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Guest Editorial

Finally, a Nobel for Exoplanets
by H. Paul Shuch

On 6 October 1995, at an astronomy conference in Florence, Italy, SETI League members were elated to learn of the discovery of the first planet orbiting another main-sequence star. 51 Pegasi b was detected by the radial velocity Doppler method by Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and his graduate student Didier Queloz. Their observations opened up the heavens to a new era of discovery. This announcement was a major boost to SETI research, given that the existence of exoplanets has long been considered essential to the development of life.

In fact, fp, the fraction of stars with planets, is the second variable in the familiar Drake Equation, and only the second of the seven Drake factors (behind R*, the formation of stars) to be proven to have a non-zero value. To date, several thousand exoplanets have been confirmed by this and other observational methods, confirming the long-held suspicion that planetary formation around certain classes of stars is the rule, rather than the exception.

Last October, fully 24 years after Mayor’s and Queloz’s landmark discovery, the Nobel committee awarded them its prestigious prize in Physics, ”for the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a solar-type star.” I believe the citation should have been for the first such discovery, but let’s not quibble here. Michel and Didier are well deserving of this long-overdue honor, which has opened up a whole new era of planetary detections, greatly increasing the probability for SETI success.

The two share their Physics Nobel with Canadian theoretical physicist James Peebles. His Nobel Prize citation states simply that Peebles is being recognized “for theoretical discoveries in physical cosmology.” As a lifelong professor at Princeton University (where he is now Albert Einstein Professor Emeritus of Science), Peebles provided a theoretical framework for understanding the early Universe, which contributed to the 1964 detection of the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB) by Bell Labs physicist Arno Penzias and radio astronomer Robert W. Wilson. Those two were awarded the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physics for that discovery.

On a personal note, I had the honor of meeting Michel and Didier at a bioastronomy conference on the Italian island of Capri in 1996. Here is a picture of me singing to Michel and his wife Francois at that meeting. The Song I chose is my own “Pegasus 51”, which I wrote the day after Michel announced the detection of the first exoplanet orbiting a main-sequence star. You can hear the song by clicking here.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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