Effective

I just learned* that Ken Wilson died a few days ago (June 15th). Wilson is another of the giants that you don’t hear much about in the popular media coverage of the great ideas in Physics that form the bedrock of so much of what we do. You still get people saying utter nonsense about “hiding infinities” in physics and so forth (often in discussions on blogs and various similar forums (fora?)) because what he taught us all about effective field theory and the renormalization group still is only taught in some advanced classes on quantum field theory (and still not as well or frequently as it should be in such classes … it has only relatively recently begun to be put at the forefront in textbooks on the subject, such as Tony Zee’s). In the cut and thrust of the mainstream of research though, I’m happy to see that so much of Wilson’s legacy is in the most basic fabric of the language we use to discuss results and ideas in particle physics, condensed matter physics, quantum gravity, string theory, and so forth.

I had the distinct privilege of having Joe Polchinski as a mentor for some of my postdoc years, who is known as being one of the current giants on the scene who most channels Wilson in his approach to things. I like to think a little rubbed off on me, and I essentially re-thought everything I ever learned about field theory and string theory (and possibly physics in general) with the “effective” point of view during and after my time close to Joe. There’s even a set of pages in the popular level graphic book I’m working on that’s primarily about a view of physics that is in the spirit of the Wilsonian view of things, perhaps pushed to an extreme. So I’m a big fan of Wilson (although I’ve never met him, so I suppose I’m a fan of his physics and its legacy), and we all owe him a great debt for helping unlock what I think are profound truths about how the universe works at its core. Truths that are still being rather slow to be learned, unfortunately.

*John Preskill wrote a really great post about Wilson over at Quantum Frontiers, and Michael Banks has a really good piece in Physics World. I recommend them.

-cvj

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