James Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz will split the prize of 9 million Swedish kronor, about $908,000.
On Tuesday morning, one American scientist and two Swiss scientists were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for their observations on the nature of the universe and the first planet observed orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system.
James Peebles of Princeton University was awarded the prize for cosmological observations and, according to an announcement by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the University of Geneva were rewarded for the discovery of the planet 51 Pegasi b in 1995.
“Their discoveries have changed our world views forever,” tweeted the Nobel Committee.
Half of the award was given to Peebles to explain how to understand cosmic microwave radiation, a residual heat signature from the universe’s first 400,000 years after its birth13.8 billion years ago. “James Peebles was able to interpret these signs from the origins of the universe using his mathematical methods and equations and to discover new physical processes,” the academy said in its announcement of the award.
His research, starting in the 1960s, revealed that everyday matter— the substance of stars, planets, and people — is only about 5 percent of the cosmos ‘ content. The rest is dark matter, an unobservable type of matter which shapes galaxies, and dark energy, a force that contributes to the universe’s accelerating expansion.
“These things are just happening,” Peebles said in a news conference arranged by the academy about his findings. He found winning the Nobel “charming,” but said, “Because you’re intrigued by it, you must study science,” rather than winning prizes.
Mayor and Queloz, who also has an appointment at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, will share the other half of the award for the 1995 discovery of 51 Pegasi b, a planet orbiting a sun-like star in the constellation of Pegasus about 50 light-years away (one light-year is about 5.9 trillion miles away). The observation revealed that solar systems come in unusual sizes, with the planet being a much larger “Cold Jupiter” than Earth roasting on its star’s close-in orbit.
“Their groundbreaking work on discovering the fundamental nature of the universe and new worlds in distant solar systems has opened up whole new areas of research,” said Michael Moloney of the American Institute of Physics, in a statement on the prize. “Discovery of a planet orbiting a star outside our own system has changed our perceptions of our place in the universe.”
The “exoplanet” discovery set off a revolution in astronomy, pioneering a method of detecting star wobbles back and forth caused by planets like 51 Pegasi b tugging on them as they orbit. Over the past two decades, thousands of planets have been detected orbiting nearby stars.
Every year, the Swedish Academy awards the Physics Prize to up to three people considered to have made “the most important discovery or innovation in the field of physics,” as determined by the will of the dynamite inventor, industrialist Alfred Nobel, in 1895.
The winners of the competition will share the 9 million Swedish kronor bonus (about $908,000) and receive gold medals from the King of Sweden in a Dec. 10 ceremony.