Theoretical physicist Kenneth Wilson, who received the 1982 Nobel Prize in Physics, died earlier this year. (See his obituary in Physics Today, November 2013, page 65.) I’d like to share with readers my first encounters with Ken, when we were both undergraduates.

On a particular Saturday in late fall of 1956, when I was a junior at Cornell University, two events were taking place in Ithaca, New York. One was the Heptagonal Indoor Track and Field meet, in which all Ivy League schools participate. The other was the annual William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition, a very challenging national undergraduate contest. Six problems were to be solved in three hours in the morning, and another six in three hours in the afternoon. By “challenging” I mean that the median score is often only about 1 out of 12.

As a dual major in math and physics, I had decided to try my hand at the Putnam. Those Cornellians who had signed up arrived at the exam room to find an additional competitor, Ken Wilson, a senior at Harvard University. Not only was Ken taking the Putnam exam in Ithaca by special permission, but he was also running the mile that evening in the Heptagonal Games. The star miler in the Ivy League at the time was a Harvard freshman named William “French” Anderson, who would go on to become a prominent physician. During the lunch break, Ken explained to me that his job was to be a pacer: He would run very fast, too fast for a miler, to lead Anderson but then drop back.

When the afternoon Putnam session had ended, I was a bit discouraged. I had picked up an undetermined number of partial credits, but that was all. I asked Ken how he had done. He said he thought he had gotten maybe 11 correct and partial credits on the 12th. It was a humbling experience for me. As it turned out, Ken finished in the top five in the country. (The Putnam folk do not differentiate among the top five.) In the evening, Ken did his running duty as the pacer, and Anderson won the mile.

Late the next spring, the outdoor Heptagonal Games were also held in Ithaca. I sought out Ken. He was excited because his coach had told him that since this would be the last race of his career, he could run the mile at his own speed and not pace Anderson. So he did, and he won, beating Anderson and the rest of the field.