Nobel physics prize awarded for discovery of planets orbiting distant suns
James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz ‘have painted a picture of our universe far stranger and more wonderful than we could ever have imagined,’ committee member Ulf Danielsson said
Stockholm — Canadian-American cosmologist James Peebles and Swiss scientists Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz won the 2019 Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday for revealing the wonder of the evolution of the universe and discovering planets orbiting distant suns.
Peebles, of Princeton University in the US, was awarded half of the nine-million Swedish krona ($910,000) prize while Mayor and Queloz, from Switzerland’s University of Geneva and Britain’s Cambridge University, shared the rest.
“This year’s Nobel laureates have painted a picture of our universe far stranger and more wonderful than we could ever have imagined,” Ulf Danielsson, a professor and member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, told reporters as the prize was announced.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the scientists’ research had “transformed our ideas about the cosmos”.
Mayor and his one-time doctoral student Queloz said it was “simply extraordinary” to be awarded a Nobel for what they described as “the most exciting discovery of our entire career”.
The pair announced the first discovery of a planet outside our own solar system, a so-called “exoplanet”, in 1995.
“The study of exoplanets is perhaps the most vibrant field of astronomy,” Martin Rees, a Cambridge University professor and Astronomer Royal, said in a e-mailed comment.
“We now know that most stars are orbited by retinues of planets; there may be a billion planets in our galaxy resembling the Earth,” Rees added.
Since their discovery, more than 4,000 exoplanets have been found in the Milky Way, many of them nothing like our own world.
The first planet they found, 51 Pegasi b, orbits a sun 50 light years away that heats its surface to more than 1,000°C, the award-giving academy said.
With numerous ongoing searches for more exoplanets, this science might eventually also “find an answer to the eternal question of whether other life is out there”, it said.
At a news conference in London, Queloz said the focus of research had now shifted from finding more planets to finding out more about them — about their atmosphere, chemistry and formation. Queloz also fielded inevitable questions about the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
“I can’t believe that we’re the only living entities in the universe,” he said when asked if he believes “aliens” exist.
“The chemistry that led to life is everywhere, so I’m a strong believer that there must be life elsewhere.”
Peebles thanked the Nobel committee for the award, although he said his advice to young people wishing to go into science would be not to be lured by the prospect of such prizes.
“The awards and prizes, well, they are charming and very much appreciated, but … you should enter science because you are fascinated by it. That’s what I did,” he told reporters by telephone after the award announcement.
Physics is the second Nobel to be awarded this week — William Kaelin, Gregg Semenza and Peter Ratcliffe shared the medicine prize on Monday for discoveries about how cells respond to oxygen levels.
Among the Nobels, physics has often taken centre stage with winners featuring some of the greatest names in the history of science such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie and Niels Bohr, as well as inventors such as radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi.
Using theoretical tools and calculations, Peebles was able to interpret trace radiation from the infancy of the universe and discover new physical processes, the Nobel academy said.
He showed that matter readily seen around us, be it pebbles, mountains or stars, actually make up only 5%, with the rest made up of dark energy and dark matter.