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Commentary & Opinion

David Nightingale: 2019 Physics Nobelists

The position of Alpha Centauri (Rigilkent, Rigel Kentaurus, Toliman)
Wikimedia Commons
The position of Alpha Centauri (Rigilkent, Rigel Kentaurus, Toliman)

In 1849 the horror writer Edgar Allan Poe wrote his prose-poem “Eureka!”, (“I have it!”) concerning the nature of the universe.

Fast forward 170 years. The 2019 Nobel Prize in physics, also concerning the nature of the universe, and our minuscule place in it, has been shared between the Princeton physicist P.J.E. Peebles, who receives half of the $900,000, and two others, who get a quarter each.

Many years ago I attended an NSF-funded Chautauqua short course – 4 days – given by that first winner, P.J.E. Peebles. Although Chautauqua is in Western New York it was actually offered at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and was simply entitled “Cosmology.

Often, descriptions of work done in the sciences can go over our heads, but this year the physics prize work is easy to understand. Peebles was then a young researcher, and is now an emeritus professor at Princeton. His work, which is theoretical, and thus (despite what I just said) not easy to read on account of the mathematics, looks at the cosmos analytically. He treats it as a 14 billion-year-old gas of galaxies, stars, and dark matter, and he uses Einstein’s G.R. as his main tool. This model, usually called the Big Bang model, has been roughly agreed upon by researchers worldwide. While many people apart from Edgar Allan Poe have written about the cosmos – think Carl Sagan, Hoyle, Peebles’ own adviser Robert Dicke, Weinberg and so on – references in astrophysics papers and books nearly always include the name ‘P.J.E. Peebles.’

Peebles is now 84 and was born in Manitoba, Canada. Over the years he has won over a dozen medal and awards, such as the Crafoord Prize, election to Fellowship of the Royal Society and now the Nobel Prize; and he has even authored a book on Quantum Mechanics. Since gaining his Ph.D. at Princeton his life has been one of solid research almost entirely in cosmology – and while there is no single discovery or breakthrough to point to there is a lifetime of respect from colleagues everywhere. We can describe it as a “Ask Peebles, he’ll know” kind of respect.

The two other winners in physics were professor and student. The older one is 77-year-old Michel Mayor, born in Switzerland, and the younger one was his 1995 Ph.D. student at the University of Geneva, Didier Queloz, now 53.

Unlike the case for Dr. Peebles, these two are honored for a specific breakthrough, which was the 1995 discovery of the first ever exo-planet. An exo-planet is simply one that has nothing to do with our solar system, and is orbiting a mother star far away. In this instance the planet they found was orbiting a star which is similar to our sun in the constellation Pegasus – 50 light years away. How on earth did they detect such a thing? Well, the short answer is by measuring very tiny periodic motions of that mother star toward or away from us. It had to be a pretty big planet to be wobbling its mother star, and they have since found that it is roughly Jupiter-sized – probably just an extremely hot gas and certainly unlivable.

So the huge Pegasus planet was the first ever exo-planet that mankind found, and only a week later Drs. Marcy and Butler from the Lick Observatory in California confirmed its existence.

Since 1995 research grew rapidly. We have now found over 4,000 planets in star systems beyond our solar system. Indeed the nearest ones may be orbiting around the 3 stars named Alpha Centauri – only 4 light years away – and a favorite of science fiction writers [ref.1]. If Elon Musk can develop a spacecraft to go fast enough, the one way trip there might take fewer than only a dozen years!


1.  “The Centauri Settlement”, by J.D. Nightingale;  www.TheBookPatch.com, 2018. This novel uses the correct relativistic interpretations of time dilation/length contraction needed for high speed space travel.

David Nightinglale is an emeritus professor of physics at SUNY New Paltz where he taught for 31 years. His first novel, The Centauri Settlement, is produced by TheBookPatch.com .

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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