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Meanwhile, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, working for Bell Labs also in New Jersey , had detected an unusual persistent background noise in their experiment. We call it the cosmic microwave background CMB because the radiation peaks in the microwave part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The resulting papers were arguably the birth of the field of observational cosmology, a branch of physics that has revolutionised our view of the cosmos and our place within it. Peebles played a pivotal role in our theoretical understanding of the primordial universe and its evolution, but he also recognised that the CMB was a treasure trove of information that could be plundered.
In particular, it holds clues about the formation of cosmic structures — the galaxies — and indeed clues about the fundamental nature of the universe itself. In the process he has helped define an entire field of study. For example, in the early s, he was one of the first to run computer simulations of cosmic structure formation, a practice that is an entire branch of research today, where cosmologists explore toy universes. In this model, the universe is dominated by mysterious forms of matter and energy that we are yet to fully understand, but whose existence is supported by observational evidence.
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Normal matter now has an almost negligible cosmic relevance compared to this dark matter and dark energy. Peebles has produced such an immense body of work it is impossible to do it all justice in this short article. In one of his most influential papers, he linked the subtle fluctuations in the temperature of the CMB — which reflect ripples in the density of matter shortly after the Big Bang — with the way in which matter is distributed on a large-scale throughout the present day universe. The link exists because all the structure we see around us today must have grown through the evolution of those primordial seeds.
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Peebles advanced the concept of a dark matter component to the universe and its implications for the evolution of structure. Through this, and other work, he helped establish the theoretical framework for our picture of how galaxies have formed and evolved.
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And he demonstrated how observations of the CMB and the distribution of galaxies could be used as evidence to help measure key cosmological parameters, the numbers that feature in the equations we use to describe the nature of the universe. Aside from his monumental contributions to fundamental research, spanning the CMB, dark matter, dark energy, inflation, nucleosynthesis , structure formation and galaxy evolution, his textbooks have educated generations of cosmologists. They will do for years to come.
His Principles of Physical Cosmology is on my desk right now. But to say that he has been largely responsible for shaping our understanding of the universe is a cosmic understatement. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Our Price Match Policy. Find out more. View Offer.
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