One-half of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics went to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for their discovery of 51 Pegasi B – the first planet observed to orbit a sun-like star other than our own. While the work marked a turning point in our understanding of the Universe, more than 4,000 such extrasolar planets have now been discovered, I think that some honest comments about a common experience in science made by Dr. Queloz deserve some attention as well.
The discovery of 51 Pegasi B was during Dr. Queloz’s Ph.D. work, Dr. Mayor was his advisor. At the time, 1992, the only planet outside of our solar system that had been found was around a pulsar: the rapidly spinning ember of a dead large star. The wobble caused by the planet in the otherwise regular radiation emissions of the pulsar made it comparatively easy to detect. However, the probability of life as we know it on such a planet is exceptionally low. One common attitude in the community at that time, according to Dr. Fischer of Yale, was that “Maybe most stars don’t form with planets and our solar system is unusual and life is incredibly rare.”
Thus, while starting a Ph.D. to search for extrasolar planets, Dr. Queloz was not expecting to find any, “It was pretty clear, I had no hope,” he said to the New York Times. Part of this hopelessness was rooted in the expectations of the time that any planets whose effects would be large enough to detect would orbit at such a distance that many years would be required to detect them. For example, Jupiter’s impact on our star has a period of over 11 years.
However, I know that these feelings of hopelessness are actually a quite common expectation of many students at the beginning of their Ph.D.’s independent of the particular field of physics. I know I had them. Here you are, joining this community of brilliant, and exceptionally hard working people, and you think to yourself, “what are the odds that I will find something that these other people, who have been working at this potentially their entire lives have not?” These feelings can be quite daunting.
Even when Dr. Queloz did find evidence for 51 Pegasi B in 1994, he was reluctant to show the results to Dr. Mayor, his Ph.D. advisor who was at the time on sabbatical half-way around the world. The evidence pointed to a planet unlike anything in our solar system: a huge Jupiter sized planet that is so close to its parent star that it orbits in only 4 days (Mercury, in inner-most planet in our solar system by comparison, takes about 88 days). Furthermore, the models of planet formation prevalent at the time suggested that forming such a large planet so close to a star should be impossible.
Again, doubt crept into Dr. Queloz’s mind. Which was more likely, that he had found something completely new far faster than anyone had predicted, or that, as a new student he had made a mistake? According to the New York Times:
Dr. Queloz did not feel ecstatic, but rather ashamed, certain that something was wrong with the instrument or his software.
“I really panicked at that time,” Dr. Queloz said. “I didn’t talk to [Dr. Mayor] at all.”Chang, K., & Specia, M. (2019, October 8). Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded for Studies of Earth’s Place in the Universe. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/08/science/nobel-physics.html
I really feel that this is a set of emotions that all students have at some point: “I must be wrong,” “my advisor is the expert,” “who am I to…” Getting over these feelings is I guess part of maturing into an independent scientist.
In this case, the results were real and 24 years after their announcement in 1995, resulted in a Nobel Prize. I think acknowledging that most most Ph.D. theses don’t follow such a trajectory is important. Instead, we as Ph.D. students add our small bit to the cumulative knowledge of humanity and, perhaps more importantly, learn to become independent scientists along the way. However, the feelings expressed publicly by Dr. Queloz are, I think, common, and I hope that through expressing them we can further debunk the “super-brillant professor” stereotype, which can exacerbate equity issues in science according to Leslie, S.-J., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. (2015). Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science, 347(6219), 262–265. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1261375.