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Kenneth Wilson, 77; awarded Nobel Prize for physics

Kenneth Wilson was a pioneering physicist who grew up in Waltham.

Kenneth Wilson was a pioneering physicist who grew up in Waltham.

SACO, Maine — Kenneth Wilson, a physicist who earned a Nobel Prize for pioneering work that changed the way physicists think about phase transitions, died Saturday at the age of 77.

Mr. Wilson, who died in a nursing home from complications of lymphoma, was in the physics department at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1982 for applying his research in quantum physics to phase transitions, the transformation that occurs when a substance goes from, say, liquid to gas. Mr. Wilson created a mathematical tool called the renormalization group that is still used in physics.

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The son of a Harvard chemist, the Waltham native joined Cornell University in 1963 and later retired from Ohio State University, where he founded the Physics Education Research Group.

Mr. Wilson, also an avid hiker, loved to talk physics, his wife, Alison Brown said.

‘‘He was very patient and willing to explain things to people. He never talked down to people and made them feel like they were dumb,’’ Brown said. ‘‘He was a kind person. He had a good way of wanting to explain what he was doing, because he always loved what he was doing.’’

The couple met while they were at Cornell, where Brown worked in the computing center. They moved to Maine in 1995, residing in Gray, and Mr. Wilson remained on staff at Ohio State until retiring in 2006.

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