Nobel Laureates in Physics with close ties to Uppsala University

15 November 2019

Bengt Gustafsson, Michel Mayor and Nikolai Piskunov

This year’s Nobel Laureates in Physics, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, have been working closely with Uppsala University for a quarter century. The next collaboration is already in the works, and in December Mayor will visit our city in connection with the Nobel festivities.

Twenty-four years after Michel Mayor and his graduate student at the time, Didier Queloz, made the first discovery of an exoplanet, they – along with James Peebles – were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics. In connection with the Nobel festivities in December, Michel Mayor will participate in the traditional visit to Uppsala University, where he will present an open lecture.

“We heartily recommend attending the lecture if you have the opportunity. They all have an amazing ability to make astronomy and deep physics accessible,” note Nikolai Piskunov and Eric Stempels, researchers in astronomy and space physics at Uppsala University.

Eric Stempels, Uppsala University

Both Piskunov and Stempels have followed the significance of the ground-breaking discovery by Mayor and Queloz closely. Piskunov met both of them just days before they published their results, but due to a professor interview at Uppsala University, he could not attend the subsequent historic presentation in Italy. Stempels, who was studying in the Netherlands, clearly remembers how the entire astronomy department started talking about exoplanets overnight.

“It caused a total paradigm shift in the entire field. Up to that point, all searches had been fruitless, and many people discussed what it would mean if the universe did not actually contain planets outside our own solar system. Then they announced the discovery of 51 Pegasi b, a gaseous globe comparable to Jupiter orbiting a sun-like star only 50 light years from Earth. This challenged all our existing conceptions.”

New collaborations await

Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz have already visited Uppsala University on several occasions. Before creation of the spectroscope that enabled the major 1995 discovery, they collaborated closely with Bengt Gustafsson, a well-known Uppsala professor of astronomy. In 2007 Mayor returned to our city to be named an honorary doctor in the Grand Auditorium. Along with Queloz and others, Piskunov and Stempels are currently preparing the Terra Hunting Experiment, a European collaboration.

“Starting in 2021, we will study the orbits of planets around about 40 smaller stars relatively close to us. The project will continue for 10 years with the aim of providing important information in the search for celestial bodies with properties similar to our own planet. We hope to gather the entire consortium in Uppsala sometime next year,” Piskunov says.

New technology will find signs of extraterrestrial life

However, Piskunov, Stempels and several other researchers at Uppsala University hope to already push the boundaries of our knowledge of space this winter. Along with scientists in Germany, they have designed CRIRES+, an innovative technology that enables the study of planetary atmospheres in other star systems by working in the infrared spectrum.

“The instrument is ready for assembly in Chile, but the country’s political instability has stopped the process. We are currently awaiting developments, but we hope to travel there in early January. If CRIRES+ can identify ozone on another planet, it will be a very strong indication of extraterrestrial life, which would be a scientific discovery of paramount importance.”

But first, a day in the spirit of Nobel with Michel Mayor awaits. No other plans have been made beyond the above noted open lecture and, of course, the traditional lunch at Uppsala Castle.

“We are in relatively close contact with both Mayor and Queloz, so to the extent that we have an opportunity to speak with him in connection with the Nobel visit, we probably would not focus on work. That will have to wait for other occasions,” Piskunov and Stempels emphasise.

2019 Nobel Prize in Physics

The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics will be awarded to Michel Mayor, University of Geneva; Didier Queloz, University of Geneva and Cambridge University; and James Peebles, Princeton University.

The three have been awarded the prize for their contribution to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and the Earth’s place in the cosmos.