Scientists who found alien worlds and made Big Bang breakthrough win Nobel Prize

It’s one of the biggest questions in the cosmos: are we alone?

And once you’ve grappled with that for a bit, you might start thinking about the equally important conundrum of how the universe came into being.

These are the problems a Canadian-American cosmologist and two Swiss scientists who split this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics have been working to solve.

Canadian-born James Peebles, 84, an emeritus professor at Princeton University, won for his theoretical discoveries in cosmology, about what happened soon after the Big Bang that eventually led to the formation of galaxies and the universe as we know it.

Swiss star-gazers Michel Mayor, 77, and Didier Queloz, 53, both of the University of Geneva, were honoured for finding an exoplanet – a planet outside our solar system – that orbits a sun-like star.

‘This year’s Nobel laureates in physics have painted a picture of the universe far stranger and more wonderful than we ever could have imagined,’ said Ulf Danielsson of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in announcing the laureates.

‘Our view of our place in the universe will never be the same again.’

Peebles’ work is a deeply theoretical look back in time and space at how the universe came to its current form, mostly filled with dark matter and dark energy we can’t even see.

It’s probably the first Nobel for purely theoretical cosmology, instead of something observed, noted CalTech physicist Sean Carroll.

Peebles, hailed as one of the most influential cosmologists of his time, realised the importance of the cosmic radiation background left behind the Big Bang. He will collect one half of the 9-million kronor (£740,000) award.

‘Much of it will go to charity,’ Peebles told colleagues at a Princeton news conference.

Then after a pause, he changed his mind and added: ‘Some of it will go to charity. Some of it will go to our children.’

Mayor, who is an astrophysicist, and Queloz, an astronomer who is also at the University of Cambridge in Britain, will share the other half. Their finding of the first planet outside our solar system circling a star like our own made astronomers look harder for life elsewhere in the universe.

‘Maybe we can discover some form of life. We don’t know what kind of form,’ Mayor said on Tuesday as he arrived in Madrid for a scientific speaking engagement.

He said scientists ‘are absolutely certain that a lot of these planets have good conditions for life’.

Mayor and Queloz started a revolution in astronomy when they discovered 51 Pegasi B, a gaseous ball comparable with Jupiter, in 1995 – a time when, as Mayor recalled, ‘no one knew whether exoplanets existed or not’.

More than 4,000 exoplanets have since been found in the Milky Way, and scientists think one out of every four or five stars have planets.

Queloz was meeting with other academics interested in finding new planets when the press office at Cambridge University told him he had won the Nobel. He thought it was a joke at first.

‘I could barely breathe,’ Queloz said.

‘It’s enormous. It’s beyond usual emotions. My hand was shaking for a long time. I’m trying to digest it.’

Peebles’ work, which began in the mid-1960s, set the stage for a “transformation” of cosmology over the last half-century, using theoretical tools and calculations that helped interpret traces from the infancy of the universe, the Nobel committee said.

On Monday, Americans William G. Kaelin Jr. and Gregg L. Semenza and Britain’s Peter J. Ratcliffe won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, for discovering details of how the body’s cells sense and react to low oxygen levels, providing a foothold for developing new treatments for anaemia, cancer and other diseases.

Nobel, a Swedish industrialist and the inventor of dynamite, decided the physics, chemistry, medicine and literature prizes should be awarded in Stockholm and the peace prize in Oslo.

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry will be announced Wednesday, two Literature Prizes will be awarded on Thursday, and the Peace Prize comes Friday.

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