NATURE PODCAST

Podcast Extra: Q&A with Nobel Prize winner Didier Queloz

Benjamin Thompson chats to Queloz about being awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Didier Queloz tells us about his Nobel Prize win.

Astronomer Didier Queloz was jointly awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics for his research on exoplanets. Shortly after the announcement, reporter Benjamin Thompson went along to chat with him about the discovery that led to him winning the prize, and where the field of exoplanet research is headed.

Never miss an episode: Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. Head here for the Nature Podcast RSS feed.

Nature Briefing

An essential round-up of science news, opinion and analysis, delivered to your inbox every weekday.

Transcript

Didier Queloz tells us about his Nobel Prize win.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Hi, listeners – Benjamin here. This is a special podcast extra ahead of tomorrow’s usual Nature Podcast. It’s Nobel Prizes week and today the three winners who shared the Physics prize were announced. One of these winners is Didier Queloz from the University of Geneva in Switzerland and the University of Cambridge in the UK. Just a couple of hours after the prize announcement, Didier took part in a press conference here in the UK, so I popped along to chat to him and started by asking him where he was when he found out he was a Nobel Prize winner.

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

Yeah, well, actually I was in a meeting with my colleagues – a science meeting about a project we’re doing together – and then I got a phone call from Cambridge. So, I just answer – maybe it’s some admin in the office – and then I went up and that’s how Iearned the news that I got awarded the Nobel Prize. I couldn’t believe that and I had kind of a blackout for some time, and then I went up in the room and then all my colleagues, they clap because they realise something had happened and they Google it, and they realise I was part of the Nobel Prize laureates. And I was extremely glad of this because this is a very nice collaboration I’m having with these people and some of them are my former PhD students, so that was the perfect assembly, I think, to have this first, emotional impact moment when you try to digest and understand what’s going on, really.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

I mean how are you feeling right now? Is this how you expected today to pan out?

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

Well, I quickly gave up to control anything today, so I’m just following with the flow like a leaf in the river. I feel much better right now because I understand a bit better what is happening and I’m very happy to communicate about the science I’m doing.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And I guess you must have spoken to your family. What have they said?

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

Well, they are very proud and they are very excited and my parents, in a way, they always got the feeling that they were expecting that one day. My family is fantastic. I’m working like a horse. I’m working way too much because I’m passionate they are very passionate with me and they understand that that’s my world and they understand this and I’m trying to do the best I can with my family to take care the best I can. My wife, she’s fantastic and we had a long chat this morning because she’s in Boston right now because I came for just a couple of days here in Cambridge for another meeting and I’m looking forward to go back to her and having a proper celebration and having time to just digest all of this.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, Didier, let’s talk about your science a little bit then. So, you won for your part in the discovery of the first exoplanet, so the first planet from outside our Solar System, that you published in Nature in 1995, I believe. Maybe you can tell me a bit about that?

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

Yes, indeed. Well, I think that’s my PhD project. It was to build equipment and to build the software around the equipment that was analysing the data with the goal to be able to detect an orbiting planet on stars. It takes a long time to detect a planet and since I was about six months short of the end of my PhD, it was clear that they had no way to do that. But I found the prospect to start a programme was thrilling enough and anyway, Michel Mayor was going on sabbatical, and he gave me the key of the equipment and said, ‘Off you go.’ Well, you can imagine my surprise when I saw something way out on a star that was nothing special to me – it was called 51 Peg – and I kind of panicked because I thought something was wrong in the equipment. But in the end, I realised it was not the equipment. It was a star actually that was telling me something and it took me some time to realise that the only thing that the star could tell me is there is a planet orbiting around that star. I was so afraid to be wrong that I really waited to be sure myself before talking to Michel, and Michel had this fantastic answer. He said, ‘Oh yeah, maybe. Let’s have a look.’ When he came back, we worked together on the data and we established formal evidence that this is actually a planet and Michel got more and more convinced. The fun part of it is much later, Michel admitted that actually when I told him I found a planet he did not believe it but he wanted to be nice with me, so I think it gives you a little bit of the style of how lucky I was to be able to work with Michel Mayor who was a great supervisor. It was a fantastic adventure we had together. And off we go, and then we made the announcement. I think for a couple of years, not very many people believed about this planet. It took some time to really ramp up ample people to understand there is plenty of planets, and then the field exploded, really, practically, and then we started to have hundreds of them, and here we are right now with thousands of planets and it’s still a challenge to understand the diversity right now. That’s how it is.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, the field of searching for exoplanets has exploded. What questions have they answered thus far and what questions remain to be answered about them?

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

Well, I think in ’95, we answered the question, ‘Is there a planet?’, and we said yes. And now we answer the question, ‘Is it common to have planets orbiting stars?’, and the answer is yes. Actually, most of the stars do have planets. But actually, we have not found many planets that look like the Earth right now. It doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It means that we may need to work a bit harder to find them, and then we also need to find out what exactly are these planets we have detected? Are they like Jupiter? Are they like the Earth? Are they like Neptune? Are they between them or something different? That’s really now the focus of the field, and one day eventually we will find something interesting in the atmosphere of the rocky planets and we may ask ourselves have we found some evidence for life on this system?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

You must have been involved in the discovery of hundreds of these planets. I mean does it still excite you to find new ones?

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

My fascination for the field is intact. It has not changed and in my mind and my heart I still feel like I am a student and I keep learning every day. I keep being surprised and amazed by what I’m finding and I think this is certainly shared by all my colleagues. I think we are working in an amazing field which is extremely active in terms of discovery potential and certainly why the field keeps going and interests so many students and young people because they realise that there is so much to find and I used to say always the same: ‘Welcome in – we need you!’

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So, do you think this has been one of the big impacts of your work then, is to inspire others to get involved?

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

Yes, I think the biggest impact is the trigger. So, we opened the field. Once the field was opened, then everybody wanted to be a part of it so yes, that was the main impact we had. The second impact we had was to demonstrate that there is a planet different from the one of the Solar System and we should maybe reconsider the picture we have about the formation of the Solar System. It may be slightly different than we had in mind and it keeps being true right now, even today.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And you mentioned there ever so slightly about looking for life on other planets. What are your thoughts on that?

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

Well, I think we’re doing that today. There are serious programmes right now and serious people trying to design equipment in order to look for some specific aspects you may find in the atmosphere. You may think about the oxygen but you can think of other elements that are telling you a story about life. There are also people trying to demonstrate that life can be done by chemistry in the lab. So, all this is going on today. I mean this is serious research right now, so I will not be surprised in the next 30-50 years there’s new equipment available that will be able to directly address these questions. Whether they will find or not, that’s another story, but I think the idea to look for life is a very serious business and most of the scientists working in the field, they will all be convinced that there must be life elsewhere. It’s just impossible to have in mind that the chemistry of life has happened on Earth and nowhere else because the chemistry is the same everywhere in the Universe, so it must have happened somewhere else as well.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s bring things back to Earth then for a minute. You yourself have come into a fairly significant amount of prize money today.

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

Yes, I heard about that.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

How is that going to change things?

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

I hope it will not change too much because I love the way I’m living right now, so I have no idea. This is something I will need to digest. But I hope it’s not going to change very much because I don’t really want my life to change. I like my life the way it is today.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Is there one thing though you’d really like to buy?

Interviewee: Didier Queloz

Yeah, this morning I had a problem with my bike. I think I’m going to buy a new bike.