The 2019 Nobel prize in physics is unique mainly because it is entirely dedicated to contributions in astronomy. It covers both the micro and macro worlds of astronomy as well as both the theoretical and observational sides of astronomy.
“We are now the first generation of astronomers that may have the tools to discover what dark matter and dark energy is.”Prof Ewine van Dishoeck, President, The International Astronomical Union
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to award this year’s Physics Nobel Prize “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos,” with one half to James Peebles “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology” and the other half, jointly, to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz “for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.”
The International Astronomical Union President Prof Ewine van Dishoeck told The Quint: “This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics is special as it deals with two very different scales of astronomy. Jim Peebles works at the cosmological scale and Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz deal with the much smaller scale of solar systems. Both discoveries opened up entirely new avenues of research in astronomy, with the field of cosmology exploding since the 1970s and that of exoplanets becoming one of the most rapidly growing fields since 1995. We are now the first generation of astronomers that may have the tools to discover what dark matter and dark energy is, and to search for life on planets around other stars. This is a recognition of astronomy at its best!”
India Connection in Physics Nobel’s Cosmology Recognition
The first time a pure theoretical astrophysics result was selected for a Nobel prize was when in 1983 the award was given to Indian astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar “for his theoretical studies of the physical processes of importance to the structure and evolution of the stars” shared with American astrophysicist William Fowler. From then on, the Nobel jury committees became more open to consider various aspects of astronomy for the physics prize.
Dr Sheila Kanani, Education-Outreach-Diversity Officer, Royal Astronomical Society London told The Quint: “It is wonderful that the winners of the Nobel Physics prize are all astronomers this year! This is a really special moment for the astronomy community, as it shows how much on the forefront of physics research astronomy is. Awarding the scientists behind the discovery of the first exoplanet is wonderful, as exoplanetary science and astrobiology is the future of astronomy, and captures the imagination of the next generation.”
Constant Decoding of the Cosmos
This year’s Nobel laureates in physics tried to answer a couple of fundamental questions pertinent to our existence in the cosmos namely:
- What happened in the early infancy of the universe and what happened next?
- Could there be other planets out there, orbiting other stars beyond our sun?
The first question was answered by Jim Peebles using some strong theoretical framework involving cosmic microwave background radiation. These are the remnant relics of the Big bang and helps us to understand what the state of the universe was 13.7 billion years ago.
The cosmological part of this year’s Nobel is a positive step towards understanding the dynamical evolution of the early universe.
James Peebles made outstanding contributions to the theory of dark matter and dark energy, the mysterious components which together make up almost 95% of our observable universe. Peebles’ work did some significant advancement in understanding large scale structure formations like galaxy evolution due to density fluctuations in the early phase of the universe right after the big bang. Slowly we are getting to understand the building blocks of our cosmos better.
"Cosmic background radiation was discovered in 1965, and turned out to be a goldmine for our understanding of how the Universe developed from its early childhood to the present day" remarked Prof Mats Larsson, Chair of the Nobel Physics prize committee.
"Were it not for the theoretical discoveries of James Peebles, the wonderful high-precision measurements of this radiation over the last 20 years would have told us almost nothing" added Prof Larrson, in a statement to press.
Understanding the Exotic World of Exoplanets
Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were awarded the prize for finding 51 Pegasi b, a gas giant planet orbiting a star 50 light-years away from us. It was the first exoplanet to be discovered orbiting a star like our own. Exoplanets are planets going around other stars forming other stellar systems (similar to our solar system where planets go around our sun).
Dr Tom Barclay, an exoplanetary scientist at NASA HQ and K2 Mission Office Chief says to The Quint: “I’m very excited that the field of exoplanet is being recognized with a Nobel Prize. This discovery of a planet orbiting the star 51 Peg was instrument in kickstarting the exoplanet revolution. Since 51 Peg b was discovered in 1995, we have discovered over 4000 planets around other stars. We now know that there are more planets than stars in our Galaxy, and Earth-sized planets are common”.
Exoplanets are exciting because there are possibilities to understand more about the evolution and configurations of our own solar system and compare with outside stellar systems. Finding Earth-like planets and planets in the habitable zone is even more exciting because it helps us to explore outside worlds with different ambient conditions and search for fragments of life outside Earth. Finding water and other organic compounds on exoplanets is an important discovery in this direction.
How Latest Results Help the Future?
The cosmological part of this year’s Nobel is a positive step towards understanding the dynamical evolution of the early universe. Only if we know the origin and early history of the universe better, we get a handle to extrapolate and come up with meaningful results for the evolution of large scale structures and densities after big bang.
The world of exoplanets has always triggered vast amount of scientific curiosity both among scientists as well as the general public. The ambitious goals have been:
- To find planets orbiting a star like our own (for which the Nobel prize was awarded now)
- To find Earth-like planets (mission accomplished)
- To find Earth-like planets in the habitable zone (mission in progress)
- To find some life form in Earth-like planets (mission in progress)
- To find intelligent life form in Earth-like planets (mission in progress)
- Finding a means to communicate with intelligent alien life forms
As they say, well begun is half done! It might take awhile before we say ‘Hello’ to intelligent alien civilizations. However, today’s Nobel is also a small step in that direction.
Women Scientists Missing
Stellar astrophysicist and Assistant Professor at the Mt. Suhora Observatory, University of Krakow in Poland, Dr Huri Tugca Sener tells The Quint: "Nobel prizes being the top most prestigious awards in academia, it is very important that astronomy and especially exoplanetary science is being recognised, like today. It is also important to keep in mind that the scientific society needs to give more space and visibility to the female scientists if we really want to break the prototypes and present females as role models for the kids who are the fresh minds of our future ground breaking discoveries."
Swedish Academy of Sciences have had a very dismal record so far in giving befitting recognition to well deserved female scientists in fundamental sciences. The classic example is the omission of ace female astronomer Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell while her male supervisor Prof Anthony Hewish received the Nobel for discovering pulsars (rotating neutron stars) although it was Prof Bell who detected a pulsar first.
It is about time that the Nobel jury committees become more sensitive and open minded in terms of addressing the candidature nominations with respect to gender parity and taking into consideration the appalling gender gaps in STEM subjects in academia.
(The author is an Indian astrophysicist and science writer. He tweets @aswinsek. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)