Michel Mayor - Nobel prize for physics: Interview

After discovering the first exoplanet in 1994 and receiving the Nobel Prize in 2019, astrophysicist Michel Mayor becomes a comic book character thanks to two young authors from Geneva in the graphic novel Big Bangs & Black Holes.

Meet him.


1. What do you think about when you look at the starry sky?

Michel Mayor: At first glance, I feel pure admiration. I am very sensitive to the beauty of the sky, especially when you can see it well; we live in a world with too much light.

In the observatories, especially in Chile, we live in the dark. There are no towns or villages around, and you only turn on a torch when absolutely necessary, by lighting the ground. The southern Milky Way, which you can see from there and which forms the centre of the galaxy, is simply superb. There is this idea that scientists have a mathematical perception of the sky, but it is not true!

When I look at the sky, I am a contemplative, nothing more.


2. Among the different tools that allow you to explore the sky, which ones do you find the most extraordinary?

- It is difficult to answer. There is such a diversity of instrumentation! I could mention the ALMA interferometer, with its 60 antennas measuring 12 meters in diameter, at an altitude of 5 000 meters, which allows us to see the "cold universe": the formation of galaxies, stars, planets, the gas between stars, etc.

There are also instruments that are dear to me because I contributed to their development. Like these particular spectrographs that make it possible to see stars oscillate and to detect exoplanets. But my admiration goes above all to the instruments that enabled the discovery of gravitational waves. These are capable of detecting the minute contractions or dilations of all objects during the passage of these waves... predicted by Einstein a century ago. This is a new window in astronomy.

When I started doing astronomy, we were mainly working with the photographic plate, an extremely inefficient technique. It's hardly believable, when you see the instruments that exist today!

3. What role does imagination play in your work and in your life?

- Basic research works very much by intuition, curiosity and imagination. And certainly not by planning: all regimes that have tried to plan basic research have gone to the wall. You read a scientific article and suddenly an intuition arises: that's how, for example, I came up with the idea of analyzing the perturbations in the orbits of the stars around us to find exoplanets.

Another time I was in Cambridge, MA, for a theoretical physics conference. During the coffee break, we were offered the opportunity to take a tour to see the domes. As a theorist at the time, I didn't have much interest in domes... I went anyway and met an English astronomer who was trying to tinker with a new type of instrument, the world's first "correlation" spectrograph. It was love at first sight. I said to myself, "This is what we have to do!" I came back to Geneva, told my director that I wanted to develop this instrument, and he agreed. It was thanks to this that we discovered the first exoplanet.

These intuitions cannot be planned... However, luck usually favors the prepared. It is when you have a certain background that the intuition appears to you.


4. The beginning of Ici l'Univers, a graphic novel in which you are one of the heroes, shows you struggling with a crowd of admirers. How do you experience your fame in real life?

- The scene depicts a real episode: after a conference at the University of Marrakech, hundreds of students wanted to take selfies with me, so much so that I couldn't get out of the room.

Just after the announcement of the discovery of the first exoplanet, I felt a lot of pressure and received many media requests. This sometimes disrupted my family life, for example. In my research group, everyone was, of course, very excited. And the press exacerbated the feeling of competition with other research groups. This calmed down after about five years.


5. You have a long career behind you. What aspects of your work have you enjoyed the most?

- I have worked in an interesting field and work has always been fun for me. That is a great opportunity.

Secondly, observatories are not located in the most unpleasant places in the world. I spent a lot of time at the Haute-Provence observatory. I had a bungalow at my disposal that could accommodate my whole family. When my children were small, they always accompanied me, and I have very fond memories of those times. My family also came with me to Chile several times.

In addition, there are of course thousands of astronomers, but only a few hundred people who work in a given field. They form a small community, which creates a big family feeling. Sometimes, during conferences, we stayed at each other's houses, we spent a lot of time together. I had Chinese, Japanese, Danish, etc. scientists at home. I found these meetings precious.

6. Do you ever imagine possible life elsewhere in the universe? For example on exoplanets?

- Yes, of course. For me, life is already made up of single cells. After that, cells can be composed. However, when I think of life, I first think of simple life.

I find it interesting to look for life on exoplanets. But there are also fascinating places in the solar system. Take Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, which has an ice pack floating on liquid water. What has happened down there over the last few billion years? Imagine that in 20 years' time, a space mission is sent there to collect a cubic meter of ice. Imagine that some single-celled organisms are found there... Will their DNA be the same as on Earth? Is there a kind of uniqueness of DNA everywhere in the universe? I think the search for life in the solar system is going to be a major field of research. We have a terribly limited view of life because we only know of one form on Earth, although it is very diverse; all living organisms are strongly related, and this is reflected in our DNA.

I am convinced that physics is the same everywhere in the universe and that if life has been realised here, it can be realised elsewhere, even if the list of conditions to be met is long. In my opinion, the basic rule, carbon chemistry, is a necessity. A lot of the search for life in the universe is based on this: we are trying to find a rocky planet with liquid water. At least 200 million planets in our galaxy meet these conditions.

People are often sensitive to the infinity of the universe, to its size. Personally, it doesn't keep me awake at night. But we are less sensitive to duration. Human life is not adapted to perceive it. It's hard to imagine having several billion years to make chemistry. We have no intuition to imagine what can happen on such large time scales.


7. What do you think of private initiatives to conquer Mars?

- Not good. But beware: an exploration mission, even a symbolic one, is wonderful. It's like when man first set foot on the moon. The scientific interest was not particularly great. But it fuelled the dream. It's extraordinary to think that human beings went there.

The same kind of mission to Mars, I would think that would be fabulous. But when I hear that in a hundred years or so millions of people will be migrating to the Red Planet, it sounds crazy to me. What's the point? Mars has no atmosphere, nothing to protect it from cosmic rays. Why invest so much financial and technical effort to settle in such an inhospitable place? Whereas the Earth can be looked after: it is a very pleasant place. If we have to make efforts, it is to fight global warming on Earth. And the result of these efforts will not only concern a few privileged people. In short, I say yes to exploration, but no to colonization!


Interview & picture by Aude Pidoux