This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to three scientists who transformed our view of the cosmos.
James Peebles, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, shared half of the prize for theories that explained how the universe swirled into galaxies and everything we see in the night sky, and indeed much that we cannot see.
The other half was shared by two Swiss astronomers, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, who were the first to discover an exoplanet, or a planet circling around a sun-like star.
“They really, sort of tell us something very essential — existential — about our place in the universe,” Ulf Danielsson, a member of the Nobel committee, said during an interview broadcast on the web.
Who are the winners?
James Peebles is the Albert Einstein professor of science at Princeton. On his webpage, he notes that, “I continue to work in physical cosmology, with preference for underappreciated issues. They are not uncommon, despite the great advances from the small science I encountered a half century ago to today’s big science.”
Michel Mayor is an astrophysicist and professor emeritus of astronomy at the University of Geneva. He formally retired in 2007, according to the Planetary Society, but remains active as a researcher at the Geneva Observatory.
Didier Queloz is a professor of physics at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, and at the University of Geneva, where he works “at the origin of the exoplanet revolution in astrophysics.”
Why did they win?
In the 1960s, when Dr. Peebles began studying the cosmos, knowledge about the universe was sparse and imprecise. Astronomers had observed stars, galaxies, clouds of gas and other cosmic vistas through their telescopes, but struggled to explain much about them.
For example, cosmological distances were often just rough guesses, and estimates of the age of the universe varied widely.
Dr. Peebles’s work helped place cosmology onto a more precise, mathematical foundation.
In 1964, two radio astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, discovered by accident a background hiss of microwaves pervading the universe. They were perplexed until they came across theoretical calculations by other scientists including Dr. Peebles. They had predicted this background radiation, a result of when the universe, about 400,000 years after the Big Bang, cooled off enough for hydrogen and helium atoms to form.
“Jim has been involved in almost all of the major developments since the discovery of the cosmic microwave background in 1965 and has been the leader of the field for all that time,” Michael Turner of the University of Chicago and the Kavli Foundation, a philanthropy that supports science, wrote in an email.
“No one has done more to establish our current paradigm than Jim,” Dr. Turner said.
The other half of this year’s Physics Nobel goes to research that filled in a missing piece of the observable universe.
Astronomers had long presumed there must be planets in orbits around many other stars. But until a quarter century ago, astronomers knew of none. Over the decades, claims of spotting planets evaporated upon closer examination.
In 1992, astronomers found the first planets outside the solar system — but those orbited an exploded star, making them an unlikely place for life to exist.
Three years later, Dr. Mayor and Dr. Queloz successfully found a planet around 51 Pegasus, a star similar to our sun, 50 light years away. Although this broiling planet was also not habitable, it pointed to how astronomers could now study planetary systems that could be similar to our own.
Dr. Mayor and Dr. Queloz did not see the planet directly. Rather, they looked at a periodic wobble in the colors of light from the star. The gravity of the planet pulled on the star. The motion back and forth shifted the wavelengths of the starlight, much like how whistle of a train or the siren on a police car rises when approaching and falls when receding.
Within months, other astronomers confirmed the discovery.
Why is the work important?
Dr. Peebles’s work on physical cosmology “enriched the entire field of research,” according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, and laid a foundation for the transformation of the science of cosmology over the past 50 years, “from speculation to science.”
The framework became the basis of our contemporary ideas about the universe.
The discovery of the first planet outside of our solar system, announced by Dr. Mayor and Dr. Queloz in 1995, revolutionized astronomy. More than 4,000 exoplanets have since been discovered in our Milky Way galaxy, including some that may be habitable. More and more are being spotted with space telescopes like TESS, launched by NASA last year.
The astronomers’ discovery, at the Haute-Provence Observatory in southern France, immediately showed that many planetary systems are nothing like the solar system. The planet they discovered is as large as Jupiter, but virtually hugs the star — much closer than Mercury is to the sun. It completes one orbit in just four days.
What the winners said
Dr. Peebles, who spoke to reporters by phone during the announcement of the award, offered advice to young people eager to enter science.
“You should enter it for the love of the science,” he said. “The prizes and awards, they are charming, very much appreciated, but that’s not part of your plans. You should enter science because you are fascinated by it — that’s what I did.”
He also noted that despite deeper understanding of the formation of the universe gathered by his research, the nature of dark matter and energy still remains quite mysterious.
“Although we have made great advances in understanding the nature of the evolution of our universe, there are still many open questions,” Dr. Peebles said.
Who won the 2018 Nobel for physics?
The prize last year went to Arthur Ashkin of the United States, Gérard Mourou of France and Donna Strickland of Canada for their work with lasers and microscopy, developing tools such as optical tweezers and chirped pulse amplification.
Dr. Strickland was only the third woman to win the prize.
Who else has won a Nobel Prize this year?
The prize for medicine and physiology was awarded to William G. Kaelin Jr., Peter J. Ratcliffe and Gregg L. Semenza for their work in discovering how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability.
When will the other Nobel Prizes be announced this year?
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry will be announced on Wednesday in Sweden. Read about last year’s winners, Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith and Gregory P. Winter.
The 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature will be announced on Thursday in Sweden. The prize last year was postponed after the husband of an academy member was accused, and ultimately convicted, of rape — a crisis that led to the departure of several board members and required the intervention of the King of Sweden. Read about 2017’s winner, Kazuo Ishiguro.
The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Norway. Read about last year’s winners, Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege.
The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science will be announced on Monday in Sweden. Read about last year’s winners, William Nordhaus and Paul Romer.
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