Robert R. Wilson was born in Frontier, Wyoming, in 1914 and died in 2000. In 1932 he arrived at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, at that time one of the top American sites for both experimental and theoretical physics due to the efforts of Ernest O. Lawrence and J. Robert Oppenheimer.

He was fired twice from the Rad Lab, and twice he was offered his job back. The first time he accepted; the second time he decided instead to go to Princeton.

When Robert Oppenheimer's secret laboratory for research on the atomic bomb Los Alamos opened in 1943, Wilson was appointed as head of the Cyclotron Group (R-1) by Oppenheimer. At the age of 29, he was the youngest group leader in the experimental division.

Toward the end of the war Wilson worked effectively for civilian control of atomic energy. He played a leading role in the formation of the Federation of Atomic Scientists, became its chairman in 1946, and later served a term as a member of its council and a second term as chairman. He worked actively in the Association of Los Alamos Scientists.
Both organizations were formed, as he puts it, "for the expiation of our sin" through full public knowledge and through support of disarmament.

Just after World War II, in response to military concern, he worked on the subject of radiation damage to human body. Perhaps the most important result of this work was realization of the importance of the Bragg peak. This was the initiation of Hadrontherapy and he published it in the technical journal "Radiology".

The original picture from R. R. Wilson's paper on protontherapy.
(Radiology 47, pp. 487491, 1946) 

After Los Alamos he went to Harvard where he built a cyclotron. Amongst other things that machine was employed for many years treating cancer victims with proton beams, and thus making immediate practical application of the concept of a Bragg peak.

Robert Wilson pioneered the development of electron synchrotrons at Cornell University's Newman Laboratory for Nuclear Studies. In 1967 he became the founding director of the National Accelerator Laboratory (NAL, today FNAL), which was to construct the largest particle accelerator of its day.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson said Dr. Wilson had ''an unerring sense of what is important to the science of high-energy physics and its importance to the Nation.''

This aspect is well illustrated by the following event.

In 1969, when Wilson was in the hot seat testifying before the Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Sen. John Pastore demanded to know how a multimillion-dollar particle accelerator (the Fermilab accelerator) improved the security of the Country.
Senator: "Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in anyway involves the security of the Country?"
Wilson: "No, Sir. I don't believe so."
Senator: "Nothing at all?"
Wilson: "Nothing at all."
Senator: "It has no value in that respect?"
Wilson: "It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of man, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our Country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our Country except to make it worth defending."

Wilson wanted Fermilab to be an appealing place to work, believing that external harmony would encourage internal harmony as well, and laboured personally to keep it from looking like a stereotypical "government lab", playing a key role in its design and architecture. Wilson's creativity extended from accelerators to the entire visual aestheticism of Fermilab, enhancing the site's natural beauty with his artistic touch in sculpture and architecture. One example is a hyperbolic obelisk named "Acqua alle Funi" which is an Italian expression (also used as a rallying cry by some of the constructors of the Fermilab accelerator during the desperate moments that preceded its successful operation in 1972.)


The Hyperbolic Obelisk: Acqua alle Funi