By Teodor Teofilov
The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics was jointly awarded to three scientists for furthering our understanding of the universe on Tuesday. James Peebles was awarded half of the 9 million Swedish kronor (about $907,000) for “theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology,” while the other half was split between Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for “the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.”
“This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics rewards new understanding of the universe’s structure and history, and the first discovery of a planet orbiting a solar-type star outside our solar system,” tweeted the Nobel committee. “The discoveries have forever changed our conceptions of the world.”
Canadian-American Peebles, Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University developed, since the mid-1960s, a theoretical framework that forms the basis of our understanding of the history of the universe.
The Big Bang theory describes the universe from its very first moments, almost 14 billion years ago, when it was extremely hot and dense. Since then the universe has been expanding, becoming larger and colder and it was barely 400,000 years after the Big Bang that it became transparent and light rays were able to travel through space. Today the remnants of this ancient radiation are all around us, coded into it are the many secrets of our universe.
Peebles used his theoretical tools and calculations to interpret these traces from the beginning of our universe and discovered new physical processes. His results showed that we know only about 5 percent of the content of our universe, with the other 95 percent being unknown dark matter and dark energy, which is a mystery and a challenge to modern physics.
“This is a mystery and a challenge to modern physics,” said the committee in a press release.
“My advice to young people entering science: you should do it for the love of science,” Peebles said at a press conference following the announcement. “You should enter science because you are fascinated by it.”
Ulf Danielsson, a member of the Nobel Committee, commented: “Both these prizes… tell us something essential, something existential about our place in the Universe.”
“The first one, tracing the history back to an unknown origin, is so fascinating. The other one tries to answer these questions about: ‘are we alone – is there life anywhere else in the Universe?’”
Mayor, a professor at the University of Geneva, and Queloz, a professor at the University of Geneva and the University of Cambridge, focussed their research on looking for unknown worlds in the Milky Way and in 1995 they discovered the first exoplanet outside of our solar system. 51 Pegasi b, a gas giant like Jupiter orbiting a star 50 light-years away. Its discovery “started a revolution in astronomy,” according to the press release.
Mayor and Queloz used the pioneering radial velocity technique, which detects distant worlds indirectly, by measuring how a parent star “wobbles” when it is tugged on by the gravity of an orbiting planet.
Following the Swiss duo’s discovery there have been more than 4,000 exoplanets found in the Milky Way. New worlds are constantly being discovered with a vast wealth of sizes, forms and orbits. These new discoveries challenge ideas and theories about planetary systems and force scientists to reconsider the physical processes behind the origins of planets. With future discoveries we might even find alien life.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Queloz to BBC News. “Since the discovery 25 years ago, everyone kept telling me: ‘It’s a Nobel Prize discovery’. And I say: ‘Oh yeah, yeah, maybe, whatever.'”
“This year’s Nobel laureates in physics have painted a picture of a universe far stranger and more wonderful than we ever could have imagined,” Danielsson said at a news conference. “Our view of our place in the universe will never be the same again.”
You can watch the announcement ceremony below.