At 84, cosmologist James Peebles says he now knows what it feels like to be a rock star.
In October, he was named a recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics, recognizing his theoretical discoveries that formed the foundation of our understanding of the universe’s history, from the Big Bang to today.
After a livestream press conference from Princeton University—where he’s the Albert Einstein Professor of Science, Emeritus—Peebles [BSc(Hons)/58, DSc/89] Skyped with UM students watching from a Faculty of Science lounge and offered his guidance.
“My firm advice to you is not to plan your career on prizes and awards…. Instead, do what you find inspiring, fascinating, interesting. If you are lucky, like me, you will find you can actually get paid for doing it, and the rewards will be immense,” he said.
The Nobel laureate fell in love with physics as an undergrad at UM; his professor, the late Kenneth Standing [BSc(Hons)/48, DSc/09], told a young Peebles he would excel at it.
“He said, ‘You will go to Princeton for graduate study.’ It was not advice. It was, ‘You will go,’” joked Peebles, who sat proudly on stage at the announcement, wearing his Order of Manitoba pin on his lapel.
“I arrived at the University of Manitoba with only a vague notion of what I wanted to do. I’m deeply indebted to the department of physics and its faculty and fellow students for showing me that I love physics…. I owe a lot to the University of Manitoba.”
Upon graduation, he fulfilled Standing’s prophecy and entered Princeton, where he grew fascinated with a burgeoning new field that examined the cosmos as a whole—and he made his mentor proud.
His breakthroughs have been recognized for decades. Peebles helped us understand the most significant event of all time—the creation of the universe. He and a colleague formulated a theory to explain how the universe evolved from the Big Bang.
Peebles’ later groundbreaking work explained how galaxies form thanks to mysterious dark matter and energy. Always humble, he has never understood why people fascinate themselves with his theories. During his Nobel fête, he recalled one particular theory he published in 1984: “I was very unhappy it grabbed a lot of attention [because] I could make up a dozen others that would fit the bill equally well. This was the simplest possibility, but by no means the only one…. I just didn’t think we should be so confident about one theory.”
Peebles prefers to look at the bigger picture, which is a useful skill if you intend to study the universe.