Biography:Robert Woodrow Wilson

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Short description: American astronomer (born 1936)
Robert Woodrow Wilson
Robert Wilson (28215880301) (cropped).jpg
Wilson in 2016
Born (1936-01-10) January 10, 1936 (age 88)
Houston, Texas, U.S.
Alma materRice University
California Institute of Technology
Known forCosmic microwave background radiation
Elizabeth Rhoads Sawin (m. 1958)
AwardsHenry Draper Medal (1977)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1978)
Scientific career
InstitutionsBell Laboratories
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

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.[1] The pair won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for its discovery.[2]

While doing tests and experiments with the Holmdel Horn Antenna at Bell Labs in Holmdel Township, New Jersey, Wilson and Penzias discovered a source of noise in the atmosphere that they could not explain.[3] 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.

In 1970, Wilson led a team that made the first detection of a rotational spectral line of carbon monoxide (CO) in an astronomical object, the Orion Nebula, and eight other galactic sources.[4] Subsequently, CO observations became the standard method of tracing cool molecular interstellar gas, and detection of CO was the foundational event for the fields of millimeter and submillimeter astronomy.

Life and work

Penzias and Wilson stand at the 15 meter Holmdel Horn Antenna that brought their most notable discovery

Robert Woodrow Wilson was born on January 10, 1936, in Houston, Texas. He graduated from Lamar High School in River Oaks, in Houston,[5] 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. His thesis advisors at Caltech included John Bolton[6] and Maarten Schmidt.[6]

Wilson and Penzias also won the Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1977.[7] Wilson received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement in 1987.[8]

Wilson remained at Bell Laboratories until 1994, when he was named a senior scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts.[9]

Wilson has been a resident of Holmdel Township, New Jersey.[10]

Wilson married Elizabeth Rhoads Sawin[11] in 1958.[12]

Wilson is one of the 20 American recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics to sign a letter addressed to President George W. Bush in May 2008, urging him to "reverse the damage done to basic science research in the Fiscal Year 2008 Omnibus Appropriations Bill" by requesting additional emergency funding for the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.[13]

Wilson was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2009.[14]


  1. May 2014, Mike Wall 20 (May 20, 2014). "Cosmic Anniversary: 'Big Bang Echo' Discovered 50 Years Ago Today". 
  2. "The Nobel Prize in Physics 1978". 
  3. Penzias, A.A.; Wilson, R.W. (1965). "A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Mc/s". Astrophysical Journal 142: 419–421. doi:10.1086/148307. Bibcode1965ApJ...142..419P. 
  4. Wilson, R.W.; Jefferts, K.B.; Penzias, A.A. (1970). "Carbon Monoxide in the Orion Nebula". Astrophysical Journal 161: L43–L44. doi:10.1086/180567. Bibcode1970ApJ...161L..43W. 
  5. "Distinguished HISD Alumni ," Houston Independent School District
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Robert Woodrow Wilson / Biographical". "My thesis project was to have been hydrogen-line interferometry, but when the first plans for a local oscillator system didn’t work out, I used the galactic survey as the basis for my thesis. John Bolton returned to Australia before I completed my Ph.D. Maarten Schmidt, who had previously done galactic research and was currently working on quasars, saw me through the last months of thesis work. I remained at Caltech for an additional year as a postdoctoral fellow to finish several projects in which I was involved." 
  7. "Henry Draper Medal". National Academy of Sciences. 
  8. "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement. 
  9. "Facts on File History Database Center". 
  10. Nobel Lectures, Physics 1971–1980, Editor Stig Lundqvist, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992. Miss nobel-id as parameter . Accessed March 15, 2011. "We still live in the house in Holmdel which we bought when I first came to Bell Laboratories."
  11. "Robert Woodrow Wilson - Biographical". 
  12. "Robert Woodrow Wilson". 
  13. "A Letter from America's Physics Nobel Laureates". 
  14. "APS Member History". 


  • "Distinguished HISD Alumni", Houston Independent School District, Houston, Texas, 2008.
  • Cite Video | BBC/WGBH BOSTON | NOVA #519 | A Whisper From Space | Copyright 1978 | Available With Permission | Consolidated Aircraft - Ronkonkoma, New York

External links