An academic from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has been named as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
Dr Guillem Anglada-Escudé from QMUL’s School of Physics and Astronomy was featured on the list’s ‘pioneers’ section, for leading a study that discovered an Earth-size planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, our closest neighbouring star.
The list, now in its fourteenth year, recognises the world’s most influential individuals.
TIME’s editor-in-chief Nancy Gibbs said: ‘Each year our TIME 100 list lets us step back and measure the forces that move us.... One way or another they each embody a breakthrough: they broke the rules, broke the record, broke the silence, broke the boundaries to reveal what we’re capable of.’
Dr Anglada-Escudé was featured along with scientists Michaël Gillon of Belgium’s University of Liège and Natalie Batalha, the current lead scientist for NASA’s Kepler space telescope, for their research into exoplanets - planets orbiting other starsthat could be home to life.
Pale Red Dot
The discovery, in August 2016, was the culmination of an inspiring astronomy outreach project called Pale Red Dot named in homage to Pale Blue Dot, a term coined by Carl Sagan in reference to a photograph of planet Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe.
Pale Red Dot involved a team of 30 scientists from eight countries. Running for four months, the campaign delivered in partnership with the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) education and Public Outreach Department, and featured blog posts from leading exoplanet experts and social media updates via Facebook and Twitter.
It used the search for the nearest possible Earth-like planet as a hook to give the public the opportunity to see how science is done in modern observatories, and how teams of different astronomers work together to collect, analyse and interpret data.
Closest planet outside our Solar System
Using facilities operated by ESO and other telescopes, the research reveals a world with a similar mass to Earth orbiting around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System.
The planet, called Proxima b, orbits its parent star every 11 days and has a temperature suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. This rocky world is a little more massive than the Earth, and is the closest planet outside our Solar System.
Planet-hunters use the Doppler Effect, the shift in the star’s light spectrum depending on its velocity, to investigate the properties of exoplanets, such as their masses and periods of orbit.
Careful analysis of the resulting tiny Doppler shifts in this case indicated the presence of a planet with a mass at least 1.3 times that of the Earth, orbiting about 7 million kilometres from Proxima Centauri.
Capturing the public’s imagination
The study received media coverage in all continents, and won a host of awards. The team won the Research Impact category at the Guardian University Awards 2017 for their discovery.
The UK’s Institute of Physics magazine, Physics World , named the discovery of Proxima b one of the top ten breakthroughs in physics in 2016. The research paper was also ranked 38 in a list of the world’s top-100 ‘most-discussed’ journal articles of 2016, known as the ‘Altmetric top 100’. The ranking was awarded to the paper based on the level of interest it has received from international mainstream media, social networks and blogs, Wikipedia, public policy documents, and comments on post-publication peer review forums.
The discovery launched Dr Anglada-Escudé into ’ Nature’s 10 ’, an annual list by the journal Nature that highlights researchers from around the globe who have made an impact across a number of scientific fields.