Autobiography of John A Peacock
I was born in 1956, in the far South of England: Shaftesbury, Dorset. But my mother was Scottish and I have subsequently moved steadily North, first to the beautiful Cotswolds near Cheltenham, then to Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire in 1965, when my father was appointed Director of Bletchley Park.
My secondary education took place at an outstanding grammar school, the Cedars. The tuition in science and maths was excellent, and I also started to learn the clarinet. Eventually I joined the County Youth Orchestra, which gave me a thirst for playing music at the highest level.
I arrived at Jesus College, Cambridge in October 1974, intending to be a chemist. But Cambridge insists on broad study in “natural sciences” for the first year. By the end of this, I realised that I was much better suited to physics and maths.
The idea of research in astronomy came rather late to me. In Cambridge, this involved a choice between the Institute of Astronomy founded by Fred Hoyle, or Martin Ryle’s radio astronomy group. As a physicist, I signed up for Ryle’s group without much thought. To be honest, I was just happy to be staying in the outstanding Cambridge music scene.
At this stage, I actually knew very little about astronomy. All this changed after graduation when I encountered Michael Berry’s short text on cosmology and gravitation. By the end of the summer of 1977 I had found Weinberg’s book on the subject and was completely hooked.
For Ryle’s group, cosmology meant surveying radio galaxies. Jasper Wall gave me an invaluable introduction to this area, and to the subject of astronomical statistics. When Jasper left after one year, Malcolm Longair took over my supervision and was influential in pushing me towards working on particle acceleration.
By the summer of 1980, my PhD work was done, but I had no job. Then Malcolm Longair was appointed Director of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE). He was able to offer me a research fellowship at Edinburgh, and this completely transformed my career.
I arrived at the ROE in February 1981 and immediately became interested in the new field of gravitational lensing, writing the first paper to calculate the “optical depth”, i.e. the probability that distant objects will be magnified by the deflection of light by intervening masses. By the end of 1982 I was a permanent research astronomer at the ROE.
Also in 1982 I married Heather. She was a nurse at the time, and now oversees a significant fraction of the training of general practitioners in SE Scotland. We have been blessed with three wonderful children: Duncan (1986); Imogen (1989); Sophie (1991).
Edinburghhas now been our home for over 30 years. Its architecture continues to astound, and it is culturally rich. I became principal clarinet of the Scottish Sinfonia in 1983 and have enjoyed hundreds of concerts in subsequent years. It’s hard to imagine a better personal foundation to a satisfying career.
During the 1980s, my interests evolved towards structure formation, including the first paper on peaks in Gaussian density fields. In 1991 I made one of the first direct estimates of the 3D Fourier power spectrum of large-scale structure. By 1994 I had combined this with other probes plus an understanding of nonlinear gravitational evolution.
In 1998, I transferred to a Professorship in the University. By this time, I had completed a postgraduate textbook “cosmological physics”, which appeared in 1999 and has sold over 10,000 copies.
By 1999, the Two-degree Field Galaxy Redshift Survey had been in existence for several years, and I became UK Chairman of this UK–Australian consortium. In 2001, we published the first power-spectrum measurement suggesting Baryon Acoustic Oscillation (BOA) features from primordial sound waves; this signal was confirmed with further data in 2005. We also made the first accurate measurements of Redshift-Space Distortions (RSD), which arise from the velocities associated with forming structures.
These techniques will have a long-term importance in cosmology. BAO will allow us to observe the expansion history of the universe, measuring the properties of the Dark Energy that fills all space, and RSD will test the correctness of Einstein’s relativistic theory of gravity.
In these developments, as in the start of my career, I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, and I am proud and honoured by the recognition that this work has received: first through my election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2007 and now through the Shaw Prize. But it should never be forgotten that modern astronomy, and especially the 2dFGRS, depends on contributions from many people within large teams. This Prize is a tribute to my collaborators, and to the achievements we created together.
24 September 2014 Hong Kong