Raymond N. Wilson studied physics at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom, and then specialized in optical engineering at Imperial College London. After finishing national service in 1952, he spent 20 years shuttling between academic institutions such as Imperial College and the National Physical Laboratory, and optics firms, particularly Karl Zeiss in Oberkochen, Germany, finally specializing in astronomical instruments.
A former colleague reports him as saying, “If you love optics but want nothing to do with its military applications, working on telescopes is the fulfilment of a dream.” In 1972, Wilson joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO), first in Geneva and then Garching, Germany, and would remain there for more than 20 years. He faced the same problems encountered by all telescope designers of the time: how do you keep your mirror in its ideal shape as it moves to different inclinations, while also dealing with wind and temperature variations? His solution was to abandon the idea of a rigid mirror entirely and build a thin, flexible one supported by computer-controlled actuators on a rigid frame. Wilson developed a closed-loop computer system that sensed any problems of the telescope’s vision from distortion of the mirror and adjusted the mirror’s shape to correct them on a minute-by-minute basis.
Wilson’s idea was first tested on ESO’s successful New Technology Telescope, completed in 1989, and then was applied in all four main mirrors of the Very Large Telescope, which began operations in 1998. He has been awarded prizes by Geneva University, the German Astronomical Society and the French Academy of Sciences. He was also made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour. Wilson retired from ESO in 1993 to write a two volume book distilling his knowledge of telescope optics. Since then, he has pursued studies in other areas including history, economics, cosmology, and biology. Ray Wilson received the Tycho Brahe Prize in 2010.