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Michel Mayor (Lausanne, 1942) learned yesterday that he had won the Nobel Prize in Physics when he was about to leave San Sebastian after spending a few days on vacation with his grandchildren. The astronomer who in 1995 discovered the first exoplanet - along with the then doctoral student Didier Queloz - and his wife, Françoise, were handing over the keys to their apartment when in Stockholm they announced, shortly before 12 noon, that they had won the mobile (shared with Queloz and cosmologist James Peebles). Mayor found out when he turned on the computer and received the call from his son, who was in Oslo and had just known.
But then they didn't call him before the Royal Academy of Sciences of Sweden to let him know, we asked. "No. I did not get to talk to them. I have a cell phone, but I almost do not use it . With my computer and e-mail is enough. We had to go quickly from San Sebastián's apartment to catch the flight to Madrid and on the way there We had Wi-Fi so it was when I arrived at the airport when I turned on the computer again and read the email from the Academy. It was a big surprise, "he says during an interview in Madrid, where he has participated in an astrophysics conference at the Center this morning. Astrobiology (CAB / CSIC-INTA).
"It has really been a surprise," corroborates his wife, who is also a scientist (studied biology), while her husband poses for photographers. " We had been hearing for so many years that they were going to give him the Nobel Prize that we did not expect," he reviews.
While signing slowly in the visitor's book of the CAB, the researcher at the University of Geneva asks for a coffee alone and his wife places a dark chocolate tablet on the table. Swiss, of course.Have you talked to your colleague, Didier Queloz, yet? I have heard some of the comments he has made on Swiss television and his wife has sent me an email but I have not spoken directly with him. He is in Cambridge now.Queloz was his student when they discovered exoplanet 51 Pegasi b What relationship do they have now? We have a very good relationship. First it was my PhD student, precisely at the time when we discovered the exoplanet 51 Pegasi b. We continued working together for a few years, then left for a couple of years in the US and, when we returned to Geneva, we collaborated again. He is now a professor at Cambridge, which is a great opportunity for him. However, he still spends 25% of his time in Switzerland, so we keep seeing each other. In 1994 there were other scientists looking for exoplanets but you were the first. Before I discovered it, was I convinced that there were planets outside the Solar System? Actually, we weren't many scientists looking for them. There were two in Canada, in California, in Texas and us. Less than ten Some had started before us but the truth is that for a while we found nothing. Many stars were monitored without discovering any planet. We did not observe for many nights, about a week every two months. Suddenly, one day at the end of 1994, one of the stars we measured behaved in a special way. We were very cautious before announcing anything. In the following campaign, in July 1995, we looked again to see if the same phenomenon would occur, and so it was. The same period, the same amplitude and intensity. We decided to publish and it was a shock. Will they be able to identify soon a planet where there is life? What is certain is that there are adequate planets for the chemistry of life to develop, we have no doubt about this. The problem is that in order to analyze the chemical composition of a planet's atmosphere you have to eliminate the luminosity that comes from its star and this is quite difficult. You have to devise strategies to achieve it. For a few years we have tools but only for massive, not rocky planets. We will have to wait for better ideas. It could be next year or in 10 or 20 years when we have the ability to find biomarkers. I think that in 10 years or 15 years we will have candidate planets to seek life. Now there are many scientists around the world looking for worlds outside the Solar System. Did you imagine in 1995 that the search for exoplanets would become one of the most active and exciting fields of astrophysics? Yes, the people who work in this field have grown tremendously because interest has increased so much. I like to remember, however, that the Greeks 2,000 years ago were considering whether other worlds could harbor life. Now we have the technology to transform this dream into science and answer this question. Do you have favorite exoplanets? Of course [laughs]. 51 Pegasi b for obvious reasons. It is also a very interesting object because of its physical characteristics51 Pegasi, the star that houses its exoplanet, is like our sun but exoplanets have been found with very different characteristics and orbiting very varied stars Yes. One of the most important discoveries of the last 20 years is the great diversity of worlds. In a naive way it was previously thought that they had to be similar to ours. Now we have seen all kinds of planets with different stars. What is your opinion of the Spanish contribution in the field of exoplanets? I have a close relationship with my Spanish colleagues at the Observatory of La Palma, in the Canary Islands, who are looking for exoplanets. And the work done at the Astrobiology Center is exceptional. There is a great synergy between different aspects of science: there are chemists, astronomers, biologists, geologists. It is something I really admire. There are people who criticize that so much money is spent on the construction of large telescopes to study distant worlds. What would you say? First, I want to dismantle the idea that we will have another planet to flee if we destroy ours. For the rest, I consider that the budget spent on research in Europe is limited, especially when compared to other sectors. It involves a few euros per inhabitant. Stimulating new generations is something very valuable in what deserves to invest money. In the same way, I think it would be terrible if we stopped being interested in art or opera. Curiosity is absolutely necessary for humanity.
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