Nobel Prize in physics awarded to three researchers in astronomy and cosmology

This morning, the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics was split between three men, with half of the award (a total of $910,000) split between Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz (25% each) “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star,” and the other half of the Prize going to James Peebles of Princeton “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology”.

Mayor, a Swiss astrophysicist at the University of Geneva, and Queloz, a Swiss astronomer working at Cambridge and Geneva, were jointly recognized for the discovery of “exoplanets”—planets outside our solar system. Wikipedia describes their work thusly:

In 1995 Queloz was a Ph.D. student at the University of Geneva when he and Michel Mayor, his doctoral advisor, discovered the first exoplanet around a main sequence star. For this achievement, they were awarded half of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star”.

Queloz performed an analysis on 51 Pegasi using radial velocity measurements (Doppler spectroscopy) with the ELODIE spectrograph in the Haute-Provence Observatory and was astonished to find a planet with an orbital period of 4.2 days. He had been performing the analysis as an exercise to hone his skills. The planet, 51 Pegasi b, challenged the then accepted views of planetary formation, being a hot Jupiter or roaster.

As Wikipedia says of Peebles, he’s made: “major theoretical contributions to primordial nucleosynthesis, dark matter, the cosmic microwave background, and structure formation.”

Here are the tweets from the Nobel Prize site announcing the awards and briefly describing the work.

And the video announcement (not yet up when I wrote this post):


  1. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    The link to Peebles’ Wiki page is borked. It should be
    Queloz & Mayor’s work is fairly simple to explain. I’m going to have to read up on Peebles because I don’t even recognise his name.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    The Nobel committee speaker has a great model to illustrate how substantial dark energy and matter are : a cup of sweetened coffee with cream.

    Coffee is the dark energy, cream the dark matter, and the pinch of sugar is the order and matter we can observe.

    They had a call with Peebles during the conference- I thought that was cool – he took questions.

    Exciting topic to be chosen for recognition!

  3. Jim batterson
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    The main announcement, followed by comments, and telephone interview with prof peebles goes from about 22 minutes to about 45 minutes. Prof peebles points out in respose to some questions that young people should enter the study of science out of interest or fascination with it as opposed to a plan for material rewards; when asked about his most important contributions he said it was a lifetime of work and ideas, and some of those ideas turned out to be wrong. He emphasized the importance both of theoretical and applied science. A very nice interview.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      Who could argue with that?

  4. Posted October 8, 2019 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Seem to be worthy awards. Congratulations to all, including the coworkers who are in the background to these folks.

    I had forgotten that the first discovery of exoplanets had not received a Nobel until now – a serious omission, now rectified. (I will ignore the purists who think this is astronomy, not physics. :))

  5. rickflick
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    The Nobel Prize announcements are always a thrill. They remind us that science marches on. The main reason I want to live eternally, is to keep seeing the discoveries being made. How likely is it that I will survive to see dark matter and dark energy discovered?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      How likely is it that I will survive to see dark matter and dark energy discovered?

      There is a rival to the DM theory called MOND, but I think the landscape within which MOND could be true is being squeezed into a smaller & smaller area, thus I suspect DM is a real something or other. But I suspect it’s not going to be detected by current experiments because it is so weakly interacting [especially with itself] that it might take decades of data collection to tease out the weak signal in the noise, or maybe it doesn’t interact with itself at all except via gravity! That would be a bummer.

      I doubt that current particle smashers will find anything indicating DM & it’s beginning to look as if funders are closing their wallets on huge kit i.e. a Larger Than Large Hardon Collider. The Chinese maybe? They are beginning to own this century after all.

      Please click this link:

      I think the observations we need are in the gravitational spectrum, but NOT at the frequencies at which LIGO [& similar detectors on the drawing board] can detect – they only detect individual star interactions – the vibrations of mice running across your wooden floor, when what we need is something that can hear a herd of elephants strolling through the bush. A different range of frequencies entirely – look at this graph & note the frequencies on the x-axis:


      The herd of elephants is down in the orange block to the left at low frequencies [= long wavelength, just as per the electromagnetic spectrum]. We need to see gravitational waves with wavelengths on the order of 10s of thousands of kilometres. These detectors must be in space, in space vacuum using three spacecraft that triangulate with lasers – they have to be stationary relative to each other as much as possible. These are sort of in pre-planning for the 2030s/40s.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

        Mice? Elephants? I’m all ears.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

          That’s a function of age – ear size. The universe must have very impressive ears that need pinning up like Dumbo.

          • rickflick
            Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

            “Captain, we’re about to enter the Dumbo quadrant. Perhaps we should equip the entire crew with blindfolds and ear plugs.”

