Nobel prize in physics awarded to cosmology and exoplanet researchers
James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz honoured for for ‘improving our understanding of evolution of universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos’
Hannah Devlin Science correspondent
Tue 8 Oct 2019 11.33 BSTFirst published on Tue 8 Oct 2019 10.57 BST
James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz are the 2019 Nobel laureates in physics. Photograph: Niklas Elmehed/Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Three scientists have been awarded the 2019 Nobel prize in physics for groundbreaking discoveries about the evolution of the Universe and the Earth’s place within it.
The Canadian scientist James Peebles has been awarded half of the 9m Swedish kronor (£740,000) prize for his theoretical discoveries about the evolution of the universe. A Swiss duo of astronomers, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, will share the other half of the prize for their discovery of the first planet beyond our solar system.
James Peebles was rewarded for laying a foundation for modern cosmology, including his realisation that the faint microwave radiation that filled the cosmos just 400,000 years after the Big Bang contains crucial clues to what the universe looked like at this primitive stage and how it has evolved over the subsequent 13bn years.
Mayor and Queloz have been recognised for their joint discovery in 1995 of the first exoplanet 50 light years away in the constellation of Pegasus. The planet, 51 Pegasi b, is a gaseous ball about 150 times more massive than the Earth and with a scorching surface temperature of 1000C.
The discovery heralded a new era of astronomy, with astronomers having since found more than 4,000 exoplanets, with an incredible range of sizes, forms and orbits. Learning about these strange and varied world’s beyond our solar system has transformed our understanding of how planets formed and given new focus to the question of whether there could be alien life is out there somewhere.
Peebles is also credited with developing the theoretical tools that allowed scientists to perform a cosmic inventory of what the universe is made from, showing that ordinary matter makes up just 5% of its known contents, with the rest being dark matter and dark energy.
“We still must admit that the dark matter and dark energy are mysterious,” Peebles told the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Tuesday. “There are still many open questions…What in the world is this dark matter?”
Looking back over his career spanning half a century, Peebles, who is Albert Einstein professor emeritus of science at Princeton University, said that he never set out with a grand plan. “I could think of one or two things to do in cosmology. I just did them and kept going,” he said. “The prizes and awards, they are charming, much appreciated, but that’s not part of your plans. You should enter science because you are fascinated by it.”
Prof Goran Hansson, secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences that chooses the laureates, said the three had made “contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe, and Earth’s place in the cosmos.”
Prof Sir Martin Rees, the astronomer Royal, described Peebles as the world’s “most
influential and respected leader of empirical cosmology with a sustained
record of achievement spanning half a century”.
“The study of exoplanets is perhaps the most vibrant field of astronomy. We
now know that most stars are orbited by retinues of planets; there may be a
billion planets in our galaxy resembling the Earth (similar in size and at
a distance from their parent star where liquid water can exist),” Rees added. “This takes us a step towards the fascinating question of detecting evidence for life
on the nearest of these exoplanets.”
On Monday, Americans William Kaelin and Gregg Semenza and Britain’s Peter Ratcliffe won the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine for discovering details of how the body’s cells sense and react to low oxygen levels, providing a foothold for developing new treatments for anaemia, cancer and other diseases.
The Nobel prize for chemistry will be announced on Wednesday, two literature prizes will be awarded on Thursday, and the peace prize comes on Friday. This year will see two literature prizes handed out because the one last year was suspended after a scandal rocked the Swedish Academy.