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2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for cosmic perspectives

10 January 2020
James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz

The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2019 has recognised two independent bodies of work that have transformed our view of the universe and humanity’s place in it. One half of the SEK 9 million prize, announced on 8 October in Stockholm, was granted to James Peebles of Princeton University for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology, while the other was shared between Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva and Didier Queloz of the universities of Geneva and Cambridge for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star.

Peebles was instrumental in turning cosmology into the precision science it is today, with its ever closer links to collider and particle physics in general. Following the unexpected discovery of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) in 1965, he and others at Princeton used it to support the idea that the universe began in a hot, dense state. While the idea of a “big bang” was already many years old, Peebles paired it with concrete physics processes such as nucleosynthesis and described the role of temperature and density in the formation of structure. With others, he arrived at a model accounting for the density fluctuations in the CMB showing a series of acoustic peaks, which would demonstrate that the universe is geometrically flat and that ordinary matter constitutes just 5% of its total matter and energy content. In the early 1980s, Peebles was the first to consider non-relativistic “cold” dark matter and its effect on structure formation, and he went on to reintroduce Einstein’s forsaken cosmological constant – work that underpins today’s Lambda Cold Dark Matter model of cosmology.

Mayor and Queloz’s discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star in the Milky Way opened a new field of study. 51 Pegasi b lies 50 light years from Earth and takes just four days to complete its orbit. It was spotted by tracking how it and its star orbit around their common centre of gravity: a subtle wobbling seen from Earth whose speed can be measured from the starlight via the Doppler effect. The problem is that the radial velocities are extremely low. Mayor mounted his first spectrograph on a telescope at the Haute-Provence Observatory near Marseille in 1977, but it was only sensitive to velocities above 300 ms–1 – too high to see a planet pulling on its star. It took almost two decades of work by him and his group to strike success, with doctoral student Queloz tasked with developing new methods to increase the machine’s light sensitivity. Today, more than 4000 exoplanets with a vast variety of forms, sizes and orbits have been discovered in our galaxy using the radial-velocity method and the newer technique of transit photometry, challenging ideas about planetary formation.

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