Professor Didier Queloz explaining the science behind his Nobel Prize winNASASolarSystem

The evening after Professor Didier Queloz won the most prestigious award in science, I grabbed a chat with him just after he gave a public lecture on his research in West Road Concert Hall.

Professor Didier Queloz, a Cambridge physicist at the Cavendish Laboratory, won ‘half’ of the the Nobel Prize in Physics last week alongside with Michael Mayor for their work challenging our understanding of the known universe.

The other ‘half’ of the award honoured work by James Peebles, a Princeton cosmologist whose theoretical contributions have mapped out 13.8 billion years of cosmological history. Both of these areas of research make us question our place in this vast and mysterious universe.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Professor Queloz predicted there is a chance that humans will be able to discover extraterrestrial life in the next 30 years, saying that he “can’t believe that we are the only living entity in the universe.”

I ask Queloz about challenging the status quo in scientific thought – on the possibility of life on other planets or potential new pathways of scientific study. He tells me that it is through being able to question and to critically think about existing knowledge that we learn and discover more. Importantly, he says, one must have faith that there is a purpose and meaning to all research done, even that which may not succeed on the first attempt. 

Professor Queloz first studied at the University of Geneva, and, at the age of 29, he, along with Michel Mayor, discovered the first planet outside our solar system, an exoplanet orbiting the star 51 Pegasi.

After this discovery they launched a search for more of these exoplanets, continuing to develop new experimental techniques and astronomical instruments that enabled these observations – work for which he won the BBVA Foundation Frontiers Knowledge Award along with Mayor in 2017. To date, more than 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered.

He became a Professor of Astrophysics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in 2012, and now heads Cambridge’s Exoplanet Research Centre. This team continues to develop upon his exoplanet research, considering the possibility of finding a habitable – or even habited – planet similar to Earth. 

His lecture chronicled his journey to the Nobel Prize, and the physics behind his discoveries. For a planet with an orbital period and mass similar to that of Jupiter, calculations lead to a 1-4% likelihood in finding the planet. For higher orbital periods this increases to about 5-10% and for a planet like Neptune, is about 30-80%. However, particularly for smaller planets, the interference makes it difficult to receive a stable signal.

“I can’t believe that we are the only living entity in the universe”

Professor Queloz outlined the scale of challenges and difficulties he faced in finding the exoplanet, and how he managed to overcome them.

The discovery of exoplanets is just the beginning – the Terra Hunting experiment focuses on the search for other ‘Earths’. Scientists are targeting planets with a mass of about ¼ of the mass of Earth and an orbital period of 50 days to 300 days. 
Discussing the scale of these research programmes after his talk, Professor Queloz explained the challenge of forging new paths in scientific research.

The first challenge is to design and develop prototype equipment that is capable of detecting the data the team hopes to collect. There is then the practical task of putting it all together and making it work. Once the equipment is set up and programmed, vast amounts of measurements will be collected, ready for analysis.

Each data point then needs to be put together to develop a picture of what these results mean – and the implications of any new discoveries on current bodies of research considered, the scientific community and the general public. With his research taking place on the scale of the whole universe and delving into fundamental questions about the possibility of life outside of planet earth, this impact cannot be overstated.

There is currently strong evidence that planets that have a rocky surface like Earth exist, and even some where water have existed. The difficulty however is finding life that then exists on that ‘Earth’ – and finding out this will require much more extensive research.  Perhaps, as Professor Queloz went on to discuss, this life will not evolve in the same way as on Earth.


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This kind of research involves many different disciplines, combining skills from biological and physical sciences.  He explains that “there is [a greater emphasis] on cross discipline” in the sciences, and how this shift from traditionally demarcated disciplines allows new research to happen, beyond disciplinary borders. “When needed there will be the discovery of new disciplines” to account for this and ultimately he explains “its up to us” to do this and make it happen – “society [needs to] act”.

He then discussed the difficulty in confirming his evidence and the challenges of the data he had discovered not fitting current models and theories completely. This highlighted how science is still evolving and changing – which makes the determination and faith that Professor Queloz kept incredibly remarkable.

He’s optimistic about getting past all the challenges that there are in the scientific field and promoting this to new researchers and students. Challenging beliefs and ideas pave the way for scientific progress – and his work is an inspiration for the students watching him to follow in his footsteps.

To all students at Cambridge, Professor Queloz’s commitment, hard work and dedication is something to aspire to. His research has created a whole new realm of astronomy and physics for current students and researchers to try to work with and understand.

What’s Queloz’s best advice for aspiring physicists? Just “do what you like.”

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