Given the complex history of the discovery and announcement in 1995 of the first exoplanet that orbits a sun-like star, it is perhaps no surprise that errors might sneak into the retelling. Two main groups were racing to be first, and for a variety of reasons the discovery ended up being confirmed before it was formally announced.
A confusing situation prone to mistakes if all involved aren’t entirely conversant with the details. But an error — tantamount to scientific plagiarism — by the Nobel Committee? That is a surprise.
The faux pas occurred at the announcement on October 8 that Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva and Didier Queloz of the the University of Cambridge had won the Nobel for physics to honor their work in detecting that first exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star.
As Nobel Committee member Ulf Danielsson described the achievement, a powerpoint display of important moments and scientific findings in their quest was displayed on a screen behind him.
When the ultimate image was on deck to be shown — an image that presented the Doppler velocity curve that was described as the key to the discovery — the speaker appeared to hesitate after looking down to see what was coming next.
If he did hesitate, it was perhaps because to those in the know, the curve did not come from Mayor and Queloz.
Rather, it was the work of a team led by Geoffrey Marcy and Paul Butler — the San Francisco State University group that confirmed the existence of the hot Jupiter exoplanet 51 Pegasi b several days after the discovery was made public (to some considerable controversy) at a stellar systems conference in Florence. So at a most significant juncture of the Nobel introduction of the great work of Mayor and Queloz, hard-won data by a different team was presented as part of the duo’s achievement.
This is both awkward and embarrassing, but it also indirectly points to one of the realities that the Nobel Committee is forced, by the will of Alfred Nobel, to ignore: That science is seldom the work now of but two or three people.… Read more