PORTLAND — Physicist Kenneth Wilson, who earned a Nobel Prize for pioneering work that changed the way physicists think about phase transitions, has died in Maine, where he retired to enjoy kayaking with his wife. He was 77.
Wilson, who died from complications of lymphoma, was in the physics department at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., when he won the Nobel Prize in 1982 for applying his research in quantum physics to phase transitions, the transformation that occurs when a substance goes from, say, liquid to gas. Wilson created a mathematical tool called the renormalization group that is still widely used in physics.
The son of a Harvard University chemist, the Waltham, Mass., native joined Cornell University in 1963 and later retired from Ohio State University, where he founded the Physics Education Research Group.
His wife, Alison Brown, still recalls the morning they learned of the Nobel Prize. She said on Tuesday that she eventually had to take the phone off the hook so he could finish his breakfast.
Wilson loved to talk physics, she said.
“He was very patient and willing to explain things to people. He never talked down to people and made them feel like they were dumb,” Brown said.
“He was a kind person. He had a good way of wanting to explain what he was doing, because he always loved what he was doing.”
Part of Wilson’s gift was his ability to remain focused on complex problems, said Kurt Gottfried, emeritus professor of physics at Cornell.
His first project at Cornell involving elementary particle physics took him about five years to complete, Gottfried said.
“He worked very difficult problems that required concentration for a long time — I mean months and years,” Gottfried said.
In his down time, Wilson was an avid hiker who enjoyed treks in the Swiss Alps and Italian Dolomites, as well as the mountains of New Zealand, his wife said.
Wilson didn’t talk much during the hikes because he was busy working out problems, she said.
“His brain was still turning over. He was cogitating on whatever problem he was working on,” she said.
The couple met through international folk dancing, a passion they both shared, while they were at Cornell, where Brown worked in the computing center.
Their love of kayaking brought them to Maine.
The couple moved to Maine in 1995, residing in Gray, and Wilson remained on staff at Ohio State until retiring in 2008.
He died Saturday in a nursing home in Saco, his wife said.