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3 Researchers Awarded Nobel Prize In Physics


This year's Nobel Prize in physics has gone to three scientists for furthering humanity's understanding of our place in the universe. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has this report on how these scientists brought the very big picture into clearer focus.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Scientific discoveries are often described as eureka moments, when the researcher suddenly realizes they've got it right. But for Didier Queloz, his Nobel-winning discovery started with the sinking feeling he'd done something wrong. The year was 1994, and Queloz was a lonely graduate student looking at a distant star. He thought he saw the star wobbling, as if a planet was pulling on it, but it just didn't look right.

DIDIER QUELOZ: I panicked because you have to realize, at that time, I felt that I could have messed up completely.

BRUMFIEL: Queloz was so convinced he'd done something wrong, he didn't tell us supervisor, Michel Mayor. Instead, he spent months checking the telescope, his computer codes. But it all looked OK.

QUELOZ: I think it's a point where, in your head, you realize that it's not anymore your equipment that has a problem, but that's really the star. It's real. And I don't know exactly when it happened, frankly.

BRUMFIEL: Queloz eventually told Mayor he'd found a planet around another star. Sara Seager, a planet hunter at MIT, says the research community was shocked by the discovery.

SARA SEAGER: They found the most craziest thing ever. They found a planet that's about Jupiter mass, orbiting so close to the star. It's like, many, many times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun.

BRUMFIEL: Seager says a planet this big this close to a star forced researchers to completely change the way they thought about how planets form.

SEAGER: Now the thinking is that planets move around. They migrate in the discs that they formed in. So the planet would've formed farther from the star where there is enough material for a giant planet to form. And by interacting with the gas in the disc and maybe with other planets, it migrated in, kind of like a game of billiards.

BRUMFIEL: Queloz, now at the University of Cambridge and the University of Geneva, and Mayor, also at Geneva, shared half the prize. The other half went to Jim Peebles at Princeton University. Peebles is a cosmologist, meaning he studies the entire universe. He spent half a century thinking about the origins of everything, and it's in large part because of his work that we now understand stars and planets only make up a tiny portion of what's out there - around 5%. The rest of the universe is composed of two mysterious entities known only as dark matter and dark energy.

JIM PEEBLES: The fact that we can't say what dark matter and dark energy is might lead some to ask whether we know what we're talking about at all.

BRUMFIEL: He says it's up to others to figure it out.

PEEBLES: It's another Nobel Prize coming to someone. Find out.

BRUMFIEL: Peebles, though, is going to take a break and have a party.

PEEBLES: We will celebrate. We will get together with our two remaining daughters, with their husbands, with all of our grandchildren. We'll celebrate but not tonight.

BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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