“Very nice connection, very nice surprise!”
Telephone interview with Michel Mayor following the announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics, 8 October 2019. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Michel Mayor was in the midst of a lecture tour in Spain when he received the news of his Prize. In this conversation with Adam Smith, which starts on an airport bus and continues in the terminal of San Sebastian airport in Spain, he recalls how he heard about the prize, the care they took back in 1995 before releasing news of the first exoplanet to the world, and the ongoing search for life on other planets.
Michel Mayor: Hello?
Adam Smith: Oh hello. My name is Adam Smith. I’m calling from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm.
AS: Where are you now?
MM: I’m in the bus going to the airport.
AS: Oh I see, okay.
MM: In Spain, I’m in Spain.
AS: May I just ask you, how did you hear the news of the Prize?
MM: Oh, completely by chance because just leaving my hotel, I connect myself to the computer. And I received the news from that, about one hour ago. Very nice, very nice connection, very nice surprise! So we have some difficulty to speak as I am in a bus in Spain, and the quality of the telephone is very bad …
AS: … But anyway, you’ve made it to the airport at least. It must be a bit frustrating to be away from home when it happens.
MM: Yes, it’s a little bit more complicated, and okay but I will be with colleagues in Madrid and in different place for giving some discussion on exoplanets so it’s okay, it’s a good moment with colleagues.
AS: Of course, many celebrations to come.
MM: Yes, I hope so!
AS: Do you recall the excitement of the moment when you saw the first exoplanet 24 years ago?
MM: Yes, I believe, you know this is not a discovery made at one special moment, because you need to accumulate a lot of measurements during several months, and only after that you have some hints that maybe you have something interesting. Because due to the lot of announcements made before I have decided to wait for the next season to repeat the measurements to be absolutely sure. The problem was not the quality of the measurements but was the interpretation of what we are discovering. So we wait ’95, in the middle of ’95, the second season, and everything was fine: the same period, the same amplitude, the same phase. So with Didier we said, “OK, now we are sure this is an extrasolar planet.” It was a great moment.
AS: It’s so unexpected that it orbits in just four days,
AS: Such strangeness. It must have taken great courage to believe in your data.
MM: Apart to have the confirmation that extrasolar planets exist, this was maybe the most important aspect of this discovery, the discovery of the orbital migration. So that if planets are formed some distance of the star then after the interaction between the planet and the [protoplanetary] disk create a spiralling migration of the young planet towards the star, and this was a major ingredient of the scenario of planetary formation. And today, all scenarios have to include this kind of phenomena.
AS: And that’s the point isn’t it, that the discovery of all these exoplanets, over 4,000 now, teaches us a great deal about the way that solar systems form, and indeed even about our own Earth.
MM: Yes, yes, sure. In fact this is a different … we are living in a planetary system so all the planets of all solar systems belong to the same kind of scenario.
AS: Yes, because there’s often a great focus on the search for life, but we could learn a lot more than just whether there’s life out there by looking.
MM: Scientists are interested in the formation of planetary systems and so on, but for most, the majority of people, what is behind is the question of life. At the present time this is the most exciting question we have facing us, and for the next generation I don’t know how many years we will need for that, but this is the extremely important question for laymen.
AS: When do you think we might be ready to see the first signs of life if they’re there?
MM: It’s the problem of the detection of biosignatures. We know how to do it. But it’s so difficult, technically, so difficult. I believe maybe 10 years or more, I don’t know exactly, but I don’t expect to have an answer next year. Greek philosophers were discussing the plurality of worlds and the possibility to have some of them inhabited 2000 years ago, so I believe we can wait 20 years more.
AS: Well said, yes. We look forward very much indeed to welcoming you to Stockholm in December.
MM: What I have to say, ‘tack’?
AS: Exactly, ‘precis’! Thank you very much indeed.
MM: Thank you.
AS: Congratulations, bye bye.
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