James Peebles, a Winnipeg-born cosmologist who correctly predicted the discovery of a remote signal from the very early universe, has won the Nobel Prize in physics, making him the third Canadian to win the coveted award in five years.
Dr. Peebles, 84, is a professor emeritus at Princeton University, where he is known for pioneering theoretical work discerning the origin and nature of the cosmos since the 1960s.
He shares one half of this year’s physics prize, valued at about $1.5-million. The other half is divided between Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, two Swiss researchers who were among the first to discover planets beyond our solar system.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Dr. Peebles received his undergraduate degree at the University of Manitoba and then went on to graduate work at Princeton starting in 1958. By 1964, he was working on a theoretical idea that suggested astronomers might be able to detect a faint radio signal emanating from all directions in space that originated billions of years ago, when the universe was cooling down after its fiery origins in the Big Bang.
The signal was first detected the following year by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who together won the Nobel in 1978 for their experimental work.
“It was never a plan of great discovery,” Dr. Peebles said over the phone during a news conference after this year’s physics prize was announced. “These things just happen.”
Dr. Peebles’ co-winners are best known for detecting a slight wobble in a nearby star, 51 Pegasi, which is caused by the gravitational pull of a massive planet in a close orbit around it. The celebrated discovery, reported in the fall of 1995, ushered in the new field of exoplanet research. Since then, astronomers have detected several thousand exoplanets using a variety of methods.
While Dr. Peebles did his Nobel-winning working in the United States, he has maintained his ties to Canada. A research chair at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., is named after him.
His Nobel win comes just one year after University of Waterloo professor Donna Strickland received the physics prize for her discoveries related to lasers. Art MacDonald of Queen’s University won in 2015 for the detection of solar neutrinos (fleeting particles produced in the sun’s core) in an underground facility beneath Sudbury, Ont.
Dr. Peebles added that as gratifying as it was to win a Nobel, the award was never his motivation.
“You should enter science because you are fascinated by it … that’s what I did.”
The Globe and Mail, October 7, 2019