Robert Woodrow Wilson Biography

Astronomer, Scientist, Physicist (1936–)
Robert Woodrow Wilson is a Nobel Prize–winning radio astronomer and physicist best known for a discovery that advanced the Big Bang model of creation.


Born in Texas in 1936, Robert Woodrow Wilson began studying radio astronomy as a graduate student at Caltech. While working at Bell Labs in New Jersey, he and associate Arno Penzias discovered the presence of a background signal through the lab's antenna. The two determined that the signal was evidence of the universe's creation via the Big Bang, a discovery that garnered them the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics. Wilson went on to serve as head of Bell's Radio Physics Research Department, before joining the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1994.

Early Years and Education

Robert Woodrow Wilson was born on January 10, 1936, in Houston, Texas. The son of an oil-well service employee, Wilson often made trips into the field with his father and enjoyed tinkering with electronics as a child.

At Houston's Lamar High School, Wilson played trombone in the marching band and excelled in math and science, but otherwise was an undistinguished student. He buckled down after being admitted to Rice University, graduating with honors in physics in 1957.

Wilson was unsure where to apply his focus after beginning his graduate studies at Caltech, but he soon realized that his interests in physics and electronics were well suited for radio astronomy. He helped establish the Owens Valley Radio Observatory and worked with Bell Laboratories to develop traveling-wave maser amplifiers, earning his Ph.D. in 1962.

CMB Discovery and Nobel Prize

In 1963, Wilson went to work for Bell in Holmdel, New Jersey, where he was paired with German-born radio astronomer Arno Penzias. The two wanted to use the lab's antenna to research radiation in gas clouds between stars, but were stymied by the presence of a uniform background signal that persisted despite thorough examination of the instruments. Eventually, after conferring with Princeton University's Robert Dicke, Wilson and Penzias realized they had found evidence of cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), the remnant of the Big Bang that gave birth to the universe some 13.7 billion years ago.

Wilson and Penzias published their findings in a 1965 edition of the Astrophysical Journal Letters, and within a decade the Big Bang came to be recognized as the standard model for the universe's inception. For their discovery, they were honored in 1977 with the Henry Draper Award and the Herschel Medal, and in 1978 they shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with the Soviet Union's Pyotr Kapitsa.

Other Work and Personal

In the late 1960s, Wilson and Penzias turned their attention to millimeter-wave astronomy and discovered the presence of carbon monoxide and other molecules in interstellar clouds. Their research led to the creation of a millimeter-wave facility in Holmdel, with Wilson serving as project director for the design and construction of a suitable antenna.

In 1976, Wilson was named head of Bell’s Radio Physics Research Department. He became a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1979 and also joined the International Astronomical Union and American Physical Society. In 1994, he took a position with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Wilson lives in Holmdel with his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Sawin Wilson. Married since 1958, they have three children.

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