Robert Woodrow Wilson


My grandparents moved to Texas from the South after the U.S. Civil War and settled on small farms in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Both families emphasized education as the way to improve their children’s lives and both my parents managed to graduate from college. After receiving an M.A. in chemistry from Rice University, my father worked for an oil well service company in Houston. I was born on January, 10, 1936. Two sisters followed, three and seven years later.

I attended public school in Houston. I took piano lessons for several years, and in high school, I played trombone in the marching band. I remember especially enjoying two seasonal activities: ice skating with the Houston Figure Skating Club in the winter and visiting an aunt and uncle’s farm in west Texas in the summer.

During my pre-college years I went on many trips with my father into the oil fields to visit their operations. On Saturday mornings I often went with him to visit the company shop. I puttered around the machine, electronics, and automobile shops while he carried on his business. Both of my parents are inveterate do-it-yourselfers, almost no task being beneath their dignity or beyond their ingenuity. Having picked up a keen interest in electronics from my father, I used to fix radios and later television sets for fun and spending money. I built my own hi-fi set and enjoyed helping friends with their amateur radio transmitters, but lost interest as soon as they worked.

My high school career was undistinguished except for math and science. However, having barely been admitted to Rice University, I found that I enjoyed the courses and the elation of success and graduated with honors in physics. I did a senior thesis with C.F. Squire building a regulator for a magnet for use in low-temperature physics. Following that I had a summer job with Exxon and obtained my first patent. It covered the high-voltage pulse generator for a pulsed neutron source in a down-hole well-logging tool.

Following Rice, I went to Caltech for a Ph.D in physics, without any strong idea of what I wanted to do for a thesis topic. For the first year I lived in the Athenaeum (faculty club) where I became acquainted with a small group of graduate students and visiting faculty members, with whom I often dined and went on weekend outings. When the end of my second quarter approached, I needed a trial research project. David Dewhirst, a Cambridge astronomer and one of the Athenaeum group, suggested that I see John Bolton and Gordon Stanley about radio astronomy. The situation seemed perfect for me. John had come to Caltech to build the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, and the heavy construction was finished. Radio astronomy offered a nice mixture of electronics and physics.

My introduction to radio astronomy was, however, delayed for a summer. I returned to Houston to court and marry Elizabeth Rhoads Sawin, whose spirit and varied interests have added much to my happiness during our twenty-year marriage.

The following year I took my first astronomy courses and went to the observatory during school breaks. That summer John Bolton asked me to join him in observing some of the bright regions on a radio map of the Milky Way which had been made by Westerhaut. By the end of the summer, this project had expanded to making a complete map of that part of the Milky Way which was visible to us. When it was time to measure our chart records and start drawing contour maps from the data, John set up a drawing board in his office, and worked with me on the project. This was typical of John. Whatever the project, whether digging a hole, surveying, laying cables, observing, or reducing data, John would work along with the others. His interest in our map-making and the location of the drawing board kept me at the map-making task instead of designing the next piece of equipment, which would have been my natural inclination.

Our first son, Philip, was born during my fourth year at Caltech. He had many trips to the Owens Valley Radio Observatory, the first at the age of two weeks. He and Betsy were readily accepted at the observatory.

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.

The project of setting up and running the Owens Valley Radio Observatory was very much a community effort. At one time or another I worked with all of the staff and other students and learned from all of them. My collaborations with V. Radhakrishram and B.G. Clark were especially fruitful. I also had the opportunity to meet many of the world’s astronomers who visited Caltech.

In 1961, H.E.D. Scovil at Bell Labs offered to help us make a pair of traveling-wave maser amplifiers for the interferometer. V. Radhakrishran got the job of going to Bell Labs to make our masers. I had wanted to go, but had not yet completed my degree work. I worked with Rad on that project, though, and developed a good feeling toward Bell Labs which was later a strong influence on my decision to take a job there.

