"It's human curiosity – the need to position human life within the rest of the universe."
TECHNOLOGIST How did you become interested in astronomy?
MICHEL MAYOR To be honest, it was a happy coincidence. As a teenager I loved science, but had no particular preference. First, I studied physics at the University of Lausanne. Then after I finished my Master’s degree, a position opened for a doctorate in astronomy at the Geneva Observatory. So I accepted without really thinking about it. In 1970, I had a surprise encounter with the British astronomer Roger Griffin from the Cambridge Observatory. He had developed a new spectrograph to measure radial velocity. After talking with him, I was sure I could achieve greater precision and efficiency. So I took the plunge, even though many people were amused to see a theoretician like myself start developing instruments.
TECHNOLOGIST What was your reaction when you discovered the very first exoplanet, 51 Pegasi b?
MICHEL MAYOR I was overcome with doubt. It’s always hard to interpret the phenomena observed and be 100 per cent sure that you’re dealing with an exoplanet. Astronomy didn’t have a good reputation in the 1990s. A lot of people had already been wrong about discovering exoplanets. The scientific community was considerably distrustful. We had to be especially careful and analytical. That’s why Didier Queloz and I decided to wait for the following season to observe 51 Pegasi b again before announcing it officially.
TECHNOLOGIST Why does this quest fascinate scientists so much?
MICHEL MAYOR It’s just human curiosity – the need to position human life within the rest of the universe. Even back in ancient Greece, they studied the multiplicity of worlds. We confirmed 20 years ago that extrasolar planets exist. By studying their characteristics, we can better understand how planetary systems are formed, and more specifically our solar system.
TECHNOLOGIST What about extra-terrestrial life?
MICHEL MAYOR That’s definitely one reason everyone is so excited about exoplanets. But to search for extra-terrestrial life we have to be able to analyse the chemical composition of rocky planets and look for spectral signatures that point to the development of life. It’s a fantastic challenge, but we shouldn’t underestimate how much work still needs to be done. I think it’ll take at least 20 or 30 years to develop instruments that can answer that question.
TECHNOLOGIST What’s the future of exoplanet research?
MICHEL MAYOR Extrasolar bodies will continue to arouse interest in the scientific community. In fact, there have never been so many new recruits. We used to be a small club of researchers who all knew each other. Now, conferences and other meetings are crawling with people. But it’s a good thing, because there’s so much that still needs to be studied – the internal structure of planets, how they form, how they evolve.
TECHNOLOGIST Where does your career stand today?
MICHEL MAYOR As a professor emeritus, I can carry on with my research. I’m currently studying the statistical properties of planets. These data are useful for understanding the physics of planetary formation. The rest of the time, I travel abroad to attend scientific meetings and give lectures. I recently went to Japan where I received the Kyoto Prize [an international award honouring individuals who have made a significant contribution to science]. As you can see, I’m having a hard time getting off the train.
Interview by Leila Hussein
Read also the first part of this focus on exoplanets: Hello, is there life out there?