NEWS
10/08/2019 07:00 EDT | Updated 10/08/2019 14:14 EDT

James Peebles, Canadian-Born Scientist, Wins Nobel Prize In Physics

The Princeton professor attended the University of Manitoba.

STOCKHOLM — Canadian-American scientist James Peebles is one of three people 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. The 84-year-old cosmologist won the award “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology.” 

His work examining cosmic microwave background radiation — a leftover from the Big Bang — has helped define the way we understand the universe and the ways galaxies are formed. Peebles is hailed as one of the most influential cosmologists of his time who realized the importance of the cosmic radiation background born of the Big Bang.

In announcing the award in Sweden on Tuesday, the Nobel committee said that 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.

Eduardo Munoz/REUTERS
Canadian-American scientist James Peebles poses for a picture at his home in Princeton, N.J., on Oct. 8, 2019.

“This year’s Nobel laureates in physics have painted a picture of the universe far stranger and more wonderful than we ever could have imagined,” said Ulf Danielsson of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which selected the laureates. “Our view of our place in the universe will never be the same again.”

Peebles told a news conference he was uneasy about starting work in the field in 1964 at the invitation of Robert Dicke, a professor 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.”

You should enter science because you are fascinated by it. That’s what I did.James Peebles, Nobel Prize winner

Peebles said the awards and prizes are “very much appreciated,” but added 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 in 1968 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 married Alison Peebles in 1958 and together they have three children and six grandchildren. 

Peebles said he told his wife about the award. “And of course her reaction was, ‘Oh my God!’”

“I have a peaceful life,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s somehow now totally messed up!”

Claudio Bresciani via REUTERS
From left, James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz appear on a screen during a news conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm on Oct. 8, 2019.

Peebles shares the prize with Swiss scientists Michel Mayor, 77, and Didier Queloz, 53, both of the University of Geneva. They were honoured for finding an exoplanet — a planet outside our solar system— that orbits a sun-like star, the Nobel committee said.

Mayor and Queloz were credited with having “started a revolution in astronomy,” notably with the discovery of exoplanet 51 Pegasi B, a gaseous ball comparable with Jupiter, in 1995. The find came at a time when “no one knew whether exoplanets existed or not,” Mayor recalled.

“Prestigious astronomers had been searching for them for years, in vain!” Mayor quipped.

The committee said more than 4,000 exoplanets have since been found in the Milky Way since then.

The three men will share a 9 million kronor ($1.2 million) cash award, a gold medal and a diploma. The laureates will receive them at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

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.

With files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2019.