James Peebles.

“This year’s prize goes to contributions to our understanding of the evolution of our universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos,” Goran K. Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said on October 8 when announcing that a Princeton professor had won the Nobel Prize for physics. “James Peebles took on the cosmos, with its billions of galaxies and galaxy clusters. His theoretical framework, developed over two decades, is the foundation of our modern understanding of the universe’s history, from the Big Bang to the present day,” the academy said.

Peebles, a retired physics professor, shares the prize and its monetary reward, worth about $900,000, with two other researchers, who won a prize for their work on the discovery of planets around other stars.

Peebles studied cosmic microwave background to discover evidence of the origin and contents of the universe. CMB is light produced shortly after the big bang, when the universe was just 380,000 years old.

“When I started working in this subject — I can tell you the date, 1964 — at the invitation of my mentor, Professor Robert Henry Dicke, I was very uneasy about going into this subject because the experimental observational basis was so modest. … I just kept going,” Peebles said during the Nobel news conference by phone. “Which particular step did I take? I would be very hard-pressed to say. It’s a life’s work.”

“Jim Peebles is an extraordinary physicist, a man who has thought deeply and clearly about the structure of the universe,” said Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “He exemplifies both Princeton’s dazzling tradition of fundamental research in cosmology and gravitation, and also this University’s commitment to put its best scholars in the classroom. 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, born in Manitoba, Canada, received his bachelor’s degree from University of Manitoba in 1958 and earned his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton in 1962. He taught at the university for his entire career. He was an instructor and researcher in the early 1960s, became an assistant professor in 1965, associate professor in 1968 and full professor in 1972, retiring in 2000.

Peebles has published several books on cosmology, and his upcoming book, “Cosmology’s Century, An Inside History of Our Modern Understanding of the Universe,” will come out in June, 2020, from Princeton University Press.

“Imagine showing Lewis and Clark detailed satellite images of the Earth, the ultimate birds-eye views,” said Suzanne Staggs, a Princeton physics professor. “Jim Peebles has always had the equivalent of the satellite view, but of the entire universe — he holds in his head its entire scope and grandeur, but is able to drill down into its fine details and describe and interpret them.”

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