Physics Nobel awarded for discoveries about the universe’s evolution and exoplanets

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Two sets of cosmic discoveries have garnered the 2019 Nobel
Prize in physics.

Half of the prize of 9 million Swedish kronor (about $900,000) goes to James Peebles of Princeton University, who discovered new theoretical tools to study the universe. His research includes studies of the cosmic microwave background, or CMB, light emitted early in the universe’s history. The work eventually helped to reveal the mysterious components of the cosmos — dark matter and dark energy.

The second half of the prize is awarded to Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva and Didier Queloz of the University of Geneva and the University of Cambridge, for the first discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star (SN: 11/25/95). That finding has reshaped scientists’ understanding of our cosmic neighborhood.

Both discoveries reveal fundamental components of the universe that are invisible to human eyes. Peebles’ work helped establish that only 5 percent of the contents of the universe is the ordinary matter that makes up planets and people (SN: 7/24/18). The rest is both dark matter (about 27 percent), which scarcely touches ordinary matter except through gravity, and dark energy (about 68 percent), which forces the universe to expand ever faster.

The discovery of the
CMB

won a Nobel Prize in 1978 (SN: 10/21/78),
and discovery of dark energy won a Nobel Prize in 2011 (SN:
10/4/11
).

Using a cup of coffee as a metaphor for the early universe, Nobel committee member and physicist Ulf Danielsson described ordinary matter as the bit of sugar sprinkled into the swirling liquid, representing dark matter and dark energy. That small sprinkle of matter “is what science has been all about for thousands of years — up until now,” he said.

Through Peebles’ work, “cosmology evolved into a science of precision,” Danielsson said.

cosmic microwave background
The cosmic microwave background is light that was emitted just 380,000 years after the Big Bang. The study of that light (shown) by Peebles and others has led to a trove of new discoveries about the universe.ESA, the Planck Collaboration

Physicists
lauded Peebles after the award announcement. “Jim is among the fathers of
physical cosmology that laid the foundation for the now remarkably successful
standard theory of the structure and history of the universe,” said physicist
David Gross, president of the American Physical Society, in an email.

That standard theory of the universe is known as lambda-CDM. Peebles “has his fingerprints all over that,” says cosmologist Michael Turner of the University of Chicago. “He’s been involved in every major development in cosmology over the past 50 years.”

Cosmologist Jo Dunkley, a colleague of Peebles’ at Princeton, sums up the reaction of cosmologists at the university: “Yes, of course he got the Nobel Prize. He made this field.”

In a news conference
held later in the day at Princeton, Peebles seemed overwhelmed by the
recognition from his colleagues. “Now I know how rock stars feel,” he quipped.
He noted that plenty of questions remain in cosmology, like the identity of
dark matter and dark energy. “We can be very sure that as we discover new
aspects of the expanding and evolving universe we will be startled and amazed
once again.”

After
the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, the nascent universe was a nearly uniform
slurry, with only small variations in the density of matter. Peebles’ work
explains how the universe transformed over eons to a cosmos filled with complex
structures like galaxies, as a result of the prevailing pull of gravity. “He
was one of the key people who developed the entire framework of structure
formation,” says Priyamvada Natarajan of Yale University. Peebles showed that “dark
matter was in the driver’s seat.” The influence of the still-undetected dark
matter particles was essential to forming the structures of the cosmos observed
today.

Structures in the universe formed along a wide range of size scales, resulting in not only enormous objects like galaxy clusters, but also smaller denizens within them, such as stars and their planets — including the exoplanet discovered by Mayor and Queloz. Honoring both these discoveries, Natarajan says, is “a celebration of human understanding of the largest scales and the smallest scales. Both are frontiers.”

Like dark matter and dark energy, Mayor and Queloz’s discovery — the first exoplanet around a sunlike star — was also not visible directly. In 1995, Mayor and Queloz found a Jupiter-mass planet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi by watching the way the planet tugged on the star. The planet’s gravity made the star wobble back and forth slightly, making the starlight shift from slightly bluer to slightly redder as the star moved toward and away from Earth.

That first planet, 51 Pegasi b, was unlike anything that exists in our solar system. It lies closer to its star than Mercury does to the sun. Scientists thought it was impossible for giant planets to form so close to their stars, until they found one.

52 Pegasi b
The Jupiter-mass planet 51 Pegasi b, shown in this artist’s illustration, is widely regarded as the first exoplanet discovered orbiting a sunlike star. The discoverers, astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, share the 2019 Nobel Prize in physics.M. Kornmesser/ESO, Nick Risinger/Skysurvey.org

Astronomers
now think giant planets probably form far from their stars and migrate inward
to become hot Jupiters. The idea that planets can shuffle around their orbits
has since been used to explain some mysteries of our
own solar system
(SN: 5/25/05).

“This [migration] was a major ingredient of the scenario of planetary formation, and today all scenarios have to include these kind of phenomena,” Mayor said in an interview posted online October 8 by nobelprize.org.

When Queloz learned that their discovery had won, he “stopped breathing,” he told nobelprize.org. “I’m still completely stunned by the news.”

Since
the discovery of 51 Pegasi b, more than 4,000 exoplanets have been found
orbiting distant stars. Astronomers can now study individual planetary systems
and planet populations as a whole to understand how alien worlds form and
evolve. Scientists also are planning how to search for signs of
life in exoplanets’ atmospheres
(SN: 10/4/19).

“There’s
a reason [51 Pegasi b] was found first — it’s the easiest type of planet to
find,” says exoplanet scientist David Charbonneau of Harvard University. Big,
close-orbiting planets have the largest influence on their stars.

Since
51 Pegasi b, “astronomers have been moving toward smaller planets and cooler
planets” that are more like Earth, Charbonneau says. “There’s an enormous
amount of enthusiasm in the field that, with the right telescopes, we really
could … find out whether or not there’s life on other planets.”

Scientists thought the first known exoplanet, a hot Jupiter orbiting close to its star, was impossible. Now there’s a whole field of research on how stars build bizarre planets.

Charbonneau
says “it’s about time” for exoplanet science to be recognized with a Nobel
Prize. “The community has really agreed that the discovery of 51 Peg was the
discovery that really ignited the field,” he says.

Other
exoplanet scientists were more surprised. Sara Seager of MIT did not expect her
field to win the top honor. “I was so floored,” she says.

The
prize is a huge boost for exoplanet science, which
some still see as “a frivolous, almost stamp collecting endeavor,” she says. In
just 25 years, “we went from being an obscure and laughable fringe to
mainstream science that’s Nobel-worthy.”

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