Nobel Prize in physics awarded for cosmology, exoplanet research

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 United States, was awarded half of the 9-million-Swedish-crown ($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 emailed 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. Indeed, the first planet they found, 51 Pegasi b, orbits a sun 50 light years away that heats its surface to more than 1,000 degrees centigrade, the award-giving academy said.

“With numerous projects planned to start searching for exoplanets, we may eventually find an answer to the eternal question of whether other life is out there,” it said.

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.

Using theoretical tools and calculations, Peebles was able to interpret trace radiation from the infancy of the universe and so discover new physical processes, the academy said.

Peebles showed that matter readily seen around us, be it pebbles, mountains or stars, actually make up only 5 percent with the remainder consisting of dark energy and dark matter. “This is a mystery and a challenge to modern physics,” the Swedish academy’s statement said.

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