Biography and History

David Todd Wilkinson was born on May 13, 1935, in Hillsdale, Michigan. He received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in physics from the University of Michigan. In 1963, he became an instructor in the Department of Physics at Princeton University, where he would spend his entire academic career. He was appointed assistant professor at Princeton in 1965, received tenure in 1968, and served as department chairman from 1987 to 1990. He retired from Princeton in 2002 as the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Professor of Physics Emeritus.

Wilkinson was a pioneer in the field of cosmic microwave background radiation research, in which scientists, starting in the mid-1960s, began attempting to measure and analyze the faint energy, in the form of radio microwaves, postulated to have resulted from the “Big Bang” birth of the universe. Wilkinson and his colleagues were able to confirm the existence of this energy -- first, by building a radiometer and listening from atop Princeton's Guyot Hall in 1965; next, by flying balloons in cool, dry, and high locations in West Virginia, California, Hawaii, and Saskatoon, Canada; and, later, by helping to design instruments for satellites to be launched into outer space. The first of these space projects was the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, of which Wilkinson was a principle founder, in 1975, and participant. It was launched in 1989 and the resulting data confirmed minute variations in temperature, or anisotropy, in the cosmic microwave background radiation in 1992. In 1996, Wilkinson was named the Instrument Scientist on the follow-up project to COBE, the Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP), a collaboration between Princeton and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to produce an even more detailed “snapshot” of the structure and composition of the early universe. Wilkinson, referred to by his colleagues as the “father of MAP,” was present at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on June 30, 2001, when the MAP satellite was launched.

Wilkinson was also a driving force behind Princeton's Optical Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (OSETI) project, which began in 1999 with the refurbishing of Fitz-Randolph Observatory and its 36-inch reflecting telescope. It brought together Princeton scientists, amateur astronomers, and volunteers from the local community to look for pulses of laser light from stars in conjunction with a team at Harvard University.

Wilkinson was an enthusiastic teacher and mentor of undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral students, many of whom continue the work he started in the field of experimental cosmology. In 1996, he was rewarded for his undergraduate teaching with the Princeton President's Award for Distinguished Teaching. He received an honorary degree from the University of Chicago and the National Academy of Science's James Craig Watson Medal for lifetime achievements. Wilkinson died on September 5, 2002, after a prolonged battle with lymphatic cancer. On February 11, 2003, NASA held a highly-publicized press conference that released the most detailed map to date of the early, post-Big Bang universe, based on analyses of the first year's worth of data from the MAP satellite, which was renamed the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) in his honor.

Source: From the finding aid for C0945

  • David Wilkinson Papers. 1957-2002 (inclusive), 1961-2001 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0945

    The David Wilkinson Papers consists of the scientific writings, professional correspondence, and subject and project files of David T. Wilkinson (1935-2002), the renowned experimental physicist and cosmologist who taught and conducted research in the Department of Physics at Princeton University from 1963 until his retirement in 2002. Wilkinson was a pioneer in the study and analysis of cosmic microwave background radiation, the nature and existence of which have yielded, through his lifetime's work, solid evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe's birth. This collection contains the administrative (including his NASA and/or National Science Foundation funding and accounting paperwork) and background history of two of Wilkinson's main projects -- the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) and Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP) -- as well as evidence of the many and varied academic activities in his career.