I was born in 1949 in Grantham in eastern England. In 1954, my parents, Jack and Janet, my younger sister, Janette, and I moved to Birmingham, where my parents had both grown up and my father worked in the meat market, as had many of his relatives. I attended the local primary school where I was well taught and, quite unusually for the time, saw my first science experiments which left a big impression. The local public library had a children’s section with books about science, including several on astronomy which I read avidly. At the age of eleven, I was fortunate to start at King Edward’s School in Birmingham which has an outstanding academic tradition. At that time, it was customary to specialize early and, although I was originally most interested in mathematics, I also studied chemistry and physics. It was a time of social change from the conservativism of post-war England to a more youthful and vibrant global culture.

Before starting at Cambridge University in 1967, I spent four months teaching mathematics in a new high school in the north of Scotland. This was an amazing opportunity and I, at least, learned a lot and was able to climb many mountains. I started specializing in chemistry at Cambridge but converted to physics after reading Feynman’s lectures while employed at a boating pool in the pouring rain — one of many vacation jobs. At Cambridge we were taught by some outstanding scientists who broke many of the rules of modern pedagogy, leaving us to devise our own versions of what they understood so well. I am very grateful for this and still get fresh insights from their lectures.

I intended to start as a research student in elementary particle theory. However, 1970 was a time of stasis in the field. In contrast, astronomy was bubbling with discovery and a half-hour meeting with my future supervisor, Martin Rees, rekindled my childhood interest and I joined the new Institute of Theoretical Astronomy in Cambridge. Of course, the next five years were golden in particle physics, but for me, it was the right choice. In order to learn some astronomy, I spent an idyllic summer on a course at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, where I met my wonderful wife, Liz.

Life as a research student was very busy as we were only supported for three years. I had to take classes, teach undergraduates where, again, I learned so much, and write a thesis. Under Martin Rees’ visionary and sure-footed guidance and with generous prodding by Peter Scheuer, I worked mainly on double radio sources and particle acceleration and tried to learn plasma physics, which I saw as my best opportunity for future employment in the then growing fusion programme. Instead, I was elected to a research fellowship in St John’s College and started to think more seriously about general relativity and neutron stars. Liz and I spent a wonderful year at Princeton and Berkeley, exploring the US and Canada. I was fortunate in my collaborators during those years, including Chris McKee, Ted Scharlemann, Larry Smarr, Saul Teukolsky and Roman Znajek.

I was offered a junior faculty position at Caltech and we moved to Pasadena with our one-month-old son, Jonathan, in 1976. It was an exciting time and, while being mentored in very different ways by Marshall Cohen, Peter Goldreich, Gerry Neugebauer, Wal Sargent and Kip Thorne, I also enjoyed friendship and shared scientific interests with my peers, especially Jeremy Mould, Tom Prince, Tony Readhead and Tom Soifer. Visitors to Caltech and family visits to Cambridge, now with a second son, Edward, led to further collaborations with Jon Arons, Mitch Begelman, Jerry Ostriker and many others. At Caltech, I was privileged to work with excellent students and postdocs, too many to list, most of whom have gone on to impressive, independent careers and with whom I am proud to have been associated. I also started working with the agencies on strategic planning, which culminated in my chairing the 2010 NRC decadal survey in astronomy and astrophysics.

In 2003 I was given the opportunity to establish the first new Kavli Institute at Stanford University with Steve Kahn. It was hard to leave Caltech, but I am glad to have seized the opportunity and delighted with what KIPAC has become after seventeen years, especially under my successors, Tom Abel and Risa Wechsler. Scientifically, I became much more involved in cosmology and gamma-ray astronomy through the wonderful Fermi telescope, led by Peter Michelson.

As I look back on a lifetime in scientific research, education and administration, I feel privileged to have seen so much durable and ongoing discovery; some of this from inspired individual insights, even more from large collaborations. I have been blessed with wonderful teachers, colleagues and students who have taught me so much. While I am personally honoured and humbled by the award of the Shaw Prize, it is to this much larger community that I must pay tribute.

20 May 2021 Hong Kong