Princeton University Professor Emeritus James Peebles wins Nobel Prize in physics

Nobel Prize winner James Peebles of Princeton University
James Peebles. 2016 photo by Mark Czajkowski for the Princeton University Office of Communications.

The Nobel Prize in physics has been awarded to three scientists this year for their contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos.

James Peebles, a Princeton University professor emeritus, has been chosen for the prize for his theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology. The other two recipients are Michel Mayor, professor at the University of Geneva, and Didier Queloz, professor at the University of Geneva and the University of Cambridge, who were chosen for their discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star. The prize amount is about $908,280. Peebles will receive half of the award. 

“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,” reads the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences citation.

Peebles was born in 1935 in Manitoba, Canada. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Manitoba in 1958 and earned his doctorate in physics from Princeton University in 1962. He taught at Princeton University for his entire career and became a full professor in 1972. He transferred to emeritus status in 2000. 

He has published several books on cosmology that are considered classics in the field, and has been honored with numerous awards for his work.

“Jim Peebles is an extraordinary physicist, a man who has thought deeply and clearly about the structure of the universe,” Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber said in a written statement. “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.”

Princeton Physics Professor Lyman Page said no one else has advanced our fundamental understanding of the universe more. “Multiple of his predictions were shown to be correct through measurements,” Page said. “On top of it, he is uncommonly thoughtful, gracious and kind.”

Bill Jones, an associate professor of physics, said is difficult to overstate the contributions by Peebles to humanity’s understanding of our place in the universe. “In addition to laying a great deal of the theoretical groundwork for modern cosmology, Jim pioneered many of the methods that have made cosmology a predictive science and one that allows us to test our theories with observational data,” Jones said. “Generous to his students and colleagues, I doubt a kinder soul has ever been so recognized.”

Peebles said he started work on his subject in 1964 at the invitation of a mentor. “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.”