I joined Bell Laboratories at Crawford Hill in 1963 as part of A.B. Crawford’s Radio Research department in R. Kompfner’s laboratory. I started working with the only other radio astronomer, Arno Penzias, who had been there about two years. Our early radio astronomy projects are described in my Nobel lecture.

With the creation of Comsat by U.S. Congress, Bell System satellite efforts and related space research were reduced. In 1965 Arno and I were told that the radio astronomy effort could only be supported at the level of one full-time staff member, even though Art Crawford and Rudi Kompfner strongly supported our astronomical research. Arno and I agreed that having two half-time radio astronomers was a better solution to our problem than having one full-time one, so we started taking on other projects. The first one was a joint project – a propagation experiment on a terrestrial path using a 10.6µ carbon dioxide laser as a source. Following that, I did two applied radio astronomy projects. For the first, I designed a device we called the Sun Tracker. It automatically pointed to the sun while it was up every day and measured the attenuation of the sun’s cm-wave radiation in the earth’s atmosphere. Since, as we expected, the attenuation was large for too much of the time for a practical satellite system, I next set up three fixed-pointed radiometers at spaced locations to check on the feasibility of working around heavy rains.

In 1969 Arno suggested that we start doing millimeter wave astronomy. We could take the low noise millimeter-wave receivers which had been developed at Crawford Hill by C.A. Burrus and W.M. Sharpless for a waveguide communication system and make an astronomical receiver with them. We planned to use it at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s new 36-foot radio telescope at Kitt Peak in Arizona. Our observations began in 1969 with a continuum receiver. The next year, K.B. Jefferts joined us, and with much help from C.A. Burrus at Crawford Hill and S. Weinreb at NRAO we made a spectral line receiver at 100 – 120 GHz. We were excited to discover unexpectedly large amounts of carbon monoxide in a molecular cloud behind the Orion Nebula. We quickly found that CO is widely distributed in our galaxy and so abundant that the rare isotopic species 13C16O and 12C18O were readily measurable. We soon observed a number of other simple molecules. Our major efforts were directed toward isotope ratios as a probe of nucleogenesis and understanding the structure of molecular clouds.

In 1972, S.J. Buchsbaum, who was our new executive director, revived an earlier proposal and suggested that we build a millimeter-wave facility at Crawford Hill. It was to be used partly for radio astronomy, and partly to monitor the beacons on the Comstar satellites which AT&T was planning to put up. I was project director for the design and construction of the antenna and was responsible for the equipment and programming necessary to make it a leading millimeter-radio telescope. The winter of 1977 – 78 was our first good observing season with the 7-meter antenna and I am looking forward to several more years of millimeter wave astronomy with it.

We still live in the house in Holmdel which we bought when I first came to Bell Laboratories. Our two younger children were born here, Suzanne in 1963, and Randal in 1967. We have come to enjoy the eastern woodlands and I now look forward to skiing and outdoor ice skating with my family and associates in the winter. I spend many evenings reading or continuing the day’s work, but I also enjoy playing the piano, jogging, and traveling with the family.

B.A. 1957 Rice University “with honors in Physics”.
Ph.D. 1962 California Institute of Technology.
Married 1958 Elizabeth Rhoads Sawin.
Caltech, Research Fellow 1962 – 1963.
Bell Laboratories 1963-
Member of Technical Staff 1963- 1976.
Head Radio Physics Research Department 1976-
Adjunct Professor, State University of New York (SUNY) 1978-
American Astronomical Society
International Astronomical Union
American Physical Society
International Union of Radio Sciences
American Academy of Arts and Sciences
Phi Beta Kappa
Sigma Xi
Henry Draper Award 1977
Herschel Medal 1977

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and later published in the book series Les Prix Nobel/ Nobel Lectures/The Nobel Prizes. The information is sometimes updated with an addendum submitted by the Laureate.

From Nobel Lectures, Physics 1971-1980, Editor Stig Lundqvist, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1992

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1978

To cite this section
MLA style: Robert Woodrow Wilson – Biographical. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Fri. 8 Dec 2023. <>

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