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Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to University of Cambridge’s Didier Queloz for first discovery of an exoplanet

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The University of Cambridge’s Professor Didier Queloz has been jointly awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for being the first to discover a planet orbiting a star outside our solar system.

Prof Queloz, professor of physics at the Cavendish Laboratory and fellow of Trinity College, shares the prize with Professor James Peebles and Professor Michel Mayor.

James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz share the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. Image: Niklas Elmehed/Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (18992033)
James Peebles, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz share the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. Image: Niklas Elmehed/Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (18992033)

It was in 1995 that Prof Queloz - then a PhD student studying at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, under the supervision of Prof Mayor - made his startling discovery: an exoplanet, orbiting star 51 Pegasi.

Finding this gas-giant, a planet the size of Jupiter and with a surface temperature of more than 1,000 degrees, changed humankind’s understanding of our place in the universe.

The Nobel Assembly, announcing the 2019 prize on Tuesday (October 8), said: “The discovery by 2019 Nobel Prize laureates Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz started a revolution in astronomy and over 4,000 exoplanets have since been found in the Milky Way. Strange new worlds are still being discovered, with an incredible wealth of sizes, forms and orbits.

“This year’s Laureates have transformed our ideas about the cosmos. While James Peebles’ theoretical discoveries contributed to our understanding of how the universe evolved after the Big Bang, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz explored our cosmic neighbourhoods on the hunt for unknown planets. Their discoveries have forever changed our conceptions of the world.”

Prof Queloz, who came to Cambridge in 2013, said: "It’s an incredible honour and I’m still trying to digest it. "When we discovered the first exoplanet, it was pretty obvious that this was something important, even though not everyone believed us at the time. Back then, exoplanet research was a very small field. I think there were about 50 of us and we were seen as weirdos. Now there are probably over a thousand people working in the field.”

Today Prof Queloz leads the Cambridge Exoplanet Research Centre. He is responsible for finding hundreds more such worlds.

“It’s a hot topic at the moment, so I’m really happy that the field of exoplanets has been recognised with a Nobel Prize," he said.

“When you are working so passionately at your research, it can be very disruptive to your family. My family has always been there for me and I’m grateful of their support. This Nobel Prize is also an acknowledgement of their incredible patience!"

When Prof Queloz first recorded light being emitted by 51 Pegasi, he thought there was something wrong with the equipment, or his technique.

An artist's impression of a planet transiting a star. Picture: ESA/ATG medialab. (18990747)
An artist's impression of a planet transiting a star. Picture: ESA/ATG medialab. (18990747)

He was using Doppler spectroscopy to try to measure the tiny wobble of a star as it and a planet move around a common centre of gravity,

After continuing to explore, and check his measurements, he eventually sent a fax - email wasn’t available to him back then - to his supervisor, who was on sabbatical in Hawaii, telling him he believed he had found an exoplanet.

The reply came back: “Maybe.”

Prof Mayor returned, and after multiple observations, the finding was confirmed. A paper published in Nature changed the field of astronomy.

Today, he leads a research programme designed to progress our understanding of the formation, structure and habitability of exoplanets.

The university's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, said: "I am delighted to hear that Professor Didier Queloz has been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. Didier’s discovery of planets beyond our solar system has ushered in a revolutionary new era for cosmology.

“This work represents an extraordinary scientific achievement but also offers humanity so much inspiration – the chance to imagine such distant and different, or perhaps similar, worlds. It gives me tremendous pleasure, on behalf of our community, to congratulate the University of Cambridge’s latest Nobel Prize winner.”

Professor Andy Parker, head of the Cavendish Laboratory, said: "Professor Queloz’s research has led to the discovery that planets are abundant throughout our galaxy, orbiting other stars. We can now estimate that there are tens of billions of potentially inhabitable exoplanets. This takes us one step closer to answering the question of whether we are alone in the universe: it seems increasingly likely that life in some form will have found a foothold on these many new worlds.

“The current programme of work being carried out by Professor Queloz at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University will search for signatures of life in the chemicals found in the exoplanet atmospheres. This groundbreaking research is extremely demanding technically, and addresses profound questions which fascinate all of humanity. We look forward to further breakthroughs as Professor Queloz continues his outstanding work.”

Prof Queloz and Prof Mayor share half of the £740,000 prize “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.”

Canadian Prof Peebles, of Princeton University in the United States, was awarded half of the £740,000 prize “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology”. His theoretical framework, developed since the 1960s, was described as the basis of our contemporary ideas about the universe. His study of the traces of radiation left over from the Big Bang gave us an insight into the evolution of the universe.

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