Photo of Robert Rathbun Wilson

Robert Rathbun Wilson

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For unusual ingenuity in designing experiments to explore the fundamental particles of matter and in designing and constructing the machines to produce the particles, culminating in the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

In 1967, some of America’s most brilliant scientists flocked to a building nestled in the cornfields of Illinois, surrounded by bison, prairie and fishing holes. A Wyoming-born cowboy, Robert Rathbun Wilson, a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, modeled FermiLab after the Beauvais Cathedral in France.

The structure housed one of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators, used for research on subatomic particles by smashing them together at a high energy.

Wilson resigned from Fermilab in 1978, frustrated by a lack of government funding – but not before lecturing a joint committee of Congress about the importance of basic science.

In 1969, he touted the knowledge gained at FermiLab as contributing to “our love of culture” – similar to the works of great sculptors and painters – when a senator questioned the lab’s value to national defense.

“It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending,” he replied.