By Helen Gavaghan.


What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
From Little Gidding by T.S.Eliot.

Copernicus decentred the Universe of Western Science, repositioning that humanity in relationship to its Universe. Next came Kepler who plotted the paths of celestial bodies to show how Earth ploughs in oval furrows through the firmament. This we know, and mostly learned at school. By Victorian time science fiction writers dreamt of other worlds and plotted the lives of exotic intelligent beings. No-one would have believed in the last years of the Twentieth Century - to paraphrase H.G.Wells - that scientists would identify planets orbiting a distant Sun. Yet that is exactly what Michel Mayor from the University of Geneva, Switzerland and Didier Queloz from the Universities of Geneva and of Cambridge in the UK did. Today saw their creativity awarded with a quarter each of the Nobel Prize for Physics. Canadian, James Peebles, the Albert Einstein Professor of Science from Princeton University in the US, won the other half. Peebles is a theoretician, while Mayor and Queloz are experimentalist. Experiment exists in a safety net of extant theory, and its findings reinforce, expand, completely overturn or create parallel current knowledge. Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, for example, live side by side on library shelves. In other words, the task of Mayor and Queloz was a lot more complex than randomly sweeping the sky with a large telescope. Like Galileo and Kepler, they had informed speculation and plausible theories to guide their search. In part, work by Peebles linking routine concepts of physics to cosmology (essentially an effort to make the Universe understandable) gave Mayor and Queloz a conceptual framework to work within.

Publication for Issue 4 (Oct. - Dec.) 2019 of Science, People & Politics ISSN 1751-598X (online)

*Published first online (late afternoon), 8.10.2019. Small typographic and grammatical changes made 9.10.2019.