3 win Nobel Prize in Physics for work to understand cosmos
STOCKHOLM — A Canadian American cosmologist and two Swiss scientists won this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for exploring the evolution of the universe and discovering a new kind of planet, with implications for that nagging question: Does life exist only on Earth?
Canadian-born James Peebles, 84, an emeritus professor at Princeton University, won for his theoretical discoveries in cosmology. Swiss stargazers Michel Mayor, 77, and Didier Queloz, 53, both of the University of Geneva, were honored for finding an exoplanet — a planet outside our solar system — that orbits a sunlike star, the Nobel committee said.
“This year’s Nobel laureates in physics have painted a picture of the universe far stranger and more wonderful than we ever could have imagined,” said Ulf Danielsson of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which selected the laureates. “Our view of our place in the universe will never be the same again.”
Peebles, hailed as one of the most influential cosmologists of his time who realized the importance of the cosmic radiation background born of the Big Bang, will collect one half of the $918,000 cash award. Mayor, who is an astrophysicist, and Queloz, an astronomer who is also at the University of Cambridge in Britain, will share the other half.
The Nobel committee said Peebles’ theoretical framework about the cosmos — and its billions of galaxies and galaxy clusters — amounted to “the foundation of our modern understanding of the universe’s history, from the Big Bang to the present day.”
His work, which began in the mid-1960s, set the stage for a “transformation” of cosmology over the last half-century, using theoretical tools and calculations that helped interpret traces from the infancy of the universe, the committee said.
A clearly delighted Peebles recalled how he answered a 5:30 a.m. phone call from Stockholm thinking that “it’s either something very wonderful or it’s something horrible.”
“I have a peaceful life,” he said, laughing. “It’s somehow now totally messed up!”
He added that he looked forward to traveling to the Swedish capital with his family to accept the prize.
Mayor and Queloz were credited with having “started a revolution in astronomy” notably with the discovery of exoplanet 51 Pegasi B, a gaseous ball comparable with Jupiter, in 1995 — a time when, as Mayor recalled — that “no one knew whether exoplanets existed or not.”
“Prestigious astronomers had been searching for them for years, in vain!” Mayor quipped.
The committee said more than 4,000 exoplanets have since been found in the Milky Way since then.
“Mayor and Queloz pioneered the path that will allow our generation to address one of the most exciting questions in science: Are we alone?” wrote Avi Loeb, chairman of the Harvard University astronomy department, in an email.
Queloz was meeting with other academics interested in finding new planets when the press office at Cambridge University interrupted to tell him the big news: He had won the Nobel. He thought it was joke at first.
“I could barely breathe,” Queloz told the AP. ”It’s enormous. It’s beyond usual emotions. My hand was shaking for a long time. I’m trying to digest it.”
Mayor said he found out he was one of the winners “by chance” when he logged onto his computer after leaving the hotel where he had been staying in San Sebastian, in northern Spain.