow Wilson (disambiguation)

Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) was the 28th President of the United States.

Woodrow Wilson may also refer to:

Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie (1912–1967), American folk singer.

Woodrow Wilson "Red" Sovine (1917–1980), American country and Western singer.

Woodrow "Woodie" Wilson (1925–1994), American stock car racing driver.

Robert Woodrow Wilson, American astronomer.


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