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Wilson, Kenneth Geddes

transitions atoms physical renormalization

(1936– ) US theoretical physicist: discovered the renormalization group technique for treating phase transitions.

While one phase or another of a physical system may be easily analysed theoretically, similar analysis of the transition between phases had proved virtually impossible. This is because the length scale on which physical interactions are taking place changes rapidly through many orders of magnitude. In 1974 Wilson developed the first technique able to cope with such transitions, which are called critical phenomena. An example is the onset of ferromagnetism in a magnet cooled below the point, when the atoms interact with each other and become aligned over large volumes of the magnet. The distance over which ordering of atomic spins occur goes from an atomic diameter to many thousands of diameters under a very small change in temperature.

L Kadanoff (1937– ) had suggested that the effective spin of a block of atoms should be found and then a renormalization (or scaling) transformation made to calculate that of a larger block made up of the small blocks. Wilson developed this method and showed how to calculate the properties of large numbers of atoms strongly interacting with each other, as in magnetic systems, metal alloys or liquid-to-gas transitions. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1982.

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