He completed his undergraduate studies in 1956, then did graduate work at the California Institute of Technology. Despite his demonstrated mathematical prowess, he chose physics as the subject of his studies. “It was connected to the real world,” he explained.
At Caltech, he worked with Nobel laureates including Murray Gell-Mann and began an involvement with the study of elementary particles and with quantum field theory that led to his interest in renormalization and to his Nobel work.
He received his doctorate in 1961 and began working at the Swiss-based CERN, the European nuclear research center. Two years later, was recruited to the physics faculty at Cornell in Ithaca, N.Y.
“I accepted the offer because Cornell was a good university, was out in the country and was reputed to have a good folk dancing group, folk-dancing being a hobby I had taken up as a graduate student,” he wrote in a biographical statement when he received the Nobel.
He was an early user of computers, which attracted him by their promise of coping quickly with the vast number of equations generated by many molecules influencing each other during phase transitions.
In 1982, Dr. Wilson married Alison Brown, an authority on computers. Survivors include his wife, of Gray; his stepmother, Therese Wilson of Cambridge, Mass.; a brother; a sister; a stepsister; and two stepbrothers.
Dr. Wilson was known for his eagerness to avail himself of the power of computers, and he was an advocate for creation of supercomputer centers in the United States. In the 1980s, he also pushed the National Science Foundation to get the supercomputers connected by innovative technologies that became the Internet.
In an interview once, he was asked where the inspiration came from for a key research step.
“From my utter astonishment at the capabilities of the Hewlett-Packard pocket calculator,” he said.
He continued: “I buy this thing and I can’t take my eyes off it, and I have to figure out something that I can actually do that would somehow enable me to have fun with this calculator.”