Earlier this week, the two men who detected the first planet outside our solar system that circled a sun-like star won a Nobel Prize in physics. The discovery heralded the beginning of the exoplanet era — replacing a centuries-old scientific supposition that planets orbited other stars with scientific fact.
The two men are Michel Mayor, Professor Emeritus at the University of Geneva and Didier Queloz, now of Cambridge University. There is no Nobel Prize in astronomy and the physics prize has seldom gone to advances in the general field of astronomy and planetary science. So the selection is all the more impressive.
Mayor and Queloz worked largely unknown as they tried to make their breakthrough, in part because previous efforts to detect exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) orbiting sun-like stars had fallen short, and also because several claimed successes turned out to be unfounded. Other efforts proved to be quite dangerous: a Canadian duo used poisonous and corrosive hydrogen flouride vapor in the 1980s as part of their planet-hunting effort.
But since their 1995 discovery opened the floodgates, the field of exoplanet science has exploded. More than 4,000 exoplanets have been identified and a week seldom goes by without more being announced. The consensus scientific view is now that billions upon billions of exoplanets exist in our galaxy alone.
While Mayor and Queloz were pioneers for sure, they did not work in a vacuum. Rather, they were in a race of sorts with an American team that had also been working in similar near anonymity for years to also find an exoplanet.
And so here is a human, rather than a purely scientific, narrative look — reported over the years — into the backdrop to the just announced Nobel Prize. While Mayor and Queloz were definitely the first to find an exoplanet, they were quite close to being the second.
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