Joseph Silk was born on December 3, 1942, in London. He received his B.A. in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge in 1963 and his Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard University in 1968. Among the numerous academic positions he has held since then are fellowships and professorships at the Institute of Theoretical Astronomy at Cambridge, the University of California at Berkeley, Oxford University, and the Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris, where he serves today (in addition to a one-quarter appointment at The Johns Hopkins University) as an emeritus professor and a research scientist.
Having grown up in a working-class household, he was the first student in his school to graduate with sufficient honors to attend either Oxford or Cambridge—and the first in his family to attain any level of higher education. After receiving his degree in mathematics, however, he found he was “not very excited” by his job options, but he realized he was “fascinated by the field” of cosmology—in particular the writings an astrophysicist at Harvard, David Layzer, with whom Silk studied while pursuing his Ph.D. Their interpretations of the Cosmic Microwave Background would diverge, but for Silk, that immersion in the cosmological conversation provided all the inspiration he needed.
Silk’s numerous honors include: the Bowdoin Prize from Harvard University; fellowships from the American Physical Society, the Royal Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences; and a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society.