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      This TianQuin DETECTOR with laser arms of 10,000 km is the sort of thing I mean. It [or its successor] will break through to way before the CMB – the CMB is pretty late, 380,000? years post-Big Bang.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

        CORRECTION: 100,000 km laser arms in Earth orbit & I suppose the next generation will be 1,000,000 km laser arms & so on…

        • rickflick
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

          It’s easy to expect we are somewhat parochial in our current thinking. Perhaps we’ll have spacecraft like the Voyager twins putting ears outside our solar system to create a much larger array. I mean…there’s no limit.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

            Absolutely! Also instead of making ears we can use perturbations in the spin times of neutron stars [caused by gravitational waves passing through] as one of our spacecraft. Apparently we can detect these perturbations from Movver Earf already for close neutron stars. The universe is our mollusc.

      • rickflick
        Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

        And to think, all that is being financed by America’s insatiable appetite for cheap, plastic, widgets at Wall Mart. More power to the inscrutable Chinese. Happily, I’ll be gone before they become our overlords (I think). 😎

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think it’s an accident that SciFi dystopias [90% of the hard SciFi today] don’t feature democracy at all – it’s libertarian anarchy or Corporations or both mostly. Voting & ‘having a voice’ isn’t working out to well right now.

          • rickflick
            Posted October 8, 2019 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

            Got to pay attention to the Sci-Fi writers. 😁

  6. sanguinelee
    Posted October 8, 2019 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Canada represent. So there’s something good to come out of Winnipeg after all. Who’d thunk it?

    • phoffman56
      Posted October 8, 2019 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

      Yes, as a Canuck, I was planning to mention his country of birth.
      I’ve known about Jim Peebles since the ’70’s, and not because he’s from Winnipeg and did his undergrad there.
      Way back then, our Relativity group (not my field but…) had a pile of money and got a lecture series going with a bunch of really top names, though mostly a few decades older than Peebles, who I’ve never met. So I got to ask a few of these under friendly circumstances what was the fault in Irving Segal’s “Mathematical Cosmology and Extra Galactic Astronomy” book, where he had a new (‘unpopular’) model of the universe dependent on some definitely interesting and correct geometry. But it was one which explained the red shift and microwave background entirely differently from the big bang/expanding universe model, now known to be certainly correct. None really seemed to have looked at it carefully. But somehow I was directed, or got there somehow, to Peebles’ first book, and there it was finally, Segal’s error of a statistical nature in interpreting the observers’ data.

      [Note that Segal, an MIT mathematician from about 1950 to 2000, was, among many other matters, instrumental in a very important mathematical structure known as a C* algebra, and also in its application in theoretical quantum theory (compare von Neumann algebra). So the above physical incorrectness of correct mathematical matters is not intended at all negatively–theoretical physicists are paid to come up with theories, most being incorrect, once compared more carefully to physical reality.]

      That above re Segal is nowhere near the importance of Peebles’ main discoveries. I do seem to recall that he, when quite young, along with Dicke and another IIRC, was instrumental in pointing out to Penzias and Wilson that they had (sort of accidentally) observed for the first time the microwave background, their Nobel Prize winning work. I don’t know whether that was in Peebles’ Nobel citation, or in that interview which people mentioned above, with all the other work cited.

  7. Posted October 8, 2019 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    This is a strange Physics Nobel IMO. First, the two parts—exo-planets and cosmology—are unrelated. Okay, it has happened before. Second, the Peebles award is a grand old man type award, which the committee does not usually do.

    First, the CMB. The Nobel committee awarded the Nobel to Penzias and Wilson for discovering the CMB in 1978. Actually, they were clueless about what they discovered. They were like a blind squirrel who found a nut but did not know it was a nut. The late Robert Dicke with whom Peebles worked had worked out the CMB theory, but the Nobel committee, for whatever reason, chose not to include Dicke then. So why Peebles now?

    Second, dark matter. Peebles worked on the theory of dark matter, yes, but the evidence for dark matter is wholly indirect. If the committee was going to give a Nobel for indirect evidence of dark matter, why not to Vera Rubin while she was alive. She discovered the galactic anomaly (along with the late Fritz Zwicky.) Why on earth award Peebles a Nobel now, for a less important contribution?

    I don’t get it.

    • phoffman56
      Posted October 9, 2019 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      I certainly agree that Zwicky deserved a physics Nobel even for just the prediction of dark matter (and he had other major contributions). My guess is that by the time, 1974, of his death, there was still not a strong expectation of its correctness, rather that something very different would explain details of galaxy rotation. Maybe he even deserved one in literature for the two words following: Quoting wiki ‘One of his favorite insults was to refer to people he did not approve of as “spherical bastards”, because, he explained, they were bastards no matter which way one looked at them.’ Sounds like Drumpf.

      As for Peebles, I don’t know enough details of his work and originality to be too argumentative here. But surely someone deserves a Nobel for the theoretical prediction of the microwave background, and, as he said, “..the last man standing..”. See below. The man is certainly not an egotist. He left that to Diefenbaker among the prairie boys! Penzias and Wilson deserved one for the precision and care of their antenna, even if they were blissfully unaware till following the suggestion that they phone Princeton.

      On the man Dicke:
      “In the early 1960s, work on Brans–Dicke theory led Dicke to think about the early Universe, and with Jim Peebles he re-derived the prediction of a cosmic microwave background (having allegedly forgotten the earlier prediction of George Gamow and co-workers).”

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