This Year’s Nobel Prize In Physics Mixes 2 Research Fields — And Politics

The Nobel Prize in physics this year has gone to two very different research threads — and danced around some big societal issues, even as it celebrates distinguished work. The award was split to honor both cosmology research exploring dark matter and the discovery of planets orbiting other stars. But the Nobel Prize is awarded to individual researchers, and that’s where things seem to have gotten a little sticky this year. On both sides of the honor, people have raised concerns about who was and was not recognized, and what that says about modern science. This year’s Nobel Prize in physics is a little strange from first glance, in that it recognizes two quite different research topics. It’s poetic, but it’s perhaps not what you would expect from the Academy. And Nobel Prizes go to individual, living scientists, not research topics. Let’s take the first half first. Peebles began his research on theoretical physical cosmology in the mid-1960s, searching for clues to what shaped the universe right after the Big Bang.

He found those clues in the cosmic microwave background (often nicknamed the baby picture of the universe), which shows small spatial differences in temperature. The Academy puts together a scientific background paper exploring the members’ reasoning for the award. Scientists who have been exploring the concepts typically called dark matter and dark energy — two mysterious phenomena that make up the vast majority of the universe — have been on bettors’ lists for the Nobel in physics for years. But the name most frequently suggested was that of Vera Rubin, an astronomer who died in 2016 and whose work is referenced once in the scientific background paper’s exploration of Peebles’ work. For years prior to her death, Nobel pundits chalked up the omission to the committee’s tendency to favor experimental research over theoretical work, but this year, theory seems to have triumphed, and that contrast is striking. Grumbles about the award and Rubin’s snub apparently grew loud enough for Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, to weigh in on Twitter. The winners reflect the history of how systems of power in science traditionally benefit white men, whether purposefully or accidentally.

An artist’s depiction of the planet 51 Pegasi b orbiting its star. Sometimes, they are literally written out of the story, and the second half of this year’s Nobel recognition serves indirectly as an eerie reminder of that reality. Instead, 51 Pegasi b was the first planet discovered orbiting the sort of body we actually think of as a star, rather than orbiting the remains of a star that has exploded. Mayor and Queloz examined the light emitted by the star in question and measured tiny changes in that light caused by the planet’s gravity, which created slight wiggles in the star’s distance from Earth. By now, scientists have spotted more than 4,000 planets orbiting other stars, so the academy would always have needed to be judicious in selecting individuals in the field to honor. Two names sometimes offered among that group are Geoff Marcy and Paul Butler, who soon corroborated Mayor and Queloz’s observations.

Given an interpretation that allowed for massive planets orbiting close to their stars, Marcy and Butler quickly identified 70 of the first 100 exoplanets discovered, according to NASA. Marcy and Butler’s research had also been floated in Nobel prediction pools and is mentioned three times in the scientific background paper’s discussion of the research conducted by Mayor and Queloz. But they were not included in the award citation. And that could be for a particular reason: In 2015, Marcy’s institution investigated nearly a decade of sexual misconduct accusations against him. Marcy resigned when material from the investigation was made public. The complications posed by both aspects of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics speak to ongoing systemic challenges in the science community in general and within individual disciplines. Rubin faced systemic obstacles directed at her gender throughout her career. Rubin persisted, but research shows that plenty of women and people of color leave science because of discrimination, harassment and other issues of power and bias. Each of those would-be researchers had just as much individual potential as Nobel winners do at the beginning of their careers, but their work will never be published, much less considered for this type of accolade. Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Marcy and Butler only gathered data on 51 Pegasi b after Mayor and Queloz’s announcement. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 5 for the latest amazing news from the final frontier!