The Canadian Press
STOCKHOLM–Canadian-born scientist James Peebles is one of three researchers who have won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their contributions to the understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place within it.
Peebles, born in the Winnipeg neighbourhood of St. Boniface, is a physics professor at Princeton University in New Jersey. He won the award “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology.”
In announcing the award in Sweden today, the Nobel committee said Peebles’ work laid a foundation for the transformation of cosmology over the last 50 years and is the basis of our contemporary ideas about the universe “from the Big Bang to the present day.”
Peebles told a news conference he was uneasy about starting work in the field in 1964 at the invitation of professor Robert Dicke, who was his mentor.
“But I could think of one or two things to do in cosmology and each of them suggested something else and I just kept going,” he said.
“When the observations started catching up with the theory, I was at regular intervals startled at the great power in the advances in technology to test these ideas.”
Peebles said the awards and prizes are “very much appreciated” but said that’s not why young people should study the sciences.
“You should enter it for the love of the science,” he said.
“You should enter science because you are fascinated by it. That’s what I did.”
Peebles completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Manitoba before moving to Princeton for graduate school.
He received his PhD in physics from Princeton in 1962 and has taught at the university since, first as an instructor and researcher in the early 1960s and then as an assistant professor in 1965.
Peebles became an associate professor three years later and full professor in 1972. He transferred to emeritus status in 2000.
He says in his biography for Princeton that he has a “preference for underappreciated issues” in physical cosmology.
“They are not uncommon, despite the great advances from the small science I encountered a half century ago to today’s big science,” he writes in the bio.
“What might we learn from lines of research that are off the beaten track? They check accepted ideas, always a Good Thing, and there is the chance Nature has prepared yet another surprise for us.”
Peebles has honourary doctorates from a string of Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto, McMaster University and most recently the University of British Columbia.
He is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Order of Manitoba.
The president of Princeton said his one-time professor exemplifies the university’s ethos.
“Jim Peebles is an extraordinary physicist, a man who has thought deeply and clearly about the structure of the universe,” Christopher Eisgruber said in a written statement.
“During my own time as a physics major, he was a popular teacher and a fixture in the undergraduate program, and I am among the many students who benefited from his superb instruction.”
Peebles is the author or co-author of five books, including “Physical Cosmology” and “Finding the Big Bang.”
Peebles shares the Nobel prize with Swiss scientists Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz won “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.”
Mayor and Queloz announced their discovery of the planet, known as 51 Pegasi B, 24 years ago.
The three men will share a 9 million kronor (C$1.2 million) cash award, a gold medal and a diploma. The laureates will receive them at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.
Peebles is the second Canadian in a row to win the physics prize. The University of Waterloo’s Donna Strickland picked up the honour in 2018 for her “method of generating high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses.”
This year’s double-header Literature Prizes will be awarded Thursday and the Peace Prize will be announced on Friday. The economics prize will be awarded on Oct. 14.
The 2018 literature prize was suspended after a scandal rocked the Swedish Academy. The body plans to award it this year, along with announcing the 2019 laureate.