Being the first to discover an exoplanet –’51 Pegasi b’ is called and it is in the constellation of Pegasus, 51 light years away– earned him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2019. So one expects to have someone who is not foolish. But Michael Major (Lausanne, Switzerland, 1942) is a-do-ra-ble. Such is her passion for the universe and the pleasure she experiences in infecting it in the classrooms of the University of Geneva, or in talks like the one she gave on Wednesday at CosmoCaixawhich does not cost him to descend into the orbit of the most ignorant terrestrial.
Not calling it Major Planet already denotes humility.
[Ríe] At first we only saw that the star, HD 217014–not very romantic, eh?–, moved. In an ancient atlas it appeared as the 51st constellation of Pegasus. So I found it amusing to call it 51 Pegasus, with the little b to differentiate it from the star.
How do you discover something like this?
With one instrument – the High-Precision Radial Velocity Planet Finder – we started measuring, and suddenly we saw that an object made a complete orbit around the star in 4.2 days. The theory was that you couldn’t do it in less than a 10-year period. It was weird! I waited six months for it to reappear in the sky, just to make sure. It was confirmed.
Was he excited?
I knew it was important, but I remembered the periods between doubt and happiness. When in July 1995, at the Haute-Provence Observatory, we verified that the previous year’s calculations were fulfilled, we celebrated with champagne and raspberry cake.
At first they did not believe him.
There were colleagues who said that it was a pulsation of the star and the magazine ‘Nature’ was very cautious, because since 1943 there were advertisements that turned out to be false. But it was validated by two astrophysicists.
Is that planet of yours beautiful?
No. It’s like a ball of gas, it has half the mass of Jupiter and a temperature of 1,500 degrees.
What does such a discovery mean for humanity?
The Greek philosophers of the 5th century BC discussed the plurality of worlds in the universe, including inhabited worlds. Albert the Great, in the 13th century, considered it a noble matter to search for their existence. And the Archbishop of Paris, at the time of the creation of the Sorbonne, asked the Pope for authorization to incorporate it into teaching. We have said: “Yes, you were right”. Today we count 4,100 extrasolar planets.
Excuse me, but are there any other benefits?
It allows us to ask questions like: “Is there life in the universe?”, or “what is our position in it?”.
“In practically all stars there are planetary systems, and there is probably life”
Do you have any answer?
Physics is the same throughout the universe. If for millions of years the generation of living beings has been successful, why can’t it happen elsewhere? Virtually all stars have planetary systems. How many have good conditions for life to develop? Hundreds of millions.
Fit for life of what kind?
A unicellular organism is already life. When it unfolds to form another, it transmits all the information to function through the DNA. That is exceptional! Liquid water favors chemistry, and a certain temperature allows transmission. That happens outside the solar system.
Can there be beings similar to us?
That’s another thing! That there is life is probable, but the road to intelligence is complicated. I am incompetent to answer you.
Park the scientist and speculate.
The history of life on Earth explains that for a long time it was only single-celled. If it changed it was because nature saw it as an evolutionary advantage. We are linked to carbon chemistry and 20 amino acids. Is life a cosmic imperative? When the conditions are met, does it spontaneously emerge with the same ingredients?
For now, Elon Musk wants to settle on Mars with a small group of millionaires.
How about setting up a McDonald’ 10,000 meters under the sea?
“The Earth is perfect and will continue to exist despite us”
don’t give ideas.
Exploration seems perfect to me, but Musk’s idea of a colony on Mars is stupid. There is no oxygen. The soil from him is toxic. The worst desert on Earth is a paradise. To create conditions for a few would require an enormous amount of energy. That idea will never be realized. I’m sure.
Well, he wants to go further.
That’s even more stupid. It took man three days to reach the Moon, and light takes one second. If you find a habitable planet 30 light years away, that’s a billion seconds. The Earth is perfect and will continue to exist despite us.