Local physics students, teachers inspired by Manitoba-born Nobel Prize winner

Physics students and professors gathered at the University of Manitoba Tuesday afternoon, celebrating the news that Nobel Prize winner James Peebles was once a student at that very campus.

James Peebles 'made a difference in all of our lives,' says U of M physics and astronomy student

Students and staff gathered the the University of Manitoba to watch a live stream of James Peebles at a Princeton University news conference Tuesday afternoon. (CBC)

Physics students in Winnipeg gathered at the University of Manitoba on Tuesday afternoon, celebrating the news that one of the recipients of this year's Nobel Prize in Physics was once a student at that very campus.

Many were inspired by James Peebles' work in the field of physical cosmology, and some said they hoped to one day stand where the Nobel Prize laureate does today.

Isabel Sander, a second-year physics and astronomy student at the University of Manitoba, said knowing she attends the same school a Nobel Prize winner once did is inspiring.

"He was in the physics hallways, walking around, learning similar things to what I'm learning right now," she said. "It's just so exciting to me that someone who was in my place a long time ago was able to get to this point."

Sander said she's interested in possibly pursuing cosmology as a field of study because she sees it as a way to help make the world better.

Isabel Sander, a second-year physics and astronomy student at the University of Manitoba, said it's inspiring to know that a Nobel Prize winner once walked the same halls she does today. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"This is what I want to do in the future, is [to] make discoveries that help us basically move forward as a society — and that's exactly what [Peebles] did," she said. "I could make a difference with what I'm doing the way that he's made a difference in all of our lives."

Nobel winner owes 'a lot' to U of M

Alan Nguyen, another second-year physics student at the university, said he thinks it's exciting to see science evolve and change as he's studying it, and to imagine his own place within the field.

"Now I'm learning about things that [Peebles] discovered, things the generations of scientists before me have discovered," he said. "And now I'm here, standing on the shoulders of giants, and I hope to try and help advance science just like they did."

Second-year University of Manitoba physics student Alan Nguyen said he hopes to one day make the kind of significant contributions to physics that Peebles has. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

During a news conference on Tuesday, Peebles said he has not forgotten his roots in the Prairies. When asked how he will spend his half of the $1.2 million prize, Peebles gave a shout-out to his alma mater.

"I must say, I owe a lot to the University of Manitoba," he said. "A chunk will go to it."

As a child growing up in St. Boniface, Norwood and St. Vital, Peebles said he had an early fascination with the way things work.

"One of my early memories is throwing a tantrum because I wasn't allowed to put together the coffee percolator… I loved building things, [but] I was never very good at it," he said. "I love things, the way things work. We're all built in different ways, and that's my build."

'Contribution is phenomenal'

University of Manitoba professor Roger Dube, who got to know Peebles when the Nobel Prize-winning researcher was on his thesis committee, said he can't imagine someone more deserving of the accolades Peebles has received.

"Jim is a super pleasant, approachable guy. He's unflappable. He always takes the extra step to get out here and see people, his former grad students," said Dube. "He's just a wonderful man."

As for the award Peebles received for his work in physical cosmology, Dube said he isn't surprised.

"The cosmology community has always expected Jim to eventually get a Nobel Prize because his work is so seminal to the field. It's generated all sorts of significant branches of research, all of which have been validated over time," he said. "His contribution is phenomenal."

Canadian-American scientist James Peebles, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics Oct. 8, 2019, speaks at the 43rd annual Donald R. Hamilton Lecture at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, U.S. April 12, 2018. (Princeton University/Reuters)

Dube said many people don't realize how far-reaching some of Peebles' ideas and theories have been in the scientific community, and how significant they've been in helping form our understanding of the universe.

"He's taught us things like what the universe looked like 100 seconds after the Big Bang. We've learned about dark matter and dark energy," he said. "All of these are results of the fruits of the ideas that he's had, that he's been able to put into theory, and that we've been able to go out and confirm with observations."

Peebles was born in Winnipeg in 1935 and completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Manitoba. In 1962, he earned a PhD from Princeton University in New Jersey, where he is now the Albert Einstein Professor of Science.

Peebles was awarded the Nobel Prize for his theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology. Swiss colleagues Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were also recipients of this year's physics prize for their discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.

With files from Cameron MacIntosh, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press


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